Fear of a Changing America

Political scientist Ashley Jardina examines the rise in 'white voter identity'

Political scientist Ashley Jardina's book on white identity politics differ from much of the research on the topic.
Political scientist Ashley Jardina's book on white identity politics differ from much of the research on the topic.

Many white voters now more fervently support policies and candidates they see as protecting their long-standing power and status, thanks largely to demographic changes and the election of America’s first black president.

That’s according to “White Identity Politics,” a new book by Duke University political scientist Ashley Jardina.

The findings differ from much of the previous social science research on the topic, which focused on racial attitudes white voters held toward nonwhites. In her research, Jardina instead drills down on the significance of identity and favoritism among white voters -- a largely untapped area.

“Because of whites’ dominant status in the United States, whiteness is often thought to be invisible, or unmarked,” she writes. “In recent decades, however, demographic change and the election of Barack Obama have created a political environment ripe for the rise of white identity politics.”

The 300-page book, released Feb. 28 by Cambridge University Press, relies on survey data, experiments and observation to provide a comprehensive empirical analysis of emerging patterns of white identity and collective political behavior.

Jardina writes that “aggrieved and disaffected whites are a much broader group than conventional narratives suggest,” which dramatically affects both political behavior and racial conflicts in the U.S.

The book also challenges the conventional wisdom that the white working class is uniquely driving white voting behavior.

Rather, Donald Trump’s base includes many disaffected whites who see the president as a champion against a changing America they fear is slipping away. Jardina calls this “perceived group threat.”

“Today, many whites actively identify with their racial group and support policies and candidates that they view as protecting their group’s interests and status,” she writes.

Attitudes toward nonwhites also drive Trump’s support, she says.

“Trump support is very clearly a product both of white group solidarity and racial animus,” according to the book. For instance, Jardina’s research found that “warm feelings toward the KKK were also significantly linked to warmer feelings for Trump.”

White racial solidarity is also tightly linked to opposition to immigration and attitudes toward Trump, Jardina says.

During the 2016 election campaign, Trump “clearly exploited whites’ anti-immigrant sentiment. Trump serves as a prime example of politicians capitalizing on whites’ desire to protect their group,” she writes.

Jardina, who came to Duke in 2014, says the long history of racial tension and politics in her native Richmond, Virginia, influenced her decision to explore those subjects when she enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan.

Serendipitously, the United States elected its first black president in 2008. Then came the election of Trump two years after she earned a Ph.D. from Michigan -- making her research focus even more pertinent.

The book has already received widespread media coverage, including in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The New Yorker.

Political science colleagues have also praised “White Identity Politics.”

“Many whites do not identify strongly with their racial group but those who do show clear favoritism for policies and political candidates who promote white interests and maintain white numerical supremacy,” writes Leonie Huddy, a political science professor at Stony Brook University in New York, in a review.

“By shifting the focus away from white prejudice and toward the defense of white privilege, the book makes an invaluable contribution to the study of American race and ethnic relations.”

Video by Julie Schoonmaker.