The Atlantic probes dark fears of working-class America (without asking moral questions)

As a rule, your GetReligionistas appreciate the think pieces that The Atlantic runs focusing on religion topics. This is especially true when these longish features include lots and lots of solid reporting, as opposed to chattering-class people thinking out loud about wonkish things.

See, for example, the cries of hosannah the other day from our own Bobby Ross, Jr., in a post called: "Choose your superlative, but The Atlantic's deep dive on Islamic State radicalization is a must read." That was a classic magazine news feature.

Now we have a think piece from The Atlantic about the 2016 (Cue: Theme From Jaws) campaign that offers some survey data that sheds new light on those stunning Rust Belt wins by Donald Trump, which put him (for now) in the White House. The double-decker headline sets the scene, and then some:

It Was Cultural Anxiety That Drove White, Working-Class Voters to Trump
A new study finds that fear of societal change, not economic pressure, motivated votes for the president among non-salaried workers without college degrees

From my point of view, the key to the story is this: What, precisely, is meant by terms such as "cultural anxiety" and the "fear of societal change"?

Mainstream media orthodoxy would insist that these terms refer to xenophobia, radical nationalism and racism. The big issue, in this case, would be immigration.

Sure enough, this essay includes numbers that certainly point to immigration being a major issue for folks living in white, blue-collar, labor households. But is there something else in there? After all, this piece was written by religion-beat specialist Emma Green.

Thus, it is safe to assume that there may be a religion ghost or two in here somewhere. Let's look for clues in this summary material:

In the wake of Trump’s surprise win, some journalists, scholars, and political strategists argued that economic anxiety drove these Americans to Trump. But new analysis of post-election survey data conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic found something different: Evidence suggests financially troubled voters in the white working class were more likely to prefer Clinton over Trump. Besides partisan affiliation, it was cultural anxiety -- feeling like a stranger in America, supporting the deportation of immigrants, and hesitating about educational investment -- that best predicted support for Trump.

Two things to note in that. First, as a practical concern, the Public Religion Research Institute was involved. Second, it would appear that there is more to this "feeling like a stranger in America" factor than seeking the enforcement of U.S. immigration laws. In fact, the key factor linked to economics was a "sense of economic fatalism, more than just economic hardship, that was the decisive factor in support for Trump among white working-class voters.”

Later on, Green also notes that "demographic factors like gender, age, geographic region, and religion weren’t statistically significant predictors of who voted for Trump."

Yes, I would have liked to have known more about that. For example, are we talking mere religious affiliation or levels of participation? Does this mean that white evangelicals, in this survey, were as likely to vote for Hillary Clinton as for Trump? Surely not. African-American mainline Protestants were as likely to vote for Trump as Clinton? Surely not. 

So our main question remains: Other than immigration issues, what else has been going on that would make working-class people feel like strangers in their own land, in their own culture?

One more time, let's look for clues in a summary passage:

Controlling for other demographic variables, three factors stood out as strong independent predictors of how white working-class people would vote. The first was anxiety about cultural change. Sixty-eight percent of white working-class voters said the American way of life needs to be protected from foreign influence. And nearly half agreed with the statement, “things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country.” Together, these variables were strong indictors of support for Trump: 79 percent of white working-class voters who had these anxieties chose Trump, while only 43 percent of white working-class voters who did not share one or both of these fears cast their vote the same way.

So the "American way of life" is simply a matter of race and "foreign influence"? And what else might be involved in a statement such as, "things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country"? Are there any moral and cultural themes linked to that, as well as fear of "the other" in terms of immigration?

If you dig into this study a bit deeper (click here), it would appear that the researchers simply didn't ask any questions about moral and social issues -- even though these issues (think abortion, the definition of marriage, gender, etc.) have been fault lines in American politics ever since Roe v. Wade and, well, the Ronald Reagan Democrats.

So when people said that they feared American culture was headed downhill, that statement was linked to economics and immigration and that's that?

Obviously, economics and immigration played a huge role in the 2016 election. However, at least where I live, the main issues that swing voters were talking about were moral and cultural. More than anything else, they were worried about the future of the U.S. Supreme Court.

So read the new piece in The Atlantic, because there are important insights to be found in this new research.

Then read this old piece from The Atlantic, circa 2003. The headline:

Blue Movie
The "morality gap" is becoming the key variable in American politics

Compare. Contrast. Ponder. Lots of Americans who were politically active in 2003 were still voting, and worrying, in 2016. 

At some point, we are going to see the deeper data out of 2016 exit polls that are going to answer some of these questions. At some point.

Please respect our Commenting Policy