Black turnout was down in 2016, costing Hillary Clinton pivotal votes and raising questions about whether post-Obama Democrats can mobilize black voters. We know President Trump is angering and mobilizing a lot of white Democrats but that may not translate the same way for black voters. Davin Phoenix finds that black Americans express less anger than white Americans and anger does not stimulate them as much to participate in politics. Christopher Towler finds that African-Americans who strongly disliked Trump did turn out at Obama-level rates; but not everyone feels that strongly. Both say black turnout is hardly destined to rebound in 2020, especially if Democrats don’t change their strategy.
Studies: The Anger Gap; “Between Anger and Engagement”
Interviews: Davin Phoenix, UC Irvine; Christopher Towler, Cal State – Sacramento
Photo Credit: Phil Roeder under CC by 2.0.
Grossmann: This week on the Science of Politics: hat motivates African American turnout? For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. Black turnout was down in 2016, costing Hillary Clinton pivotal votes and raising questions about whether post Obama Democrats can mobilize black voters. We know president Trump is angering and mobilizing a lot of white Democrats, but that may not translate the same way for black Democrats.
Today I talked to Davin Phoenix of UC Irvine about his new Cambridge book, The Anger Gap. He finds that black Americans express less anger than white Americans about politics and anger doesn’t stimulate them as much to participate. Politicians rely more on instilling black pride and enthusiasm, but that might not work in December 2020. I also talked to Christopher Towler of Cal State Sacramento about his Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics article with Christopher Parker, “Between Anger and Engagement.”
He finds that African Americans who strongly disliked Trump, did turn out at Obama-level rates in 2016, but since not everyone feels that strongly, turnout may not rise back to prior levels. Phoenix says, “Anger is less critical for black participation while enthusiasm matters more.”
Phoenix: I think it’s pretty easy to see the role that anger could play in our politics, whether we’re thinking about it, mobilizing protest movements from Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party until black lives matter. And we also see anger welling up intellectual politics from those rebutting images of people yelling at their elected officials at town halls to these kinds of angrier opportunities, like we’ve seen at Trump rallies or even the kind of anger motivating so-called Bernie Bros. And so my book finds really interesting and important racial differences in which groups are leveraging anger more towards political use.
Specifically, I’m finding that across different political areas, dating back to Reagan and continuing into the current Trump era. African Americans are expressing significantly less anger about politics, about political figures, specifically political environments broadly than their white counterparts. And in addition, anger’s having very different effects on participation. So amongst African Americans, I’m seeing anger had some mobilizing role in particular actions, some strong effects for donating to candidates, contacting elected officials.
But anger is most effectively utilized among African Americans towards protest type actions participating in protest or participating in boycotts. For white Americans across the range of political actions, electoral protest, anger tends to be more effective as stimulating action. So the effects are larger amongst white Americans and there’re larger for a broader set of action amongst white Americans. So that’s why I labeled The Anger Gap, anger being drawn upon less frequently or less intensely by African Americans and having less than effect on their political participation. So we definitely see The Anger Gap manifest in kind of electoral behaviors, whether you’re talking about voting or working for candidates, working for campaigns. And we also see that present in less anger being leveraged than we might expect towards system challenging actions.
On the corollary on the converse, I find African Americans being more mobilized towards both electoral and protest or unconventional actions by positive emotions specifically, pride and in limited context hope. I find these positive emotions stimulating black people to more action, whereas they’re often exhibiting null effects on white participation. So there’s this interesting juxtaposition of this Anger Gap and this enthusiasm vantage across the racial divide.
Grossmann: Scholars assume that anger stimulates everyone, but racial groups have very different expectations and costs.
Phoenix: So the conventional wisdom has largely painted a picture of anger as very effective at animating political participation. And so we can think about two factors that shape that conventional wisdom. One, the psychological account of threats more effective at mobilizing a strong response compared to a prospective opportunity. We can think about the classic flight or fight response, right? When I’m threatened with something I stand to lose, alert systems are triggered in my head and they demand immediate attention. And so maybe they drive me away from politics. But if I’m angry about this threat, it’s more likely that I’m going to dive head first into the scrum because that anger breeds impulsivity, it breeds less risk aversion, it breeds more confidence in my kind of course of action.
And so the conventional wisdom has been, if you want to get someone active in politics, you get them angry. And my challenge to that is whether that applies broadly across all racial groups. We think about African Americans specifically, we can think about a couple of factors that complicate that wisdom. One is something that’s construed or perceived as a threat by white Americans going to be perceived as a threat to black Americans. We think about the racialized lens through which both groups view politics, can see African Americans expressing less satisfaction with politics, greater mistrust, greater perceptions that politics is not responsive to the collective inputs of African Americans. And so that breeds less expectation, less sense of entitlement from the system. And so rather than respond to some of these threats with that indignation, I can’t believe this is happening.
There’s a sense I can’t believe this is happening because I don’t expect anything better from a system that I view as unfair. And so I talk about this idea of resignation. If you are resigned to expect suboptimal outcomes from a system, when that system produces threats, rather than get angry about it, you are pretty much expecting it. And so I think when we think about the ways in which a threat might not be perceived as a threat, we can understand this Anger Gap. We can also consider another challenge to conventional wisdom, the distinct costs to African Americans of expressing their anger. So we can think about the potential stigma that comes from the label of being an angry black woman or an angry black man. What are the consequences that white people may not feel from expressing their anger in public spaces in political spaces? If African Americans feel this kind of constraint or restraint, then we might not expect anger to emerge as frequently and to be as mobilizing for black participation.
So by thinking through how this literature from social psychology, evolutionary biology and politics kind of runs against what we know about race. I’m trying to challenge that conventional wisdom that says, “Anger is this universal motivator of action.”
Grossmann: Towler finds that dislike of Trump for his perceived racism did mobilize black turnout in 2016.
Towler: The article that I wrote coauthored with professor Christopher Parker at the University of Washington examines the role that Donald Trump plays in understanding black political mobilizations specifically following the 2016 presidential election. We looked at how attitudes towards Trump specifically, attitudes that express Trump as a threat related to political behavior. Out of the paper, the most interesting findings surround how black disapproval of Trump was really rooted in perceived racism. And so one of the questions we asked respondents to answer was an open ended question about why they liked or disliked Trump? And for the respondents that had said in a previous question that they really disapproved of Trump, most of the responses in the open ended question were related to Trump being racist or a perception of Trump and his policies and administration as racist towards blacks.
And so following that we completed an analysis that looked at blacks who strongly agreed with the statement as to whether or not Trump was destroying the country and how that related to their political behavior. We found that blacks who strongly agreed with that statement were significantly more likely than blacks with no strong opinion of Trump to be interested in politics, to have stated they voted in the 2016 election and to be confident that they were going to vote in the 2018 midterms, and more likely to have participated in a number of non-traditional acts of political behaviors such as petitioning, boycotting, demonstrating, attending a meeting, contacting a representative, and donated money.
Towler: Also blacks who strongly agreed with the statement that Trump was destroying the country were even significantly more likely to be confident in voting in the 2018 midterms than blacks who only said they somewhat agreed with the statement. So we found some variation even amongst blacks who dislike Trump altogether.
Grossmann: Trump views had a very large impact and still are.
Towler: For vote turnout in 2016, we see about a 30 point drop in the probability that someone said they voted based on whether they disapproved of Trump or didn’t have any strong opinion. And then when it comes to confidence in voting, whether or not they were very, very confident, they were going to vote in the 2018 midterm elections and we were surveying them in 2017. There is about a 35 point drop in whether they’re very, very confident, they’re going to vote or not based on their opinion of Trump. And so that’s probably the most important comparison because we see that about two thirds of the respondents, the black respondents in the data we collected, strongly disapprove of Trump, and about half in our sample strongly agreed that Trump was destroying the country. So we have a majority of African Americans that we surveyed sort of agreeing with the sentiments. But there were also about a fifth of the sample especially, when it came to the opinion that Trump was destroying the country that didn’t really express any strong opinion.
Grossmann: Towler’s work builds on prior research, on anger at the Tea Party.
Towler: This article actually comes from research that professor Parker and I started back in 2010 and 2011. And we had collected data, part of the multistate survey of race and politics project at the University of Washington, where we had a large oversample of African Americans in the survey. And from this oversample, we had found similar findings to what turned out to be the paper with the Tea Party where blacks, who had very, very strong negative opinions toward the Tea Party, were more likely to have participated in the 2010 midterm election. And so from there we continued to kind of press on this and try and collect data where we could and understand how this sort of reactionary group of the Tea Party could be used to potentially influence blacks especially, going into 2012 and beyond when we were not sure exactly how Obama would continue to influence black mobilization until Trump comes on the scene and then eventually wins the presidency. And we sort of moved from the reactionary movement of the Tea Party into this presidential embodiment of Donald Trump.
Grossmann: Phoenix’s work started by trying to match research on emotions with that on black politics.
Phoenix: My initial interest in this project was birthed from getting exposure to some of the experimental work that looked at the potential mobilizing effects of messages emphasizing what people had to lose if they didn’t act versus messages that emphasize what they have to gain if they do act. I’m thinking specifically of a piece by Miller and Krosnick thrive as motivator where they reached out to members of NARAL in Ohio. Some of them received a message about a prospective policy threats and others received a message about prospective policy opportunity and generally the threat messages were more effective at mobilizing action. And I simply wondered if that idea of a threat being the more effective message would be applicable to African Americans.
I kind of thought almost in very general anecdotal terms, if African Americans generally perceived themselves to be near the lower run of the totem pole, in terms of political organizations. Does a threat really signal or kind of stimulate a strong response? If I don’t have much to lose in the first place because I don’t have much that I feel like I’ve gained from this system, can I respond to that threat of kind of a shrug off my shoulders rather than flared nostrils and punched face. And so I didn’t do much with that idea and then when it came time to panic and really consider what is the big project. I’m seeking to make in grad school, I was encouraged to go back to my initial writings and notes and papers from the grad seminars. And I came back to this idea and I thought, I still think there’s a there, there to that question of whether threat could be as motivating for African Americans.
And in the time since I first thought of that question, I’ve come across this work on this distinct roles of emotions and shaping our behavior. So I thought maybe that the connective threat. Maybe I’m thinking that these threats might not be animating action among African Americans in the way conventional wisdom expects because I don’t see African Americans getting angry over the same types of political threats or even economic threats that can mobilize white Americans.
And so I dove deeper into kind of psychology of threat and trying to integrate that psychology with my understanding of black politics and what moves and does not move black people.
Grossmann: He says politicians present different messaging to black audiences that doesn’t promote anger.
Phoenix: There’s no strategy of mainstream political figures looking to mobilize support for their campaigns, for their party on the basis of getting people angry, getting people riled up. These are the things you deserve. These are the things that the other team, the enemy, the other side, the current regime are trying to keep from you. Don’t stand for it, rise up, vote them out of office, vote us in the office, whatever it takes. And I thought, is that kind of messaging really distilled when the audience is predominantly or exclusively black? Or do we see a very different type of messaging to black audiences? And does that message indicate, well, here’s some of the challenges the community faces, but look at all the ways you’re exhibiting resilience, look at all the ways in which you’ve overcome and look at all that you stand to gain, looking ahead to the future.
Looking to break down some of that messaging, I found that the appeals made to black audiences are less about the grievances that they have or should have with the system and the things that should make them angry, and the things that should make them feel a point of pride. The messaging is often about the communal uplift that has transpired and the kind of long unsteady match towards racial progress. And I think about the way in which that messaging has the effect of fixing the collective black is away from the very real grievances they feel with the system that they tend to feel is unfair on responsive and shipping that gist towards this promise of a racial salvation in the future.
Grossmann: According to Bernie Sanders, he says, “The angry politician’s messages don’t match black concerns.”
Phoenix: So one of the things I pinpoint is why Black people might have been so responsive to the messaging of Bernie Sanders in 2016, as he seems to be on the pulse of a particular type of indignation that many people on the left feel. Indignation about the continued economic inequality, about the continued rise of a gilded class of folks and the kind of economic and legal policies that allow this continued inequality to flourish.
When I look at Bernie’s messaging, I think about how it doesn’t necessarily comport with how African Americans are viewing the socio-economic and political system. Bernie Sanders is very much arguing that we can reform and we can replace these actors that are not working in good faith, and we can restore a system back to each properly functioning role in perpetuating equal opportunity for Americans. And that kind of diagnosis or the system, I think doesn’t square with how many African Americans view that political system. They don’t view it as losing its way in the face of actors that are kind of consumed by greed. They view the system as fundamentally broken or fundamentally incapable of providing those equal opportunities.
And so I think that misdiagnosis in many African Americans, particularly those over 30 because I don’t want to discount the large support Bernie Sanders did and does continue to have somewhat with younger black voters. That makes diagnosis I think is really critical to understanding why some of this messaging doesn’t engender the same indignation amongst African Americans that it could even when that messaging does reach black audiences.
Grossmann: They both see Democrats in a bind of appealing to minority and white audiences. But Phoenix says that, “Hillary Clinton had her appeals backwards.”
Phoenix: So I think the disconnect between how white and black voters are perceiving Clinton’s prioritization of minority interests. Is a bind right? That is long affected or constrained at the Democratic Party, right. I think back to those Stanley Greenberg polls in Macomb, Michigan, and the birth or the rise of a Democratic Leadership Council, which said, “For the democratic party to be viable, it needs to break its association somehow with these minority interests, which are alienating white voters.”
When we think about Hillary Clinton’s run in messaging, I think it’s really interesting that her infamous basket of deplorable speech that not come in front of a minority audience, right. That came in front of a predominantly white audience. And so even when she made her most forceful signals about the ways in which Donald Trump was engendering and weaponizing the racism and perhaps a sexism and homophobia people, that wasn’t the message that she was taking directly to a minority audience.
When you look at the messaging, she had two minority specifically, black audiences particularly, some of the messages she had for black churches and black religious figures and leaders, when she would speak about the issues that could really engender that sense of indignation amongst African Americans. particularly as an example, the water crisis in Flint. Rather than frame that crisis as things that it could have been framed as this failure of democracy, right to provide a basic fundamental right to this largely poor and largely black populace in the middle of the country, she chose to emphasize.
Again, thinking about those pride and hope queues, the role of the black churches in providing water and filling this policy gap. And so I think it’s really interesting to see this disconnect when I look at the messaging that she offered around race and around racism and around kind of the racial hierarchy. How often did she give those messages to black audiences versus white audiences? And so who was she singling to? And why wouldn’t it take that messaging directly to minority audiences that seem to be the object if not the subject of that messaging.
Grossmann: And Towler says, “The Clinton message was interpreted differently in light of Obama.”
Towler: I absolutely think this is a bind at the Democrat’s face especially, when there continues to be this sort of narrative that the Democrats need to worry about white working class voters across a number of the battleground states that Trump won and Hillary lost in 2016. I think that what we see as far as a lack of white support for Hillary or whites that suggest Hillary’s campaign was far more geared towards non-whites is really rooted in more of a reaction to what Obama meant to the Democratic Party and to national politics in general, more than anything actually having to do with Hillary and her campaign.
More and more research has continued to find that Trump support especially, in 2016 was rooted in a sort of building reaction to Obama that mobilized white voters for Trump and Clinton as a Democrat who embraced a lot of Obama’s policies and was the first woman to really get the chance to run on the Democratic platform, became sort of one in the same with that reaction to Obama.
And like I said, there’s more and more research coming out that actually suggests that support for Trump was rooted in this same sort of negative view of Obama in really, really conservative reaction to Obama that had been building since 2010, when sort of the rise of the Tea Party and these movements pushing against Obama and almost anything he did regardless of what the policy was.
Grossmann: There was some inevitable decline in black turnout from Obama, but the Clinton campaign in rules also mattered in 2016.
Towler: So we absolutely did see a decline in black turnout in 2016. Really the first decline in black turnout since the passage of the voting rights act. I do think a decline was inevitable after Obama considering how much research identify sort of the first of a demographic group to have an especially powerful effect, when it comes to political mobilization. However, a number of other factors also likely matter. For example, I believe there was a lack in sort of urgency in Clinton’s 2016 campaign to mobilize black voters to similar levels as Obama. This could definitely be because polls showed a significant advantage for Hillary over Trump through much of the campaign.
We also see that 2016 is the first national election since the 2013 [Shelby 00:23:01] kind of the holder Supreme Court decision and validating the coverage from the voting rights act. And so in addition to sort of these political factors, we have a large number of states especially, states that were once covered under the VRA, passing very, very expensive voter suppression techniques.
Grossmann: Phoenix points out that blacks felt more agency under Obama, but not from anger.
Phoenix: What differentiates anger from other negative emotion states is a sense of agency. If I feel I have control then I’m more likely to respond with anger, according to the Rams cognitive appraisal theory. And so that agency is really critical. When do black people feel that agency or perceive it? When do they not? And could that be the difference in rising up in the base of the threat or being resigned to it and kind of wash my hands of it? And so I’m really curious to see which candidate can galvanize that sense of agency? When we talk about the Obama effect, we talk so much about simply his race. But we can think about the messaging he employed and how those distinct messages proved particularly resonated with black audiences, in a way that even white Democratic counterparts had been able to leverage those same messages about hope and about a communal sense of pride and about change that lies in the horizon, that’s actually attainable and not kind of in the clouds in the sky.
Grossmann: And the angry appeal may be one that appeals mainly to whites. Other minorities are closer to black voters in their responses.
Phoenix: So in essence, I find that Latina and Asian Americans are very similar to African Americans in 2016 expressing snipley less anger than their white counterparts, and being less mobilized by that anger towards a wide variety political actions compared to whites. Again, similar to African Americans, I find Latino and Asian Americans being uniquely and distinctly mobilized by the pride they express throughout the 2016 election.
And so that really does make White Americans unique the outlier in their tendency to express anger and to act on that anger. And I should say, just to clarify, when I’m thinking about white anger, I’m seeing white anger manifest in this 2016 dataset. This is not simply the white anger of Trump supporters. And so in the dataset, the folks across the board, across all racial groups that are most angry, are those that have the least approval for Donald Trump. This holds for White Americans as well.
And when I just look at those sets of people that have the strongest disapproval of Donald Trump, I still find white Americans being more angry than the other groups of color, which I think would really surprise some people. Particularly those that think well, given the distinct ways in which Latinos were threatened by Trump’s rhetoric or targeted antagonized by his rhetoric. Surely those are the ones that are going to be the angriest once we’re just looking at those that have the least approval of Trump. And no whites are still marginally more angry than Latinos even amongst those that are most disliking of Trump.
And so I try to think about what that means in the context of the fallout from the 2016 election. I think particularly for Latin Americans, there was a lot of rhetoric that we see in election cycle after election cycle about this so-called sleeping giant. Cristina Beltran has a great book about the kind of challenges of Latino identity and she really problematizes that idea of a sleeping giant and just thinking about that narrative and politics. It really does essentially Latinos as a group and also kind of I think misreads the ways in which they’ve leveraged their growing political power in recent elections. But there was as idea right there.
We’ll certainly this group is going to be participatory on mess because of the ways in which they’ve been threatened by Trump and I don’t think that the same mechanisms that enemy this Anger Gap for African Americans are animating it for Latino and Asian Americans. Let’s think about the distinct narratives that [inaudible 00:27:11] should groups racial groups have. Let’s think about distinct kind of roles of acclimation to us politics, a panethnic identity. A lot of different kind of factors to consider.
But I think broadly we can consider the connective tissue across these groups that don’t generally feel to the extent that they have some sense of racial practices that the system works to their benefit, that the system works their favor to the degree that it works for their white American counterparts.
And so I think there is some underlying sense of resignation that characterizes that emotional response to a figure like Trump, even that they do this distinctly threatened. And so I’m not arguing right that these groups aren’t as threatened as we thought they were. Simply arguing that that threat does not translate to a mobilizing anger in the way we think it did. And if we want to get these groups mobilized in the face of a threatening in Congress regime, it might not be sufficient to say, “Oh, well look, I’m just going to paint this burns words or give you the other side’s words and let you do the work.” I think we have to understand that distinct role, that sense of group or community pride plays in mobilizing groups of color in the face of these threats.
Grossmann: Towler agrees that anger may matter less for black voters, but he sees a dividing line based on how much they see a racial threat.
Towler: His work fits right in line with what I’ve been doing and especially, with the paper that we’re discussing except for… We have not really gone to the extent of comparing African Americans to whites or other groups when it comes to anger in efficacy. What we are finding though is that blacks that are the most angry are participating at higher rates and so really one of the main implications that we’re pushing from our findings is that we want to find a way to use that anger to move larger portions of the black community into a position where they are angry and where they are increasing their participation and engagement with politics.
So one of the recent studies that we’ve done actually includes a survey experiment where we’ve prompted respondents with different sort of conditions or frames prior to asking African Americans. How likely it is they’re going to be participating in certain acts in the upcoming 2020 election. And one of the frames that we specifically wrote focuses on framing Trump and his administration as a racial threat discussing his ties to white nationalists, the incidents at Charlottesville and really reminding blacks who read this statement that if we don’t step up and take action against the Trump administration, black people will continue to suffer and then offering sort of the Democratic Party as an action supporting the Democratic Party as a necessary action to take.
And the new data suggested that this prompt alone sort of framing or conditioning blacks to think about politics in this way increases the likelihood that they say they’re going to participate in a number of things including voting in the 2020 election. And so well, Davin’s work offers sort of important implications about how angry the black community is and the role of anger and efficacy when it comes to participation for blacks compared to other groups.
We’re really trying to understand how we can get blacks to see politics in a way and possibly use that anger that comes from understanding the Trump administration as a threat to mobilize people moving forward.
Grossmann: He says black Americans were motivated to oppose Trump and might be again.
Towler: Our findings comport with a number of sort of anecdotal studies or reports that suggested not just African Americans, but a number of non-white communities, immigrant communities as well. We’re becoming very, very politically engaged for fear of Trump and Trump winning. Our findings add a sort of magnitude to this, and one of the most interesting findings that we have is that following the previous findings. Those who strongly disapproved of Trump were actually predicted to say they were going to turn out or say they turned out in 2016 that levels similar to turn out for president Obama in 2008 and 2012. And so well, there was definitely sort of some disagreement as to what Trump would do to the black community.
Our findings suggest that Trump… for those blacks who really, really disagreed or really, really saw him as a threat, Trump mobilize them to levels that were just as historical as the previous two presidential elections.
Grossmann: The resignation is real, but Towler says that means Democrats need to highlight the threat and the opportunity.
Towler: The Trump administration’s continued sort of unchecked especially, by the media, racism and statements of really white supremacy have created even more disillusionment amongst the black community as far as how much change can be created. To me, that again speaks to sort of the importance of our research in this paper’s findings and that Democrats or anyone who wants to figure out how to get African American voters engaged and interested in politics under these conditions have to really look at ways to react sort of the threat that Donald Trump is and to reidentify or offer more specifics as to how powerful of a threat Trump can be by really speaking to sort of the details.
And so well, much of the black community understands Donald Trump is a threat. Thinking about the specifics and the specific ways that Donald Trump can sort of turn back the clock or put back racial progress from the last 50 years. Things such as judicial appointments, things such as executive orders and holding up congressional action that could reinstate voting rights can actually improve and increase the way that African Americans think about participating in politics.
Grossmann: Phoenix agrees that dislike of Trump may matter, but not always because it causes an angry reaction.
Phoenix: I think there is a broad consistency with what I find. So I don’t necessarily look at the direct translation of that dislike that antipathy towards action like they do, but I certainly find that that antipathy is strong and present and more present amongst black people and people of color more broadly than amongst white Americans. Even going back to past any S years getting back to 1980, I find amongst Democrats, African Americans are significantly more disapproving of Republicans than their white Democratic counterparts and also significantly more negative about the state of the economy under Republican incumbents than their white Democratic counterparts.
So certainly the dislike is there, right? The perception of that acute threat is there. And so my question is what is the pathway? What is the mechanism that translates that disliked to greater inclination to act, to overcome it, to stave it off?
And so I would ask, is it the case that the folks in the tolerant Parker Geese that are more active because of their dislike or there’s association at least between those two Parkers? Is it that they are indeed angry or is there something else at work in terms of the emotional pathway?
Is there a dislike tied to a sense of I can’t stand this person? I can’t stand the way they target my group. We are better than that and I’m not going to allow them to get away with the ways in which he targets the group. Are we thinking about anger that sounds like an angry rhetoric, but maybe we’re seeing some kind of mix of anger and group pride there right? So I will not allow this regime to goon my pride as a point of pride. I’m going to do what I can to get this regime out of office.
Grossmann: Young African Americans are more motivated by anger, but mostly for action outside of traditional politics.
Phoenix: Looking at 2016 data, I find that young black people are the one group for which The Anger Gap is not significantly present. So they’re not expressing significantly less anger than their young white counterparts and that anger is particularly mobilizing a protest activity and that does comport with our reports from the 2016 election that found young black people were very active in politics, but they weren’t necessarily voting in larger numbers. They were active in these other forms of participation.
Phoenix: So we certainly see that type of anger and anger that is not directed at any particular political regime, any particular specific policy domain or even any particular actor. That anger is broadly directed towards a system perceived to be a reverbly racist. And that’s really important thinking about the anger that’s animating black lives matter participation and the anger that’s animating Trump resistance participation. That black lives matter anger is fueled towards changing, eradicated, revolutionizing a system.
While resistance anger that we certainly see conceptualize in our public imagination as white women throughout America is directed broadly. Yes, towards a system of patriarchy, but very specifically and acutely at this particular regime and the different actors that are part of the Trump regime and maybe the Republican Party broadly for those on the left that are part of this resistance movement.
It’s again, speaking to this fundamental difference in how we are conceptualizing the threat. So the resistance movement we see not only animating these large kind of protests and demonstrations throughout the country ever since the inauguration in 2017. We also see that movement shifting resources towards identifying candidates to run for office, right, and supporting a new wave of women to be in office at national and state and even local levels. And so that’s really critical because there’s still an underwriting or undergirding sense that if we have better reputation within this system, we can get better outcomes.
Contrast that with the national movement for black lives, which makes it a very pointed decision in 2016 to not endorse any presidential candidate. And they say our reason behind that is because we don’t think that any individuals within these systems within these positions of power are sufficient to bring about change. And so that’s where we think about or that’s where we can pinpoint the differences in anger mobilizing action. And then do this as I’m mad with this set of circumstances and I can change it by putting in my type of people versus I’m not angry about the circumstances, I’m angry about the whole shebang and I need to not focus on putting in my people in these positions, but rather in trying to disrupt the entire position in the first place.
And so I think we even see that with the bullets of lack of youth voter support for the descriptively representative candidates commonly or just dropped out. We have Cory Booker a kind of barely holding on and I’ve seen questions. Why aren’t they doing better? Why isn’t there more enthusiasm for these candidates among black people and maybe among young black people more specifically who seems to be particularly critical of these candidates? Are they holding them to a particularly high standard because they are black candidates seeking their support?
Now it’s at the answers generally. Yes, they are because this head of black people, not unlike generations of black people before them, but maybe more acutely. So where are a variety of factors I can quickly identify? They do have a higher level of skepticism about these actors working within the system and they do have more of a sense that working outside of that system is going to produce ultimately the kinds of changes that they want, even if they don’t get to see those changes in their lifetime.
I’m really struck by the levels of activism and unapologeticness of black students on campuses like my own at UCI. And I’m curious about both the ways in which they’re carrying forward that legacy of black youth and specifically black campus activism. But also ways in which has evolved in a landscape in which they have, things that previous generations didn’t have. Whether that’s the symbolic force of a black president or some of these analogical changes that allow them to disrupt these narratives. So I think that’s a real area of curiosity for me thinking about black politics broadly, the role of these youth in reconfiguring the black political landscape.
Grossmann: They both see little sign that things will change in 2020. Phoenix says, “Democrats are pursuing similar strategies and shouldn’t expect different results.”
Phoenix: We’ve got plenty of time, but what we haven’t seen is any candidate that has managed to kind of sufficiently and effectively shift the playbook from what we saw as a dominant strategy in 2016. And at the same time we haven’t seen in the four years since 2016 and eradication of some of those on the ground barriers that if not providing actual restrictions on the vote can certainly be perceived to be challenges to black enfranchisement.
So yeah, right now I don’t have the most rosy view of black turnout in 2020, but we shall see what the democratic ground game does differently. There’s a lot of focus, of course, rightfully on the candidates themselves and the messaging and the residents or not that messaging. But I would imagine Democratic Party also has very clear wound to slick in about. The resources devoted on the ground or not to working with black indigenous institutions particularly, in these battleground states to make sure that black voters were sufficiently aware of the stakes and the scope of the election and the ways in which they could overcome some of those barriers that might’ve been imposed since the last time they cast a vote for a presidential election.
Yeah. Right now, I don’t have the highest prognosis of black turnout. But there’s certainly lessons to be learned and if those lessons are applied in front of a place, we could see a distinction from the long-term trends that I’ve been finding
Grossmann: And Towler thinks it will be difficult to make black turnout rebound.
Towler: I think it’s definitely an uphill battle regardless of who the Domini is. Our work suggests that if, if we want black turnout to jump in 2020 anywhere close to the historic rates in 2008 and 2012 rates that are more and more seeming necessary in order to win a lot of these battleground states in the Electoral college states like, Virginia and North Carolina and even Wisconsin.
Then the campaign needs to frame the election in ways that suggest that regardless of who the candidate is. Another four years of Trump represents a threat that is simply not worth it, right? Is simply something that we cannot have moving forward. And so I do think it will be all about Trump and that’s not necessarily reflected in the primary season right now, but the campaign and mobilization will absolutely matter and how they choose to strategize when it comes to speaking to the black community and trying to mobilize blacks moving into 2020 election.
Grossmann: They both said the current pragmatic standing of black voters in the Democratic primary. Phoenix says, “The support for Biden is born of strategy.” But black voters are not enthusiastic about him.
Phoenix: The strong support especially, amongst black supporters for Biden. Let me replace the word strong support with robust support for Biden, speaks to black people’s suspicions or skepticism about the electorate in general and the idea that the electorate is not going to be willing to support another different candidate in the vein of Obama. I think black people are reading the first response to Obama almost from day one, from the rise of the Tea Party Movement to the Birth movement, to the rise of Trump as direct responses to the audacity of electing a black community in office. And they think strategically, we should probably think about the viability of a candidate that is as consistent with a prototypical image of residual figures as they come, right the older seasoned white male candidate.
So I would not confuse that robust support with enthusiasm. I don’t know if people are… African Americans are particularly excited on thoose about the prospect of Biden. I think it’s very pragmatic and I think because of that we can very much see a shift. I was speaking about this with Lorrie Frasure-Yokley at UCLA the other day and she’s spoken about black pragmatism and politics and how that isn’t even an up to as he points to a 2008 race.
Black support was pretty solid behind Hillary Clinton and it pretty steadily shifted to Obama once Obama showed with the strong showings in Iowa that he was actually a viable candidate and I think we’re seeing a similar dynamic here. I think if there had been a real enthusiasm for Clinton in 2008 we wouldn’t have seen the widespread shift and support. But we had a robust support, which I think was very pragmatic and calculating this is the devil we know and this is the person that seems to have kind of the appointment or the kind of designation as the democratic air.
I think we’re seeing a similar dynamic with Biden, but I think that we will see if another candidate is able to prove viable a shift in support because I don’t think Biden has that enthusiasm and that speaks to some of the challenges he’s had.
Grossmann: Towler says, “Black voters interpreted 2016 as a reaction to Obama and want to play it safe.” But that means mobilizing black voters will require a lot of work.
Towler: The poll numbers in the primary are very telling when it comes to sort of the pragmatism of the black community in choosing a Democratic candidate after 2016 and really seeing how powerful of a reaction much of the country had to Obama’s presidency. Some of the best takes on the Democratic primary that I’ve seen suggests that black support for Joe Biden especially, from predominantly older African Americans across the country is most likely rooted in the sense of we need to find a candidate who is going to not be too edgy, who is going to have the best chance to defeat Trump in a primary election and who is not going to do any more damage to the black community in the long run.
I think my work speaks volumes to this dynamic moving forward because if Joe Biden does end up being the Democratic candidate, someone who as you mentioned does not seem particularly angry or engaged, although there’s been a few recent events where he has gotten quite angry of at some people.
Our work could offer ways to actually get the black community engaged around a candidate like Joe Biden without specifically focusing on Biden, but again sort of re-engaging the black community around the issues of threat that Donald Trump represents.
Grossmann: Towler’s next stop will be looking closely at 2020 to find out whether the Trump threat will mobilize black voters.
Towler: I just collected new data. I’m a national data set of African Americans in the last couple of months and so I’m going to be going through that data and seeing how findings from this 2018 papers sort of continue or don’t. I’m going into the 2020 election season and in this data set professor Parker and myself also included a number of sort of experiments to try and understand more of the mechanisms behind the way that Donald Trump as a threat. Are there a racial threat or some other type of threat actually works to mobilize blacks? And so that’s something that’s really front center on my research agenda right now. But I’m also going back and looking at historical data of African Americans to try and understand how threats such as Donald Trump, political threats from the right have influenced if at all African American political participation and engagement in the past. And so looking at times in the 1960s possibly in the 1980s when there had been sort of similarly perceived candidates when it comes to threat to the black community.
Grossmann: Phoenix is moving his research to look at the intersection between race and gender as well as the role of black resignation.
Phoenix: I want to reckon more deeply than the book does with the intersection of race and gender and shaping The Anger Gap and also need enthusiasm with advantage. And so I want to think about the ways in which black men and black women face different calculuses of what they can and cannot express. But they also face different burdens with black women largely being the backbone of black little engagement both in electoral and in insurgent politics and so how to black women not only navigate the double bind on them as African Americans and as women, but also how they navigate that higher burden that they’re often taking up in leading black political action?
I also want to push on my operationalization of this concept of racial resignation, which as the project develops became more and more of a central component of my theoretical argument. So I think I have some very incomplete rough measures of resignation, but I want to dig deeper and think about the rule of resignation as this kind of sentiment that kind of eats away or inhibits some of that information from merging among African Americans.
Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The science of politics is available biweekly from Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. Thanks to Davin Phoenix and Christopher Towler for joining me. Please check out The Anger Gap and “Between Anger and Engagement,” and then listen in next time.