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Where Do We Start Fixing America?     

Research & Commentary
November 02, 2016

by Sheila Kennedy

Any solution to the vast national divide the 2016 election has made plain needs to begin with a correct diagnosis. The data, for instance, show that Trump supporters have higher incomes than the rest of the country. 

Early in my lawyering career, the partner I was assigned to said something I still remember: “There is only one legal question, and that’s ‘what do we do.’” When the issue is American inequality, deciding what to do — and especially, where to begin — is an incredibly difficult question to answer, because social and economic inequality are so interwoven.

The infinitely depressing 2016 election campaign is a case in point.

Citizens can only hope that the decisions of policymakers will be informed by fact rather than by emotion, partisanship, disinformation from those with a stake in the outcome, or fixed ideologies that make reasoned decision-making impossible. In less hot-button matters, at least, that goal may be achievable.

Trump2But what do we do when we are faced with distasteful realities about the electorate, realities that determine the behaviors of officials elected by those voters?

Dylan Matthews at Vox recently addressed one such unpleasant reality.

Noting the efforts of essayists and pundits to “take the concerns of Trump voters seriously,” he pointed out that, in fact, these would-be sympathetic observers are actually tiptoeing around the real concerns of Trump supporters, which are not rooted in economics:

There is absolutely no evidence that Trump’s supporters, either in the primary or the general election, are disproportionately poor or working class. Exit polling from the primaries found that Trump voters made about as much as Ted Cruz voters, and significantly more than supporters of either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. Trump voters, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver found, had a median household income of $72,000, a fair bit higher than the $62,000 median household income for non-Hispanic whites in America.

It is very hard to disagree with what Dylan pinpoints as the actual motivation of a troubling number of Trump supporters: racial resentment.

UCLA’s Michael Tesler has found that support for Trump in the primaries strongly correlated with respondents’ racial resentment, as measured by survey data. Similarly, Republican voters with the lowest opinions of Muslims were the most likely to vote for Trump, and voters who strongly support mass deportation of undocumented immigrants were likelier to support him in the primaries too.

In April, when the Pew Research Center asked Republicans for their views on Trump, and their opinions on the US becoming majority nonwhite by 2050, they found that Republicans who thought a majority nonwhite population would be “bad for the country” had overwhelmingly favorable views of Trump. Those who thought it was a positive or neutral development were evenly split on Trump.

Matthews notes — with examples — why policies providing more substantial economic security (which he supports) are unlikely to ameliorate racial animus, and then he addresses the “what should we do?” question:

One thing this analysis decidedly does not imply is “Hey, Trump supporters are just racists, let’s give up on them.” Trump’s nomination is a threat to America that must be addressed and never allowed to happen again. Giving up is not an option. We have to figure out some way to respond…

As Matthews points out, whatever the problem, any solution has to begin with a correct diagnosis. If Trump’s supporters are not, in fact, motivated by economic marginalization, efforts to ameliorate economic disadvantage, no matter how necessary or robust, will not mollify them. It would be naïve to dismiss his assertion that an uncomfortably large segment of the U.S. population is motivated primarily by white nationalism and an anxiety over the fast-changing demographics of the country.

To the extent Trump supporters actually disagree with specific policies pursued by the Obama Administration, it is frequently because they think — rightly or wrongly — that the policies only benefit “those people.” (Think welfare, Obamacare.) Lawmakers’ efforts to address economic or racial inequality increase their resentment and feed their willingness to support authoritarian political figures willing to reject efforts to promote ethnic, religious and economic equality as “political correctness.”

Every Trump voter does not fall into this category, of course, but if the percentage motivated by racial animus is significant, it will be incredibly difficult to do what is necessary to rebuild our social and physical infrastructure, no matter which party controls Congress.

If the question is “what do we do and where do we start?” my answer at this point is “I don’t know.”

Sheila Suess Kennedy teaches law and public policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis. Her scholarly publications include eight books and numerous law review and journal articles. Kennedy, a frequent lecturer, public speaker, and contributor to popular periodicals, also writes a column for the Indianapolis Business Journal. She blogs at

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