Noah Berlatsky  Trump's 'suburban lifestyle' tweet mixes race and class. Here's what voters care about more.

Commentators have argued that growing class inequality is the most important issue of our time. But political scientist Zoltan Hajnal makes a convincing case for the primacy of race.
Image: Donald Trump Holds "MAGA" Rally In Central Pennsylvania
The crowd cheers as President Donald Trump waves at the end of a Make America Great Againcampaign rally at Williamsport Regional Airport in Montoursville, Pa., in May, 2019.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file
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By Noah Berlatsky, cultural critic

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump tweeted that "the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood." It was a tweet that horrendously mixed racism and classism, a hallmark of the president's campaign.

But which of those two issues is a more powerful motivator when it comes to American voters?

Commentators on both the right and the left have argued that growing class inequality is the most important issue of our time and that Democrats are committed to the status quo. University of California San Diego political scientist Zoltan Hajnal's "Dangerously Divided: How Race and Class Shape Winning and Losing in American Politics," though, makes a convincing case for the primacy of race in U.S. politics and for the Democratic Party's effectiveness in addressing it.

Many recent efforts to examine race and class in elections have focused on Trump's victory in 2016 and on voters who switched from Barack Obama to Trump. Hajnal, though, believes that to understand the dividing lines in the U.S., it's better to look at all voters and at a wide range of elections. He therefore looked at data from existing polls and other surveys, including the American National Election Study and the Voter News Service Data series, which gathered voter data from 1994 to 2006.

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What he found, he told me, was that "racial divides far exceed class divides in predicting the vote." In the 2016 presidential election, 89 percent of Black voters chose Hillary Clinton, as opposed to 37 percent of white voters — a massive 52-point gap. In comparison, the income gap was tiny. According to the Roper Center, there was only a 6-point gap between the percentage of voters with incomes under $50,000 who voted for Clinton (53 percent) and those with incomes over $100,000 (47 percent).

Racial gaps are also striking when you look at other measures — such as which voters back winning candidates and which back losing candidates.

Racial gaps are also striking when you look at other measures — such as which voters back winning candidates and which back losing candidates. Looking at exit surveys from 1994 to 2006, Hajnal found that 41 percent of Black voters were "super losers," backing losing candidates for president, the Senate, governor and mayor in the same year. Only 9 percent of whites were super losers. Black losses in elections held even when Hajnal controlled for party affiliations. In other words, Black people backed losing candidates more often whether they were Democrats or Republicans.

In contrast, income had little effect on whether voters "won" or "lost" elections. Those with low incomes, Hajnal found, were super losers 17 percent of the time; those with high incomes were super losers 9 percent of the time. That's a small difference compared with the 32-point gap between Black and white voters.

"It's a central paradox of American politics that despite an enormous and increasingly large economic divide, we see that the role of class is muted," Hajnal told me. Nonwealthy, working-class white voters have focused on "trying to maintain their minimal privileges over minorities rather than focusing on their own disadvantages," he said. White working-class voters have repeatedly preferred racial solidarity to class solidarity. The result is that today race, not class, divides the parties the most.

Many people blame the Democratic Party for losing the lower class. The argument is that it has failed to provide concrete help to the disadvantaged.

But Hajnal's data analysis also contradicts these arguments. Looking at economic well-being under presidential administrations from 1948 to 2010, Hajnal found that Black family income increased by an average of $895 per person under Democratic presidents and by only $142 under Republicans. Moreover, white income increased by an average of $452 more under Democrats than Republicans. Poverty rates and unemployment rates (which fell for both Black and white people under Democrats and rose under Republicans) tell a similar story.

Both white people and Black people benefit under Democratic administrations, though Black people benefit significantly more. So much more, in fact, that Hajnal told me that "if Democrats had been in power over the entire last half-century, we might have seen racial economic inequality disappear." It's difficult to prove or disprove that kind of counterfactual, but Hajnal's evidence does show clearly that Black people benefit greatly under Democratic administrations and that white people also benefit more than they do under Republican governments. Democratic presidents improve everyone's economic well-being.

Keeping Republicans out of office is very difficult, though, if white people want them in. American demographics are changing, and census data suggest the U.S. will be a majority-minority nation by 2045. Even so, Hajnal said, white people have higher turnout rates, more money and more power. "It's still the case and will be the case for perhaps decades to come that whites will be able to control many of the outcomes in the political sphere, especially if whites become more united," he told me.

Whites have, in fact, steadily moved away from Democrats. The parties polarized around race after Democrats supported civil rights in the 1960s. But while President Bill Clinton won 49 percent of white voters in 1996, John Kerry won only 41 percent in 2004, and Hillary Clinton won only 39 percent in 2016.

Part of this continuing shift toward Republicans has to do with the GOP's anti-immigrant stance. In 2008, for example, white people with negative views of immigration were 55 percent more likely to vote for John McCain than Obama, Hajnal found. Moreover, the American National Election Study showed that 64 percent of white Democrats believe that immigrants take jobs away from Americans. That means there are many white Democrats who could conceivably be recruited by Republican anti-immigrant demagoguery. There is still room for further racial polarization in the electorate.

Trump is counting on that polarization, as Republicans have done for more than 50 years.

Trump is counting on that polarization, as Republicans have done for more than 50 years. "Trump is in many ways not unusual at all," Hajnal told me. Racism and racial division have been a core promise of Republicans to their increasingly white voters since the civil rights era. Democrats, meanwhile, have promised racial equality — and to a surprising extent have delivered on that promise when they have been in power.

This is not to say that there are no other differences between the parties. Nor is it to say that all Democratic politicians are perfect or that they are all committed to egalitarian goals. During the primary season, proposals by Democratic candidates like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren highlighted ways the party could do better to expand access to health care, strengthen unions and make education and housing available to all. The recent protests against police forces under the control of many Democratic mayors show that Democratic administrations are frequently implicated in structural racism.

But for all the Democrats' failures, Hajnal's research does offer voters and the country a clear, stark choice. Republicans increasingly stand for white dominance. Democrats increasingly stand for equality for all. Trump's tweeting and public statements do not even try to hide this fact; rather, they offer a steady stream of naked appeals to racist, classist bias. This November, we'll see which option the country chooses.

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