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In politics, the reality of a situation is often second to how it’s perceived.
President Gerald Ford was, in the public’s mind, a klutz. It didn’t matter that he was the only President to tackle a Heisman winner or to turn down an NFL contract. Chevy Chase’s impersonation of Ford during the early days of Saturday Night Live rendered the 38th President someone who couldn’t navigate stairs. It didn’t matter that President Bill Clinton zeroed out the deficit and left office with a surplus; his critics still see him as a big-spending liberal who never met a government program he didn’t love. Both George W. Bush and John Kerry were members of the same secret society at Yale, yet Bush was the plain-spoken guy you’d like to grab a beer with, while Kerry was the elitist with an heiress wife.
Political campaigns spend millions trying to fight these baked-in ideas, but it’s usually for naught. Once the public locks onto an idea, it’s tough to move it.
Which is why a poll released this week from the Pew Research Center caught my eye. According to its wide survey of more than 5,300 Americans, a majority of the public thinks the Biden Administration will give more influence to Black people, women, LGBT individuals, young and Hispanic persons. That’s pretty much what the Democratic Party has campaigned on for the last few elections, so it’s not a real surprise that the marketing is working.
What did leave me a little shaken was who were perceived as losers in Biden’s America. According to Pew’s survey, Evangelical Christians, businesses and the military were expected to lose influence under Biden. So, too, were white people, wealthy individuals, older Americans and men — basically, Biden’s avatar. Taken as a whole, more respondents said they’d lose influence under Biden than gain. And that carries with it deep insecurity and lays the groundwork for potential public resentment against the new government.
Some of this might reflect the sentiment of supporters of former President Donald Trump captured in the poll, echoing his grievances after his electoral loss. Other reasons for the widespread sense of powerlessness could include the fact that Evangelical Christians, businesses and the military actually had it pretty good under Trump: he gave them their conservative judges, cut their taxes and jacked-up the Pentagon budget. Joe Biden’s progressive tendencies are a predictable cause for concern for these groups.
(A quick technical disclaimer: this year’s Pew survey was the first to use an online panel, whereas previous iterations were done by telephone. Pew notes that the numbers are therefore not directly comparable to other years’ results. Even so, I trust you will also find the non-scientific narrative worth considering.)
It’s the “people like yourself” question, though, that potentially carries the strongest political risk for Biden. When Pew asked whether “people like yourself” will gain or lose influence ahead of the previous four Inaugurations, Americans were optimistic. On the cusp of the Trump era, 40% said people like them would gain influence, and 27% said they’d lose it. On the cusp of Barack Obama’s tenure, a whopping 47% of respondents said people like them would gain influence while just 18% said they’d lose ground. And when George W. Bush was about to come to power, 35% said they’d gain power to the 26% who expected to lose it. Clinton came to power with 43% of Americans expecting to gain influence and just 22% expecting to be shut out.
Asked last month if they’d gain or lose influence under Biden, 24% respondents said they would gain influence while 36% expected to lose.
In other words, the share of people who expect to lose power based on a President has gone from 22% in 1993 to 36% today. That’s certainly not all down to Biden himself; a lot has happened this year to make people feel pessimistic.
But it’s also not a trendline that is heading in the right direction if you want wide buy-in from a bitterly divided nation. Instead, it is a recipe for resentment and lesion on Biden’s legitimacy. It shows that despite the marketing effort to cast Democrats as the party of inclusion, a record level of Americans expect to be shut out. It doesn’t matter what the ground realities are, of course. Rich, white people probably aren’t on the cusp of losing their agency in America. It’s a gut call. And right now, Americans’ guts are rotting.
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