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The rise of white identity politics didn't start with Trump explains Michael Tesler: podcast & transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with political scientist Michael Tesler about his revelations on racial resentment, economic anxiety and the 2016 election.

There is just one week left until the midterms and race and identity politics are playing a major role in the messaging of both parties. For Republicans, it comes in the shape of fear-mongering about the threat imposed by anyone "other," a play ripped directly from the campaign that won Donald Trump the presidency.

While these candidates are following in the steps of Trump, they are tapping in to a divide that was exacerbated — not just in the 2016 election, but starting back in 2008. Something profound happened when the country elected Barack Obama, which took years to fully manifest. Listen to Michael Tesler explain his revelations on racial resentment, economic anxiety, and how it changes the way we think about the 2016 election.

CHRIS HAYES: Trump is kind of doing for white liberals what Obama did for white racial conservatives.

MICHAEL TESLER: I think that that's a perfect way to put it.

CHRIS HAYES: Before Trump... Just to be clear on this, right? In pre-Trump era, a person who considers themselves fairly liberal — or a Democratic voter — and they're a white person, would be more inclined to be like, "I don't know about this Kaepernick-kneeling thing." But then, you see Donald Trump criticizing him, and you're like, "I like that Colin Kaepernick kneels."


CHRIS HAYES: That's wild.

MICHAEL TESLER: I mean, and so, what you're getting is two parties moving further and further apart on race.

CHRIS HAYES: Hello, and welcome to "Why Is This Happening?" with me, your host, Chris Hayes.

All right, so, midterms are coming up fast. They are a week from today (the day this posts), and one of the things I think that has become a dominant narrative theme about this stretch of the midterms is the central role that race and identity has been playing in the final stretch of the campaign.

And interestingly, for all of the discourse and criticism around identity politics on the left, it has been largely the right that has been pushing this very specific, very racialized version of identity politics about white people, and about white Americans' threat from various others.

We've seen in New York-19, which is a district in Hudson Valley where Antonio Delgado is taking on John Faso. Delgado is the Democrat, he's a Rhodes scholar and Harvard Law grad. John Faso is the incumbent. Antonio Delgado is black. John Faso is white. The district is 80 percent white.

Just ad after ad after ad that calls Antonio Delgado a big-city rapper. "Big-city rapper, Antonio Delgado, doesn't share our values." They just put out an ad in which there's just a bunch of white people being like, "I just think he's not right for us," including one of them who says, "No one talks that way around here." Oh! Oh, you mean no one talks like a Rhodes scholar? No one talks like a Harvard Law grad? What exactly do you mean by, "No one talks that way around here?" And what's amazing about this ad campaign — which is honestly one of the most disgusting and racist I've seen in a very long time — it's sort of par for the course because there's so many other disgusting racist ad campaigns being run.

Duncan Hunter — the indicted Duncan Hunter, the vaping Congressman, best known as the guy who vaped in a Congressional hearing, who got indicted by the FBI because he and his wife were allegedly stealing tons of money from their campaign — is running against a guy who's an American, an American Christian of both Palestinian and Mexican extraction, and they have basically been slandering him as a terrorist in the most disgusting possible fashion.

There's a campaign, Chris Collins — another indicted Republican Congressman, I know it's hard to keep track. His opponent is a white guy. So, he's a white guy, but his wife is Korean, and he speaks fluent Korean. And so, Chris Collins decided to run an ad of this guy, just a clip of him speaking Korean. Just, that's it. The idea is like, Would you look at this crazy, fake foreigner who must be some kind of weird-ass double agent because he speaks Korean?

None of this is blowing your mind, I know. None of this is, Woah, man, I had not thought of this. Yes. Right. This is all, like, We know all this. This is very well established if you watch "All In with Chris Hayes," weeknights, 8 PM on MSNBC. (By the way, I have a television show. Just throwing that out there, if you want to watch that.) You see this all the time if you read anything, really. This is a dominant theme, and this is not some sort of fresh take on my part.

We've seen this weaponization of white identity politics, and it goes back pretty far. We know about Nixon's Southern Strategy. We know about the Willie Horton ad by George H.W. Bush in 1988, the infamous "Hands" ad that Jesse Helms ran against the black opponent in North Carolina. It was about how like, You didn't get the job even though you're more qualified. Someone else got it, and then cut to camera of black man getting the job — the hands of the black guy getting the job. I was like, Well, that's about as subtle as "big-city rapper."

Notably, the Jesse Helms "Hands" ad and the Willie Horton ad are sort of iconically racist ads. The Antonio Delgado ads, I think, will be in that canon at some point, although right now they don't seem to have woken up people's consciences.

So, there's a long line of this; it's particularly intense now. And you've got a president at the top who sort of says the quiet part aloud, and is very explicit about his appeals to white racial grievance.

All of this, I think, can make you conclude that the Donald Trump era represents some new kind of era in which the politics of the country — largely because of the way Donald Trump has chosen to appeal to white people, and the actual demographic trends in the country, have created this kind of turn, that things changed when Donald Trump came down the escalator in 2015, and when he got elected in 2016, and we've sort of accelerated. And that is partly true. That is partly true.

But here's the thing that's much more mind-blowing. The real change happens before that. The real change, if you look at the data dispassionately, rigorously, with attention, the change happens not when Donald Trump comes down the escalator in 2015, it happens when a man named Barack Obama is elected president of the United States.

Now, we all know all the stories about the fact there's Obama-Trump voters, and, How could white Obama-Trump voters be racist? yada, yada. Take all that out of your head for a second. Something profound happened to American politics when Barack Obama was elected, and the effects of that were not immediately clear.

Some set of effects were immediately clear. The first black president, that night, out on the stage, underneath the night sky, in the beautiful city of Chicago, with the first family coming out: Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, their two daughters. A black family onstage, throngs cheering, multiracial crowd, tears, celebrations in New York, and in Harlem, and in Washington, D.C.

We all knew, at that moment, something profound had changed. A mind-blowing, epochal event in the history of the American Republic, in a country founded on tyranny and slavery of African-Americans, that this had happened, that this moment had happened, we all understood that. And there was all kinds of books, books, books, books written about the epochal change, but that's not the change I'm talking about.

Image: US 44th Presidency, Barack Obama retrospectives
President-elect Barack Obama stands with his daughters Sasha and Malia and his wife Michelle after he delivered his address at Grant Park in Chicago to celebrate his election victory on Nov. 4, 2008.Tannen Maury / EPA file

The change is happening in the preferences, in the minds, in the worldview of particularly white voters in America once Barack Obama is elected. Something changes in the way they understand American politics. All of a sudden, a light bulb goes on for many white Americans about which party is on which side racially.

And the guest I talked to today is one of the people who first started to figure out what was going on. I first met him back in 2011 or 2012, when I had him on my previous show, "Up." And he's a political scientist, and he was doing this survey work, looking at racial attitudes and, more broadly, public-opinion attitudes in the era of Barack Obama, and he was finding some really interesting stuff.

What he was finding was race was beginning to color and to sort White Americans' political views in all kinds of ways that people weren't realizing. That central insight about what the election of Barack Obama did to white Americans' understanding of race, and the centrality of race to Americans' two dominant political coalitions is, in some ways, the story in politics of the last 10 years.

It's there to find, if you go through the survey data, as Michael Tesler, my guest, has done. It hits you over the head when you watch Donald Trump talk about a Muslim ban. But the depth and seismic nature of what happened when we elected Barack Obama president still is not understood, I think, by most people, including myself.

And that's why I wanted to have, on the program today, Michael Tesler.

Michael Tesler's a political scientist at the University of California Irvine. He had two previous books, "Post-Racial or Most-Racial?: Race and Politics in the Obama Era" and "Obama's Race: The 2008 Election and the Dream of a Post-Racial America." He's the co-author of a new book along with John Sides and Lynn Vavreck called "Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America."

And the entire arc of that work is about exactly these themes: How race and racial identity have become a kind of tent pole of American political formation in this era, even in a country in which that has arguably been true from the jump. That's what's so wild about what he finds.

We think about this continuity, this long arc from the Civil War, to Reconstruction, to the Solid South of the Democratic Party, to the break with the Solid South of L.B.J. signing the Civil Rights Act, to the Southern Strategy of Republicans, to the Nixon campaign, to the Ronald Reagan campaign, all the way through.

But what he finds is discontinuity. He finds there is a rupture moment, where something new happens, and that moment is Barack Obama's election. And after that, everything changes.

And if you want to understand where we are right now — one week before the midterms — or if you're listening (hopefully) later, they've already happened. You know what happened probably. This is definitely not the place to find out because I'm talking in the past to you right now.

But if you want to understand politics right now, you absolutely, absolutely have to listen to Michael go through the data of what he has found about what has happened to American politics since that beautiful, sublime night in 2008 when Barack Obama and his black family took the stage.

So, you're a political scientist.

MICHAEL TESLER: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: You and I first met maybe six years ago, I think?


CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, 2012. And that was when you were doing early work around, basically, race and public opinion in the Obama era. What were the sort of questions you were trying to answer?

MICHAEL TESLER: So, the project got started actually when we were getting data back during the 2008 primaries. This was a time in February; Obama had racked up a ton of consecutive victories. And the post-racial narrative was really taking hold.

We got the data back, and we're like, Hey, behind this post-racial narrative, this primary vote's really split along racial attitudes, and along attitudes about Muslims.

And then, as we continued that work forward, we saw, Hey, the general election's really split by racial attitudes as well. Is this going to affect the broader political landscape? was the bigger question.

And I found that, definitively, Obama's presidency did polarize public opinion by race and racial attitudes.

CHRIS HAYES: This is really important. You start out by looking at public opinion about Obama, and you're finding that racial attitudes — even in a Democratic primary — among white voters are pretty good predictors of whether they support him or not.

MICHAEL TESLER: Especially in the primaries. It's hard for political scientists to zero in on one factor, and say, That was the most important factor. For the primaries, actually, with party identification neutralized, it was pretty easy to see that, yeah, racial attitudes were the dividing line.

And one of the things that also comes out of there is that we might think of the Democratic Party as this racially liberal party. But, especially back in 2008, it's pretty evenly distributed, where you had a good number of white racial liberals who think that discrimination is the main reason African-Americans can't get ahead, but you had pretty much an equal number of white Democrats who thought that it was due to lack of work ethic.

CHRIS HAYES: You use the term "racial liberal" and "racial conservative." So, maybe describe what that is, and how you measure it.

MICHAEL TESLER: Yeah. That's a great question. The way that it comes down in the political science literature is basically how you view racial inequality. So, you start off with African-Americans have worse incomes, much worse wealth. What is this about?

And you ask a series of questions like, "Do you agree or disagree with the statement, 'African-Americans could be just as well off as whites if they only tried harder,'" or, "'Generations of discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for African-Americans to work their way out of the lower class.'" So, those are kind of these explanations for inequality.

We also use other measures that are more direct, like stereotypes, where you directly rate the group on how hard-working or how intelligent you think they are. And both were unusually strong predictors of how you felt about Obama.

CHRIS HAYES: And this is an important point that, back in 2008, when you're looking at the primary, and you're looking at white Democratic primary voters, who themselves are a kind of self-selected group, right?


CHRIS HAYES: Because not everyone votes in primaries. In fact, that's a fairly engaged, relatively engaged, part of the population. Among white Democrats, it's evenly split between what you call racial liberals and racial conservatives.

MICHAEL TESLER: Yeah. One story that has taken place in the Obama era, and especially since Trump, has been the liberalizing of white Democrats, where some of them were pushed out of the party because of Obama, but a lot of them also changed their views on these racial issues. And so, the Democratic Party of today is distinctly different on race than the Democratic Party of 2008.

CHRIS HAYES: America elects the first black president. You're watching everyone say "post-racial era." And you're saying, "Wait a second. The data actually shows the opposite," that actually race is a massively polarizing figure, and racial attitudes are massively predictive among white voters of who they favor. And that holds over into the general election as well.

MICHAEL TESLER: Absolutely. And one thing that you also see that's really unusual for Obama — especially in comparison with somebody like Jesse Jackson in 1988 — is that white racial liberals are really motivated by Obama in a way that Jesse Jackson wasn't.

And so, if you're a racial conservative, you're not going to like either of these candidates, but if you're a white racial liberal, you are really getting energized by Obama. Some of the story of 2016 is Hillary Clinton's inability to energize those same voters.

Obama's presidency did polarize public opinion by race and racial attitudes.

CHRIS HAYES: There's a question then, I think, that gets to the really fascinating part of your work, which is, Okay, America elects the first black president. It's a massive, epochal moment in American history because of the country's history with race. What does that do to our politics with respect to race and other things? And you start to look at that, and what are you looking for? Or what are you trying to find out about how Barack Obama's election is changing American politics?

MICHAEL TESLER: So, my first book is a book on the 2008 election, and that book just looks at vote choice. But then, after that, the more interesting questions become, Okay, well, how are racial attitudes now affecting healthcare because they're associated with Barack Obama? Or the stimulus? Or views about the economy? Or views about Hillary Clinton? Or views about just about anything?

Because we live in such a presidential-centric world that the president, and everything he comes in contact with, is essentially a cue. And with Obama, it's a racial cue, where, I don't know much about healthcare" —and that's how a lot of people are — is But I know do I like Barack Obama or not. And a lot of that has to do with racial attitudes.

CHRIS HAYES: So, tell me what you find. I mean, what you find is that racial attitudes start to predict an ever larger set of people's policy positions.


CHRIS HAYES: Which is wild. Your racial thermometer, or feelings about bigotry against African-Americans, starts to be a very good predictor of whether you like the stimulus.

MICHAEL TESLER: The stimulus, healthcare. I think one of the more interesting ones that plays out in 2016 is how you view the economy. Just objective questions like, "In 2012, was the unemployment rate going up or down?" a question that is objectively going down about two percent over that election year. Well, that becomes tied to your racial beliefs in a way that it never had been before.

CHRIS HAYES: So, that's a new thing. It's not just that these correlations between your racial attitudes and your belief, in say, the unemployment rate going up or down is always there. It's that a new association is embedded in people's minds, where if you are a person who says, African-Americans need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and, They get too many special favors.That's highly predictive of saying, The unemployment rate is going up, even when that's not true.

MICHAEL TESLER: Yes. For a long time, this has been the case with partisanship, where we have this partisan alternate realities, motivated reasoning, whatever you want to call it, where people will alter reality in line with their partisanship. That's been going on forever, but what's new about Obama is you start to see these alternate realities form around racial attitudes.

CHRIS HAYES: But how do you distinguish the two, because two things are happening at the same time. There's racial sorting along partisan lines being driven by Barack Obama's election, and then there's racial sorting among these public opinion questions.


CHRIS HAYES: But those two seem hard to parse apart.

MICHAEL TESLER: Yeah, and so the way that you do this is — it's pretty nerdy — but we do these regression models that help control for other factors, and one of the things that you can also leverage are these over time comparisons. And 2004 is a good example in that both Bush and Obama see the unemployment rate rise over their first couple of years, both see it decline in their final year heading into re-election, but racial attitudes are only predicting views of the economy under Obama.

CHRIS HAYES: So you can actually go back to that data set in 2004 and you can look at people and match them with their racial attitudes and their views on the unemployment rate, and they're not correlated in the way they are by 2012.

MICHAEL TESLER: That's absolutely correct.

CHRIS HAYES: That's crazy.

MICHAEL TESLER: My work does a lot of over-time comparisons leveraging people. Different people have been interviewed over different years, but then also interviewing the same people before and after Obama becomes elected, and then you see these changes.


MICHAEL TESLER: You see that, after Obama gets elected and he starts pushing for health care, you see a big drop in support for governmental health care, and that is highly concentrated among people who view racial inequality in terms of African-Americans not trying hard enough to succeed.

CHRIS HAYES: And not necessarily just partisanship.

MICHAEL TESLER: Not partisanship, and that's a really important distinction.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, because it just seems like all the categories sort of fold on top of each other.


CHRIS HAYES: And so it's just hard to sort of figure out what's doing the work. I mean, I guess this is what your entire quantitative work deals with is trying to tease that out.

MICHAEL TESLER: And so there's a couple of methods of doing it. One is the nerdy regression model, and you say Hey, partisanship and ideology aren't increasing in importance. Then there are also experiments which give you pretty decent leverage on this, so you say hey, this public option, Bill Clinton proposed this in 1993, 1994, or taxes on the rich, Bill Clinton did this, or the stimulus is congressional Democrats. Framing it as somebody who is not Obama tended not to have these same effects.

CHRIS HAYES: Wow, so the predictive value of racial attitudes go away if you sort of tie the policy to a white person.

MICHAEL TESLER: That's exactly right.

CHRIS HAYES: Man, that's crazy. What you're saying is it's not that the racial attitudes are changing so much (although they are with white racial liberals, who I want to talk about). People are taking their racial attitudes and they're seeing a whole set of connections to them, I mean subconsciously, in which things are becoming increasingly racialized in their minds.

MICHAEL TESLER: That's exactly right, and so one of the nice things about doing these re-interview surveys over a long period of time is you can take attitudes that were measured before Barack Obama, and those attitudes that were measured in 2008 are more predictive of health care in 2012 than they were in 2008. The other thing about changing attitudes is racial attitudes in general in the Obama era didn't change that much. Trump, on the other hand, has a different effect. There has been more of a Trump effect on racial attitudes than an Obama affect.

CHRIS HAYES: Wow, that's fascinating. What do you mean by that?

MICHAEL TESLER: So what happened was is that, I'm not 100 percent that this is what's happening, but I think that white racial liberals or white Democrats just dislike Trump so much that his support for something like the wall makes them less supportive.

CHRIS HAYES: He's making white racial liberals more liberal on these questions.


CHRIS HAYES: Fascinating.

MICHAEL TESLER: We saw this first in the campaign, and so we interviewed the same people, once in December 2015 and then we interviewed the exact same ones again in August, and there was a notable drop in support for the border wall, and that was really a concentration among people who didn't like Trump in 2015. And you're seeing across every issue — gender, immigration, race, kneeling athletes. The country as a whole is becoming more liberal on these issues, but it's also increasing the divide between Democrats and Republicans, because Democrats are the ones who are moving.

CHRIS HAYES: Do you think that the sort of racialization that's happening of attitudes, it's also driving partisan alignments, right?


CHRIS HAYES: And one of the theses of your work (that I think is in the first book and also in the latest book, "Identity Crisis") is that basically there's a lot of people — and this includes white working class voters, who are bopping along and they're not political junkies — but, let me just be clear, this is white educated voters, working class voters, all kinds of different voters, a lot of white voters who, until Barack Obama was elected, weren't clear about which was the party that was more sympathetic to black people.

Image: Donald Trump Holds MAGA Campaign Rally In Southern Illinois Ahead Of Midterm Elections
Supporters wait for the arrival of President Donald Trump at a rally at the Southern Illinois Airport on Oct. 27, in Murphysboro, Illinois.Scott Olson / Getty Images

MICHAEL TESLER: I think that that's one of the most important findings out there. We — you and me, anybody who's listening to the show probably — take it for granted that the Democrats since at least the 60s (and if you read more work, since the Depression) have been the party of racial liberalism. But before Obama, if you were a low educated — meaning non-college-educated white voter — less than 50 percent could place the Democrats to the left of the Republicans on which party was more supportive of, basically, government assistance to African-Americans.

CHRIS HAYES: Wow! Wait, before Obama, this is an actual survey result?

MICHAEL TESLER: So the American National Election Study — it's our gold standard survey in political science — since 1972 has asked respondents place the Democratic candidate and the Republican candidate on a scale being how supportive of assistance to African-Americans they are. And before Obama, less than half could do it. Less than half of low-educated whites could put the Democrat to the left of the Republican. Now what Obama and then Trump do is they really simplify the politics of race, and so that number jumps up to about two-thirds in 2012.

CHRIS HAYES: Wow! So basically there's some marginal group of white voters, particularly white non-college voters, for who, basically, the election of Barack Obama makes them realize for the first time that the Democrats are the party more sympathetic to black Americans.

MICHAEL TESLER: Yes, and so he simplifies the politics of race. And that's who you see leaving the party under Obama. And so I think people were shocked how well Trump did among low-educated white voters. This was a trend though that was going on for a long time: From 1992 to 2008, there was no difference between how non-college-educated whites identified. They were basically equally likely to be Democrats and Republicans. Beginning in 2008 though, they start to diverge, and by 2015, low educated whites are about 20 points more Republican than Democrats. They were ripe for the picking. They'd been leaving the party and, particularly when we dig deeper into the data, it's the low-educated whites who have more conservative views of race, who left the party.

CHRIS HAYES: Although one really fascinating finding is that polarization works in both directions, which is that white folks without a college degree that are racially liberal also had the same realization, and it makes them more Democratic. So if you're someone who doesn't have a college degree and you're fairly racially liberal and you're white, Barack Obama also makes you realize, like, Oh, that's the party I want to be part of.

MICHAEL TESLER: And so that is the story of the Obama presidency in many ways: It's polarization because it is two-sided, where you have white racial liberals becoming more Democratic and you have white racial conservatives becoming more Republican.

CHRIS HAYES: What's also key here to me is that this starts happening in 2008 and accelerates through those eight years of Barack Obama before Donald Trump is even on the scene as a presidential candidate.

MICHAEL TESLER: Absolutely, and things like these questions about racial inequality, these have been associated with partisanship for a while, they've just become more intense. Other views though —old-fashioned racism views like being against interracial marriage, directly not liking Muslims — these become associated with partisanship for the very first time during Obama's presidency, and they get stronger over time.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, talk about this term. You have a paper you published on "old-fashioned racism."


CHRIS HAYES: Which, in the abstract —like sort of classic academically — you're like “old-fashioned racism (OFR).” You talk all about OFR in the paper. What is OFR?

MICHAEL TESLER: So OFR, for quite some time now, the academic literature has been divided into old-fashioned forms of prejudice and newer forms of prejudice. The old-fashioned forms of prejudice were ways to justify basically Jim Crow type of discrimination, so that African-Americans were less intelligent, you shouldn't have interaction between the races, you should openly discriminate against the races The one question that still kinds of persists from that time is beliefs about interracial relationships, so you can still get about 20 percent of whites who will disagree with interracial relationships.

CHRIS HAYES: Twenty percent? That seems high.

MICHAEL TESLER: It depends on how you ask. That's the one that's persisted over time, and that's the one that becomes associated with partisanship, so from 1987 to 2007, there was no association with those type of old-fashioned racist beliefs.

CHRIS HAYES: Wait! You're saying that there's no association between a white person who says I do not believe in interracial relationships and whether they vote for Democrats or Republicans.

MICHAEL TESLER: Prior to Obama, that's right.

CHRIS HAYES: That's wild!

MICHAEL TESLER: That's wild.

CHRIS HAYES: That's really wild. Right? Am I wrong?

MICHAEL TESLER: Part of it might be these are some of these old-fashioned Southern Democrats, and so it could be before, but Obama makes that belief pop.

CHRIS HAYES: Oh yeah, that's right there. I mean, it's a tough one to ignore.

MICHAEL TESLER: It's who he is. The other one is Muslims. So, believe it or not, you might think of the Bush era and say Oh, this would be a time when you would think that attitudes about Muslims would be incorporated into partisanship, how you felt about Bush. That's not the case, but with Obama, even in 2007, you really see attitudes about Muslims.


MICHAEL TESLER: The other thing about attitudes about Muslims is people are OK expressing it, so in one survey I asked people, do a bunch of factors make you more likely or less likely to vote for Obama. And like only 10 percent of Romney voters would directly say that race made them less likely to vote for Obama, but 51 percent said his religion made them less likely, and all of them basically thought Obama was a Muslim.

CHRIS HAYES: Wow. So those are the two things that become associated in the Obama era.

MICHAEL TESLER: And so you start to see that, really, old-fashioned racism and Islamophobia, which were not before.

CHRIS HAYES: And is that the connection there? What's the chicken and what's the egg with Obama and being Muslim? Is it because of the sort of persistent right-wing smear machine against him that he's a Muslim that it associates him with being a Muslim?

MICHAEL TESLER: That's a great question that is kind of hard to parse out. So on one hand, if you look at the views — and we can go back to 2007 and look at the views of people pre-Obama who would eventually, down the line, think Obama was a Muslim — and they're overwhelming on these racial attitude questions, they're overwhelmingly Islamophobic, and so I think that they reinforce each other over time.

CHRIS HAYES: I see, so they had those feelings about Muslims back in 2007. It just wasn't sorting them as cleanly as it starts to sort them after Barack Obama becomes president.

MICHAEL TESLER: I think that that's right. It's one where I think a lot of people, it was an easy way to point to Obama as "the other" and express anxiety about "the other" without saying something that is overtly racist in terms of black-white.

CHRIS HAYES: A big part of your work shows that questions about the economy become intensely racialized, that when you're asking questions about the economy, it's essentially a proxy for race, and people are answering essentially a question about their racial attitudes.

MICHAEL TESLER: So that became the case under Obama. People didn't change their racial attitudes based upon what they thought of the economy, but they did change their views of the economy before and after Obama based on their racial attitudes. And, again, it's another way where these alternate realities get expressed, and it's not just partisanship — even though partisan alternate realities are ubiquitous and incredibly important — but we're increasingly processing information in accordance with our racial attitudes.

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump at the White House - DC
President-elect Donald Trump meets with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on Nov. 10, 2016.Olivier Douliery / Sipa USA

CHRIS HAYES: And the partisan parts of this you saw, after Trump was elected, were, like, there's the charts of consumer confidence, are people also thinking about whether the economy's good, and from one day to the next, it shoots up 30 points after he's elected.


CHRIS HAYES: It's the same economy on November 16th as it was on November 5th, but all of a sudden, we love the economy.

MICHAEL TESLER: Yeah, and you get the exact same effect with racial attitudes as well, even controlling for partisanship. It starts out in the fall of 2016: If you were a racial conservative, you were much more pessimistic about the economy than racial liberals. We re-interviewed the exact same people in 2017 and 2018, and lo and behold, it's now the racial conservatives who are most optimistic about the economy.

CHRIS HAYES: Is there a way to find out how people actually feel about the economy then? I mean, to test this question — like one of the arguments I think you guys make pretty convincingly in "Identity Crisis," which is the new book — is just that the questions of the economy are so bound up that it's very hard to get at what people actually think about the economy qua the economy.

MICHAEL TESLER: Yeah, and it depends on how you ask. My co-author, John Sides, has developed some much better economic anxiety questions, and these are questions that get at are you really experiencing anxiety, are you worried about missing a car payment or a house payment or medical payment? And when you do it that way, the more economically anxious were actually more likely to be Clinton voters than Trump voters.


MICHAEL TESLER: But when you talk about more subjective views of how is the national economy doing, that becomes more of a proxy to express partisanship or express racial attitudes.

CHRIS HAYES: Wow, that's fascinating. If you're asking people if the economy doing well, How do you feel about the economy?, then what you're cultivating and getting out of people are these sort of associational partisan or racial views. Where if you say, Are you specifically worried about missing a car payment?, then you're getting something closer to what we mean by economic anxiety, and those voters went for Clinton.

MICHAEL TESLER: A little bit. There's much less of a partisan gap on those questions, but to the extent there are, it tends to be Democrats.

CHRIS HAYES: But it's not an overwhelming divide.

MICHAEL TESLER: It's not an overwhelming divide the way you see on Do you think the economy's gotten better or worse in the last year?"

CHRIS HAYES: So then 2016 comes along; you've got, as you said, the low-hanging fruit there. You've got all this change that's been happening, particularly among white working class voters, and we should be clear that like the data we have does show that they are the big group that changes, right?

MICHAEL TESLER: Absolutely. I think it's more of the simplification of race. A lot of people who are these Obama-Trump voters — and when you dig into the Obama-Trump voters, Nate Cohn had a piece on this for the New York Times, it's very much in our book, — these tend to be people who had more conservative views about racial attitudes, and they're kind of ripe for the picking, especially in the type of campaign that Trump won and, I'll also say, in the type of campaign that Hillary Clinton ran. Hillary Clinton talks about race much more than Barack Obama did. She drops words like “systematic racism” and “implicit biases” that they all have, and I think that part of it is that she doesn't motivate the Obama coalition the same way that Obama did, and so she had to speak more forcefully on race.

CHRIS HAYES: I basically think this is one of the key elements of that campaign is that, being the first white candidate to succeed the first black president and keep that together, her messaging around racial issues had to be far more explicit and constant than Barack Obama, who was the message.

MICHAEL TESLER: That's exactly right, so Obama. The way political scientist Don Kinder says it is, Obama embodies race. He doesn't have say anything. His presence generates hopes and fears that are enough to activate these concerns. For Hillary Clinton though — and especially given the Clintons' baggage on racial issues — well she had a lot of work to do, and she does it in her very first speech in 2015 where she talks about imagine how we would feel as white people if our children were three times as likely to get stopped or end up in prison.

CHRIS HAYES: The other equation is that Trump is running an explicitly — I'll just say it — racist campaign from the first moment.

MICHAEL TESLER: I think that that was good politics in a Republican primary — one, a Republican primary that was fragmented, that didn't have any strong contender. That didn't have a strong, elite source basically saying, This is our chosen front-runner. These views that are there, and that were mobilized and activated during Obama, those become a good way to separate yourself from a field of 16 other candidates.

CHRIS HAYES: How much does racial conservatism predict Trump's support in the primary?

MICHAEL TESLER: It's pretty much the best predictor of Trump's support in the primary. What's interesting about Trump is that it's a lot of different attitudes in that cocktail. It is racial resentment. It is anti-immigrant attitudes. It's anti-Muslim attitudes. It's white identity. These are all things that predict, independently of one another.

CHRIS HAYES: What do you mean by that? Explain that?

MICHAEL TESLER: In these nerdy models that we run, these are all correlated factors with one another, but one sometimes does more work than the other. Historically, in public opinion, it's been your views about out-groups, most particularly African-Americans, that do more work than your views about your own group, or how connected you are to your whiteness.

CHRIS HAYES: Ah, interesting.

MICHAEL TESLER: For Trump, it's both. He activates all of these.

CHRIS HAYES: So that meaning, "white identity," meaning I identify as a white person.

MICHAEL TESLER: Yes, and in particular, there's a couple of dimensions of this "white identity." The one that does the most work is views of discrimination against whites. That predicts unlike it's ever predicted before, not even in Obama. Obama did not activate those concerns that white people were being left behind the way that Trump does.

CHRIS HAYES: Wow! Donald Trump does a better job of activating white people's fears about being discriminated against than Barack Obama, first black president, did?

MICHAEL TESLER: That is absolutely correct.

CHRIS HAYES: That's crazy!

MICHAEL TESLER: Yeah. You see this divide. I mean, Trump voters scored very high on perceptions of white discrimination. Trump voters, oftentimes, will say they are more discriminated against than African-Americans or Latinos.

CHRIS HAYES: One part of the story, that in some ways I think is the more interesting, or the less trod part of the story, is white racial liberals. Because they're also polarizing.


CHRIS HAYES: What's going on with them, with respect to Trump?

MICHAEL TESLER: I think a couple of things —and this is also something that starts with Obama's election — is that the energy on the Democratic side starts to go to the white racial liberals. This gets exacerbated with Black Lives Matter; this gets exacerbated with Trump.

I think it's one where, if you were, Eh. I don't know how big of a factor racism is, and then you see Trump's campaign, that becomes a rallying cry. It becomes a rallying cry for progressives on not just race, but gender and immigration. Then pretty soon, the energy in the party is — and you're seeing this play out in 2018 primaries — is with the white racial progressives. That is a group that is expanding within the party.

CHRIS HAYES: It's also the case — and there's been studies on this, this is pretty mind-blowing — that white liberals in the Democratic coalition have more liberal attitudes on race than black people in the Democratic coalition.

MICHAEL TESLER: That's very much the case.

CHRIS HAYES: It's crazy! Again, it's these same questions about like, Is inequality African-Americans suffer more because they don't work hard enough, or because of discrimination? That's one of the questions, and there's a gap in that white liberals in the Democratic party are more likely to say "discrimination" than African-Americans themselves by a fairly significant number.

MICHAEL TESLER: Yeah. That used to not be the case. I mean, it used to be the case that on these questions of race, affirmative action, that race was such a better predictor than party. So you'd see big racial gaps, not that big a partisan gap. Now, on these questions of Do you support Black Lives Matter, or Kaepernick, or kneeling athletes?, you're seeing partisanship be a stronger predictor than race.

CHRIS HAYES: What's happening is Trump is doing for white liberals what Obama did for white racial conservatives.

MICHAEL TESLER: I think that that's a perfect way to put it.

CHRIS HAYES: Before Trump, just to be clear on this, right? It's like in pre-Trump era, a person who considers himself fairly liberal or a Democratic voter, and they're a white person, would be more inclined to be like, "I don't know about this Kaepernick kneeling thing." But then it's like, you see Donald Trump criticizing him, and you're like, "I like that Colin Kaepernick kneels!"


CHRIS HAYES: That's wild!

MICHAEL TESLER: I mean, so what you're getting is two parties moving further and further apart on race. The one difference I would say for Obama and Trump is that Republicans, to begin with, scored so high on racial conservatism, on these questions of inequality. There are no racial liberals in the Republican party on these questions, and there are very few moderates. So Obama didn't have that much room to push them more conservative.

But the Democratic party has always been more divided, so you'd have your Reagan Democrats. You'd have African-Americans. You'd have white racial liberals. The Democratic party is essentially becoming more purified by Trump on these issues of race and identity.

CHRIS HAYES: It's not just, we should say, it's not just feelings toward African-Americans. Muslims, immigrants, all of that stuff.

MICHAEL TESLER: Exactly. We show, across dozens of surveys on these — gender, as well — that the Democratic party is becoming more liberal. It's not so much that the Republican party is becoming more conservative, but they're up against ceiling effects on how much more conservative they can be.

he Democratic party is essentially becoming more purified by Trump on these issues of race and identity.

CHRIS HAYES: What do you mean by that? In terms of just like the percentage of racial conservatism in the coalition?

MICHAEL TESLER: Yeah, so there's a great question that Pew has asked for a long time, and it basically asks you to divide it into discrimination as the main reason for African-Americans' lower socio-economic status, or another factor. You were getting something like less than 10 percent of Republicans, to begin with, choosing discrimination. They don't have any more room to go lower.

But Democrats, when Obama got elected, now they were only at about 20-25 percent who would choose discrimination-


MICHAEL TESLER: White Democrats, I should say.

CHRIS HAYES: White Democrats were, when Barack Obama was elected, only 20-25 percent of white Democrats would say The reason for African-Americans' lower socio-economic status is discrimination.

MICHAEL TESLER: Yeah, I mean, I'd have to double-check those numbers, but it was very low.

CHRIS HAYES: What is it now?

MICHAEL TESLER: It's around 50 percent.

CHRIS HAYES: Wow. But that also shows that there's more room. There's a lot more room to run.

MICHAEL TESLER: A hundred. We posit a lot of reasons for that. That is why Trump was able to peel off Democrats, is that there were more cross-pressure Democrats on these issues than there were Republicans. If you're a Democrat, and you're one of the 50 percent who think African-Americans need to work harder to succeed, and Trump is basically giving a message saying, Whites are losing ground to undeserving minorities, well, you're a prime target to be picked off.

CHRIS HAYES: Where does this go now? I mean, it doesn't feel like a great set of circumstances.

MICHAEL TESLER: No. Even if you're a progressive, and you want to take some optimism in the fact that the country as a whole is moving more progressive on these identity issues, but then there's also the case where the polarization is that much greater. You're seeing it play out in 2018 in race after race, where the dividing lines are over these identity issues.

The problem with that is that these are the issues that people care about, and these are the emotionally-charged issues. I always say, when politics gets fought over the marginal tax rate, that's not as explosive as questions of race, gender, immigration, religion.

CHRIS HAYES: That's what's so crazy, right, about the politics of this moment, is that — this is something I think you very persuasively argue — Barack Obama puts all this stuff on the table by the mere fact of who he is. The current process we are undergoing, which has been exacerbated by Trump, starts with the election of Barack Obama, because he is black.

MICHAEL TESLER: Yes. I always say that Obama was polarizing because of who he was, not because of what he said or did. If anything, Obama tried to neutralize, time and time again, the politics of race. He took a very concerted effort to doing it. So much so that Eric Holder basically calls the country "a nation of cowards," following Obama on race.

Then I think Obama, in his second term, steps it up a little bit more. But for the most part, Obama very much runs a politics of deracialization, which is a familiar strategy for African-American candidates.

CHRIS HAYES: Meaning not emphasizing...

MICHAEL TESLER: De-emphasizing race. To the extent that Obama did talk about race, he was often talking in terms that racial conservatives would like, such as personal responsibility.

CHRIS HAYES: Not just racial conservatives, we should say. There's a constituency for that among African-Americans, as shown by the survey data.


CHRIS HAYES: There's a question here about how we undo this. Not that maybe it's undoable, but I guess the thing that I keep worrying about is, I don't think it's a great thing for American politics for white identity to be super-salient.


CHRIS HAYES: I'm just not super-stoked about that as a thing. But it seems like that's a thing that's happening.

MICHAEL TESLER: Yeah. In the conclusion of our book, the last section is called "Choices." It's basically, This is going to be hard to undo. But to the extent that it is muted or mitigated depends really on what politicians choose to emphasize. Right now, for the Republican party, who's pursuing an agenda that is not particularly popular on traditional ideological issues like taxes and entitlement spending, well, where else do you have to go?

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, that's the thing you're seeing in the midterms. It's wild how much this is the party that's controlled government for two years, and it's not like it hasn't done a lot of stuff. It passed a huge tax cut. They've done a huge amount of things in the regulatory state. They've shoved a lot of judges on. But they're not really running on that. They're running on "the immigrants are coming for you!"

MICHAEL TESLER: This has always been something that's happened within the Republican party, with Republican politicians. There's been a disconnect between what the politicians emphasize, and what the constituents care about.


MICHAEL TESLER: Republican voters are quite happy with government spending. There are not many who are going to oppose government spending across the board. Political scientist James Stimson calls this "conflicted conservatives." There are a lot of conflicted conservatives.

I think the problem is for other Republican candidates — who were constrained by party leadership, constrained by Koch Network, and other outside sources — they can't run on that. They can't, what we say, "hunt where the ducks are." If you're Donald Trump, and you don't care about libertarian ideology or donors, well, you go and hunt where the ducks are.


MICHAEL TESLER: One of my favorite stories is on how Trump did his research for his message. He just basically had some of his people listen to right-wing talk radio. What were they talking about on right-wing talk radio? They're talking about immigration.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. So it was like, I'm just going to do that.

MICHAEL TESLER: You see right now, with the midterms, running away from pre-existing conditions. Running away from entitlement cuts. Those are not popular, so if you want to motivate your base, and you're running unpopular fiscal policies, well then you're increasingly incentivized to appeal to white identity politics.

CHRIS HAYES: You've got a new project that you're working on, which takes the notion of the racialization of attitudes about seemingly unrelated items to, dare I say, comical lengths. You want to tell us about your new project?

MICHAEL TESLER: Sure. My wife, Mary McThomas and I, we are writing a book called "Pit Bull Politics: What a Dog Breed Can Teach Us About Prejudice and Politics." We are pit bull owners, and we love pit bulls, and they suffer from terrible discrimination.

What we're doing in that book is we're tracking how similarities between pit bulls and racial/ethnic minorities — of course, they're not always comparable, and we're careful to say as much — but how these similarities play out in media, public opinion, law, and policy.

CHRIS HAYES: You have coverage of pit bulls as dangerous, as menacing, as wild...

MICHAEL TESLER: One of the things we were able to do is analyze a lot of media coverage. You see pit bulls portrayed in more racialized terms. From 2009 to 2017, there were 60,000 violence stories about pit bulls, and there were less than 3,000 about the next closest breed, Rottweilers.

CHRIS HAYES: Shut up! Are you serious?

MICHAEL TESLER: That is a true story.

CHRIS HAYES: That doesn't reflect the actual incidence of attack.



MICHAEL TESLER: So this is something that you do see with how African-Americans are portrayed in the media, where they are portrayed as more violent, more dangerous, and then you also see this connection between pit bulls and African-Americans, both in public opinion and in media coverage.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, that's right. You've also got, there's actually a connection here about how white people feel about African-Americans and how they feel about pit bulls.

MICHAEL TESLER: That's exactly right.

CHRIS HAYES: You have data to support that.

MICHAEL TESLER: I do! One of the things that you see is that these attitudes that we're talking about, they're more predictive of views about pit bulls than other dog breeds. You can also do things like, when you associate implicitly African-Americans with pit bulls, by saying, "Are pit bulls too dangerous to live in inner cities, or too dangerous to live in residential neighborhoods?" People become more opposed to pit bulls when they are framed as inner city pets.

We also ask this control question, basically, of "Are fireworks too dangerous for residential?" People are actually think that fireworks are more dangerous for residential areas, but pit bulls more dangerous for inner city neighborhoods.

CHRIS HAYES: Oh, that's interesting. You think that's a racialized effect?



MICHAEL TESLER: You see this manifest in a bunch of different ways. We have precinct-level data showing that percentage white correlates with support for pit bull bans. There's a lot on this, the similarities.

CHRIS HAYES: Where did that start? When did this menacing image of the pit bull start to come to the fore?

MICHAEL TESLER: People point to the 70s and 80s, and the rise of dog fighting, the rise of gang and drug culture, and that connection. But that is an area we need to zero in more on.

CHRIS HAYES: Wow. Man. Well, I'm going to read that book, for sure. That's totally fascinating.


CHRIS HAYES: Michael Tesler is a political scientist at UC-Irvine. He's one of the co-authors, along with Lynn Vavrick and John Sides of the new book "Identity Crisis," which is about the 2016 election. It was a great pleasure.

MICHAEL TESLER: Thank you so much, Chris. So great to be with you.

CHRIS HAYES: Once again, my great thanks to Michael Tesler for coming on the show. I look forward to the pit bull book. I think you probably will, too, after hearing that.

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