The Alarming World View of White America

September 18, 2018

What motivated white working-class
voters to support Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by a margin of roughly two to one in the 2016 election?

An analysis by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and The Atlantic based on surveys conducted before and after the 2016 election rendered, some very chilling results. The report “Beyond Economics/Fears of Cultural Displacement Pushed the White Working Class to Trump” provides an in-depth profile of white working-class Americans, along with analysis of this group’s world view, outlook, and attitudes about cultural change and policy:

White working-class Americans make up one-third (33%) of the adult public, a substantially larger share than white Americans with at least a four-year college education (22%).

White working-class Americans comprise a large proportion of the population in the Midwest, where they account for more than four in ten (43%) Americans. Roughly three in ten Americans living in the Northeast (30%) and South (31%) are white working class, while only roughly one-quarter (26%) of those living in the West are white working class.

White working-class Americans make up a disproportionate number of those living in rural areas. Just over half (51%) of Americans living in rural areas are white working class, compared to about one in five (22%) of those living in America’s urban areas.

Union Membership

Despite their historical connection to labor unions, relatively few members of the white working class today have a union member in their household. Only 14% of white working-class Americans report living in a household with someone who is a member of a labor union. The rate of union membership in white working-class households has not changed significantly since 2012 (16%).

The Northeast is the region where white working-class Americans are most likely to be unionized. Nearly one-quarter (24%) of white working-class Northeasterners report living in a household where at least one person is a union member. Fewer than one in five white working-class Americans living in the Midwest (18%) and West (15%) have a family member in their household who is a member of a union. Only eight percent of white working-class Southerners say the same.

White working-class Democrats are almost twice as likely as white working-class Republicans to live in a union household (21% vs. 12%, respectively). White working-class independents mirror the white working class overall.

Religious Affiliations

More than seven in ten (71%) white working-class Americans identify as Christian, and white working- class Americans are significantly more likely than the general population to identify as evangelical. Roughly one-third (31%) identify as evangelical Protestant, another one in five (20%) identify as mainline Protestant, and roughly one in five (17%) identify as Catholic. One-quarter (25%) of white working-class Americans are religiously unaffiliated. Only three percent of the white working class belong to a non-Christian religious tradition.

More than eight in ten white working-class seniors (age 65 and older) identify as Christian: 39% are evangelical Protestant, 22% are mainline Protestant, and 23% are Catholic. Among white working-class young adults (ages 18-29), only about four in ten identify as Christian: 16% are evangelical, 16% are mainline Protestant, and 10% are Catholic.

Political Affiliation and Ideology

A slim majority (51%) of white working-class Americans identify with or lean toward the Republican Party. About one-third (34%) are affiliated with or lean toward the Democratic Party. Americans overall lean the opposite direction, with significantly more identifying with or leaning toward the Democratic Party rather than the Republican Party (47% vs. 41%, respectively).

White working-class Southerners have an exceptionally strong attachment to the Republican Party. Nearly six in ten (58%) white working-class Southerners identify as Republican or lean Republican, compared to fewer than half who live in the Northeast (46%), Midwest (48%), and West (47%).

Younger Americans are significantly more likely than older Americans to identify with or lean towards the Democratic Party. But younger white working-class Americans are actually less Democratic than those who are older. A majority (57%) of white working-class young adults identify as Republican or lean towards the GOP, compared to only 29% who identify as or lean Democratic—a gap of 28 percentage points. Among white working-class seniors, the party identification gap is only 15 percentage points, with 51% at least leaning toward the Republican Party and 36% leaning toward the Democratic Party.

Patterns of ideological identification among the white working class largely follow the patterns of partisan identification. White working-class Americans are twice as likely to identify as conservative (43%) than liberal (21%). Fewer than one in three (29%) identify as politically moderate.

Younger white working-class Americans are more likely than white working-class seniors to identify as Republican, they are less likely to identify as conservative. White working-class young adults are less than half as likely as white working-class seniors to identify as conservative (23% vs. 50%, respectively). Four in ten (40%) young white working-class Americans are moderate, and more than one-quarter (26%) identify as liberal.

Belief In the American Dream

Fewer than half (46%) of white working-class Americans believe the American Dream—if you work hard, you can get ahead—still holds true, while roughly as many (48%) say it was once but is no longer true. Four percent say the American Dream was never a reality. Among white college educated Americans six in ten (62%) say the American Dream still holds true. Among the general public, half (50%) say the American Dream still holds true, while roughly four in ten (41%) say this dream once held true but does not anymore, and 6% say it never held true.
Decline of White Working Class Communities

Few white working-class Americans who still live in their hometown report positive feelings about the direction of their community. Only 17% of white working-class Americans who still live in their hometown believe the quality of life in their hometown has gotten better since their childhood days. Close to half (45%) say the quality of life has gotten worse. Thirty-seven percent say things are about the same as they were when they were young.
White Working Class and Authoritarianism (Fascist Tendencies)

White working-class Americans are much more likely than white Americans with a college degree to express a preference for authoritarian traits, nearly two-thirds (64%) of white working-class Americans have an authoritarian orientation, including 37% who are classified as “high authoritarian.” In contrast, fewer than four in ten (39%) white college-educated Americans have an authoritarian outlook. However, there is considerable diversity among the white working class by age, gender and religious affiliation, and by perceptions of cultural change.

Younger white working-class Americans are much less likely than those who are older to express a preference for authoritarian traits. Fewer than half (43%) of white working-class young adults (age 18 to 29) have an authoritarian orientation, compared to about three-quarters (74%) of white working-class seniors (age 65 and older).

There are profound differences in the degree to which white working-class Americans prefer authoritarian traits by religious identity. White working-class evangelical Protestants are more than twice as likely to have an authoritarian orientation than those who have no religious affiliation (82% vs. 39%, respectively). A majority (56%) of white working-class evangelical Protestants qualify as “high authoritarian.” Majorities of white working-class Catholics (70%) and mainline Protestants (61%) also hold authoritarian orientations.

White working-class Americans who express concerns about the changing cultural landscape, such as the influence of immigrants, are much more likely to value authoritarian traits. More than seven in ten (71%) white working-class Americans who believe immigrants are a burden on American society have an authoritarian orientation. In contrast, fewer than half (49%) of those who believe immigrants strengthen American society have an authoritarian disposition.
Yearning For a Leader Willing to Break The Rules

White Americans are closely divided over whether the country needs a strong leader who is willing to break the rules in order to bring about needed reforms. Nearly half (49%) say things have gotten so far off track that we need a strong leader who is willing to break the rules if that is what it takes to set things right, while 50% disagree.

Authoritarian-style leadership is much more attractive to white working-class Americans than to white college-educated Americans. Six in ten (60%) white working-class Americans, compared to only 32% of white college-educated Americans say we need such a strong leader; two-thirds (67%) of white college- educated Americans disagree.

Roughly two-thirds (66%) of white working-class seniors, compared to roughly half (52%) of white working-class young adults, say the country needs a leader who is willing to break the rules.

White working-class Christians across denominations are about equally as likely to express a preference for a leader willing to defy the standards of conduct, including approximately six in ten evangelical Protestants (63%), mainline Protestants (62%), and Catholics (67%). White working-class Americans who are religiously unaffiliated are far less likely to say such a leader is desirable (42%).

White working-class Americans who express concern about immigrants are more likely to agree the U.S. needs a leader willing to disregard the rules. Two-thirds (67%) of white working-class Americans who believe immigrants are a burden on society say the country needs such a leader. In contrast, fewer than half (48%) of white working-class Americans who believe immigrants strengthen the country agree.

Notably, the economic circumstances of white working-class Americans appear to have little influence on their preference for a rule-breaking leader. White working-class Americans who say they are in good or excellent financial shape express as much support for a leader who is willing to break the rules as those in only fair or poor shape (58% vs. 60%, respectively).

White working-class Americans who have more authoritarian leanings— classified as either high authoritarian or authoritarian—are significantly more likely to embrace a leader who wants to upend the rules. Two-thirds (67%) of white working-class Americans with an authoritarian orientation say the country needs a candidate who is willing to defy convention and break the rules, while only 39% of white working-class Americans with an autonomous orientation agree.

Race, Discrimination and Diversity

More than half (52%) of white working-class Americans believe discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. Forty-six percent disagree. White college- educated Americans are sharply at odds with the white working class on this question: seven in ten (70%) say they do not believe discrimination against whites is comparable to that faced by non-whites. There are no differences of opinion among white working-class Americans by gender or region, but sizable generational disagreement exists.

Younger white working-class Americans largely disagree discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. While only four in ten (40%) white working-class Americans under age 40 say “reverse discrimination” is an equally significant problem as discrimination against minority groups, nearly six in ten (59%) white working-class seniors (age 65 and older) believe it is. A majority (57%) of white working-class Americans under age 40 reject this idea.

White working-class men are particularly likely to believe whites lose out when efforts are undertaken to increase diversity. Nearly half (47%) of white working-class men, compared to only one-third (33%) of white working-class women, agree that diversity generally comes at the expense of whites.
Fairness of the Economic System

Most white working-class Americans believe the economic system unfairly favors the wealthy, a view shared by many Americans. Seven in ten (70%) white working-class Americans agree with this sentiment, compared to roughly two-thirds of Americans overall (68%) and white college-educated (68%) Americans. More than three-quarters (76%) of black Americans and six in ten (63%) Hispanic Americans also express this view.
View of Welfare Recipients

There is some evidence attitudes about welfare, particularly among white working-class Americans, are closely tied to race. White working-class Americans who say they live in neighborhoods where the majority of lower-income people are non-white are more likely to believe there is widespread fraud or abuse in the welfare system than those living in areas where poor people are mostly white.

More than six in ten (63%) white working-class Americans who report living in areas where poor people are predominantly black believe people on welfare are abusing the system. In contrast, roughly half (52%) of white working-class Americans who report that most poor people in their communities are white believe people who receive welfare are abusing the system, while 35% say they need help. White college- educated Americans in both types of communities reported similar views of people on welfare.
Understanding the White Working Class Vote in 2016 Election

A number of explanations were offered to help explain Trump’s rise and unlikely victory in 2016, with many of them focused particularly on his strong performance among white working-class voters. Some of the most prominent factors identified by journalists and scholars include: lack of social mobility, economic distress, poor health outcomes, civic disengagement, racial resentment, anxiety about cultural change, anti-immigrant sentiment, and anxiety about shifting gender roles. The survey provided no support for these theories.

These factors correlated with support for Trump’s candidacy among white working-class voters.

• White working-class voters who said discrimination against whites is a serious problem were much more likely to favor Trump than those who did not (74% vs. 40%, respectively).

• Similarly, white working-class voters who expressed anxieties about cultural change—a composite variable that combined a belief that the U.S. needs to be protected from foreign influence and feelings of being “a stranger in my own country”—expressed a much stronger preference for Trump than those who did not (79% vs. 43%, respectively).

• White working-class voters who advocated deporting immigrants living in the country illegally overwhelmingly favored Trump, while those who favored alternative policies expressed far less support (87% vs. 49%, respectively).

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