Racist backlash politics and the “press 1 for English” myth
Ezra Klein has an excellent essay on how “anxiety” — to put it delicately — among white Americans about demographic change is an enormously powerful force in the nation’s politics at the moment. Indeed, it turns out that, among whites, economic anxiety is driven by racial resentment, rather than vice versa:
As the argument goes, the financial crisis, the rise of automation, the wreckage of globalization, the pain of the Great Recession, the shocking rise in inequality — all of that was more than enough to upend our politics; you don’t need to reach for racialized explanations. So a bitter debate has erupted since the 2016 election between those who blame our politics on economic anxiety and those who see a country riven by racial resentment. In its aftermath, a popular synthesis has emerged: Economic anxiety activated racial resentment, which means, comfortingly, that a better economy would calm our divisions.
The best evidence we have suggests this gets the relationship largely backward. In their forthcoming book Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America, political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck analyze reams of data and show that racial resentment activated economic anxiety, rather than the other way around:
“Before Obama’s presidency, how Americans felt about black people did not much affect their perceptions of the economy. After Obama, this changed. In December 2007, racial resentment — which captures whether Americans think deficiencies in black culture are the main reason for racial inequality — was not related to whites’ perceptions of whether the economy was getting better or worse, after accounting for partisanship and ideology. But when these exact same people were re-interviewed in July 2012, racial resentment was a powerful predictor of economic perceptions: the greater someone’s level of racial resentment, the worse they believed the economy was doing.”
This is unnerving data, as we tend to imagine the economy as a rare subject on which objective facts, rather than group conflicts, drive opinions. Sadly, no. Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck analyzed polling on economic sentiment and found that “Republicans in the highest income quintile, those making more than $100,000 per year, were actually slightly less satisfied than Democrats in the lowest income quintile, those making less than $20,000 per year.”
The essay details the considerable extent to which the rise of Donald Trump or someone very much like him was a well-nigh inevitable consequence of a Republican party base that has been in full freakout mode over the perceived decline of white hegemony:
White voters who feel they are losing a historical hold on power are reacting to something real. For the bulk of American history, you couldn’t win the presidency without winning a majority — usually an overwhelming majority — of the white vote. Though this changed before Obama (Bill Clinton won slightly less of the white vote than his Republican challengers), the election of an African-American president leading a young, multiracial coalition made the transition stark and threatening.
This is the crucial context for Trump’s rise, and it’s why Tesler has little patience for those who treat Trump as an invader in the Republican Party. In a field of Republicans who were trying to change the party to appeal to a rising Hispanic electorate, Trump was alone in speaking to Republican voters who didn’t want the party to remake itself, who wanted to be told that a wall could be built and things could go back to the way they were.
“Trump met the party where it was rather than trying to change it,“ Tesler says. “He was hunting where the ducks were.”
The essay is well worth reading in its entirety, but I do want mention a mistake in it. This mistake illustrates both the extent to which pernicious myths about the supposed decline of English as America’s primary language are products of the precise racist dynamics that Klein describes throughout the piece, and the extent to which those myths have penetrated even the best-informed public discourse:
The changes that led to Obama’s presidency are everywhere in our culture. We live in an America where television programs, commercials, and movies are trying to represent a browner country; where Black Panther is a celebrated cultural event and #OscarsSoWhite is a nationally known hashtag; where NFL players kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality and pressing 1 for English is commonplace.
In fact, the practice of forcing people to press 1 for English is as commonplace in America in 2018 as spitting on Vietnam veterans was in 1968: in other words, it’s a right-wing myth:
Do companies really make their Anglophone customers actively choose English? Turns out that hardly anyone does. In fact, if pressing one for English was ever a thing, it has ceased to exist at most of America’s largest companies. I called Albertsons, Apple, Amazon, American Airlines, Best Buy, Bank of America, Citibank, CVS, Dell, DHL, FedEx, Mars, Samsung, Spectrum-TWC, Target, T-Mobile, United Healthcare, UPS, Verizon, and Walmart. Blogs will tell you that some of these companies once forced customers to choose English. Today, none of them do. Most quickly tell you, in Spanish, how to proceed in that language. “Marque el nueve,” “Oprima el dos.” A handful—Albertsons, Amazon, Apple, Mars, Samsung, United Airlines, and Walmart—do not even offer Spanish. The only large company I found that asked callers to select English was Starbucks which also offers, inscrutably, French.
“Typically you’ll get a welcome message that says to speak in Spanish, say Spanish or press one, some combination,” says Judi Halperin, a principal consultant at Avaya. “I’ve never in 20-something years dealt with a system where you had to press one for English. I’m sure at some point it was there, [ed.: really? based on what?] but as time progressed and we started getting more and more experience, the last thing you want to do is get in the way of the caller.”
The claim that people are forced to “press 1 for English” is pure racist bullshit, peddled by liars who realize that even hearing Spanish spoken anywhere within earshot is extremely triggering for many a monolingual snowflake:
Perhaps the most striking experiment in this space was conducted by Harvard political scientist Ryan Enos. He attempted something rare in social science: an actual test of what seeing more diversity in our everyday surroundings does to our political opinions. His explanation of both the experiment and its results is worth reading:
“I sent Spanish speakers to randomly selected train stations in towns around Boston to simply catch the train and ride like any other passenger. I focused on stations in white suburbs. The intent was to create the impression, by subtle manipulation, that the Latino population in these segregated towns was increasing.
Before and after sending these Spanish speakers to the train platforms, I surveyed passengers on the platforms about their attitudes about immigration. After being exposed to the Spanish speakers on their metro lines for just three days, attitudes on these questions moved sharply rightward: The mostly liberal Democratic passengers had come to endorse immigration policies — including deportation of children of undocumented immigrants — similar to those endorsed by Trump in his campaign.”
Enos goes on to note that his findings match what we saw in 2016: The biggest gains Donald Trump made over Mitt Romney’s performance “were in the places where the Latino population had grown most quickly. … For example, Luzerne County, adjacent to Scranton, Pennsylvania, had experienced an almost 600 percent growth in its Latino population between 2000 and 2014, and, after decades of voting Democrat in presidential elections, gave Trump 12 percentage points more votes than it had given to Romney in 2012.”
So here, then, is what we know: Even gentle, unconscious exposure to reminders that America is diversifying — and particularly to the idea that America is becoming a majority-minority nation — pushes whites toward more conservative policy opinions and more support of the Republican Party.
Three years ago this month I compared Trump to Ronald Reagan, patron saint of all that is good and holy in the contemporary Republican party:
Obviously there are enormous differences between the backgrounds, the careers, and the personalities of the two men, but there are also some striking similarities:
(1) Both mastered the art of manipulating their contemporary media environments.
(2) Both manifested a fine understanding of how to make outrageous statements in a way that ingratiated them with their political bases, precisely because the national media reaction to those statements allowed them to pose as victims of supposed media and/or elite bias.
(3) Both spent a good part of their lives as at least putatively wishy-washy Democrats, before discovering that selling racial demagoguery to the contemporary Republican party base was about as hard as selling beer at a baseball game on a 90-degree day.
(4) Both spent most of their careers being dismissed as clownish lightweights.
In a GOP presidential field that isn’t exactly stacked with political talent, the notion that Trump can’t win the nomination is at least premature. As is the idea that he can’t be elected president.
Klein’s essay provides powerful support for the view that Donald Trump’s presidency is the natural if not inevitable culmination of trends that have been building for many decades now. And the end of that presidency will certainly not be an end to the forces that brought it about:
The Democratic Party will not be able to win elections without an excited, diverse coalition. The Republican Party will not be able to win elections without an enthused white base. Democrats will need to build a platform that’s even more explicit in its pursuit of racial and gender equality, while Republicans will need to design a politics even more responsive to a coalition that feels itself losing power. . .
As Obama found after he was elected, leadership in this era requires delivering for diverse coalitions, and taking sides in charged cultural battles, and thus becoming part of the very conflict you’re trying to calm. The cycle of unity giving way to conflict, of hope about the future activating fear about the present, is likely to continue. And as long as much of the country feels threatened by the changes they see, there will be a continuing, and perhaps growing, market for politicians like Trump.