Threats To Racial Status Promote Tea Party Support Among White Americans

Threats To Racial Status Promote Tea Party Support Among White Americans

Robb Willer
Stanford University

Matthew Feinberg
University of Toronto

Rachel Wetts
University of California, Berkeley

May 4, 2016

Since its rapid rise in early 2009, scholars have advanced a variety of explanations for popular support for the Tea Party movement. Here we argue that various political, economic, and demographic trends and events – e.g., the election of the first nonwhite president, the rising minority population – have been perceived as threatening the relative standing of whites in the U.S., with the resulting racial resentment fueling popular support for the movement. This “decline of whiteness” explanation for white Americans’ Tea Party support differs from prior accounts in highlighting the role of symbolic group status rather than personal experience, or economic competition, with minority group members in generating perceptions of threat. We tested this explanation in five survey-based experiments. In Study 1 we sought to make salient the president’s African-American heritage by presenting participants with an artificially darkened picture of Barack Obama. White participants shown the darkened photo were more likely to report they supported the Tea Party relative to a control condition. Presenting participants with information that the white population share (Study 2) or income advantage (Study 3) is declining also led whites to report greater Tea Party support, effects that were partly explained by heightened levels of racial resentment. A fourth study replicated the effects of Study 2 in a sample of Tea Party supporters. Finally, Study 5 showed that threatened white respondents reported stronger support for the Tea Party when racialized aspects of its platform (e.g., opposition to immigration) were highlighted, than if libertarian ones (e.g., reduced government spending) were. These findings are consistent with a view of popular support for the Tea Party as resulting, in part, from threats to the status of whites in America.

Threats To Racial Status Promote Tea Party Support Among White Americans – Introduction

The Tea Party movement’s emergence was among the swiftest and most powerful of any political movement in U.S. history (Skocpol & Williamson, 2012). Arriving on the American political scene with a smattering of small rallies in the Spring of 2009, just a year and a half later the movement was a critical political bloc in the Republican recovery of the U.S. House in 2010 (Parker & Barreto, 2013), and later played central roles in the 2011 debt ceiling crisis and 2013 government shutdown. Propelled by a vocal grassroots base and investment from elites, the Tea Party is a political force that continues to exert important influence at both state and federal levels.

What explains the sudden emergence, and continuing robust levels, of popular support for this movement? Here we test one mechanism that we propose has been a key factor driving Tea Party support: threats to the status of whites in America. Specifically, we propose that a series of events and trends occurring around the time of the Tea Party’s emergence and continuing since – the presidency of Barack Obama, the rising numbers and political influence of minority Americans – have threatened white Americans’ sense of their standing in the country’s racial status hierarchy. The impact of these threats may have been further magnified by the widespread economic anxiety brought on by the Great Recession. Long accustomed to a privileged position in the racial hierarchy, in recent years white Americans have increasingly found that position precarious, reacting with greater levels of racial resentment and greater support for a political movement seen as favoring white interests over those of minorities.

We draw upon group position theory (Blumer, 1958; Bobo, 1999) in arguing that racial antipathy and competition often stem from dominant group members’ efforts to defend their group’s symbolic position in the racial status hierarchy. According to the theory, where a widely perceived racial hierarchy exists, dominant group members respond to threats to their group’s standing with animosity towards those groups seen as threatening their group’s position and the privileged access to economic and material resources that comes with it (Craig & Richeson, 2014a). Further, economic anxiety – such as that brought on by the Great Recession – can amplify racial threat effects by leading dominant racial group members to fear their group is losing economic advantages over subordinate groups and to scapegoat minorities for poor economic conditions (Quillian, 1995).

A substantial literature demonstrates that racial threats can prompt antipathy, violence, and political mobilization by dominant racial group members (Blalock, 1967; Olzak 1994; Soule, 1992; Andrews & Seguin, 2015; Enos, 2016). However, this literature most often emphasizes the effects of local-level economic and cultural threats felt in everyday life, produced by increased rates of minorities in local communities (Enos, 2014; Fossett & Kiecolt, 1989; Giles & Hertz, 1994; Taylor, 1998) and regional labor market competition (Burr, Galle, & Fossett, 1991; Huffman & Cohen, 2004). Here we instead emphasize how macro-level trends and events like the election of the first nonwhite president and the rising size and influence of the nation’s minority population can carry symbolic significance (Parker, Sawyer, & Towler, 2009), threatening white Americans’ sense of their social standing, over and above any personal experiences of economic or cultural threat they may have also felt. Macro-level events that can threaten racial standing include reductions in the political power, relative economic standing, or population share of dominant groups (Blalock, 1967).

Scholars of group position theory have amassed substantial evidence for an association between perceptions of group-level threat on prejudice and attitudes toward social policies (Bobo, 1983; Bobo & Hutchings, 1996; Bobo & Tuan, 1996; Quillian, 1995; Quillian, 1996). This work has been largely correlational and focused on explicitly racialized issues and policies.

Recently, experimental research has explored the effects of threats to racial status, showing they can increase whites’ racial resentment (Outten et al., 2012; Craig & Richeson, 2014a; Abascal, 2015) and support for policies and ideologies that are not explicitly racialized, but which offer dominant group members a means to reclaim group standing (Samson, 2013; Craig & Richeson, 2014b). We extend this work by experimentally testing whether racial status threats can help explain the rise of a major American social movement.

We are not the first to propose that Tea Party support is associated with racial resentment among white Americans. From its earliest days, the Tea Party’s largely white membership, strong opposition to Barack Obama, and the centrality of several racialized positions (e.g., opposition to undocumented immigration) to its informal platform have led critics to accuse its supporters of racism. Tea Party members themselves eschew the characterization (Skocpol & Williamson, 2012), saying the movement is based in conservative principles of small government and the protection of American traditions. So far only correlational data link Tea Party support with racial resentment (Parker & Barreto, 2013; Knowles et al., 2013) and other research has failed to find a link (Arceneaux & Nicholson, 2012).

Here we build on this research, hypothesizing that trends and events occurring beginning in late 2008 threatened the standing of whites in America, leading whites to greater resentment of minorities and motivation to support policies and movements that would restore their group’s standing. We propose that the Tea Party’s positions on racialized issues like the Obama presidency, immigration, and welfare mean that it is perceived as a pro-white, anti-minority movement, making support for the movement attractive to racially-threatened whites motivated to restore the symbolic status of whites in America.

Tea Party movement

Tea Party movement

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