With his announcement that in 2024 he would make another run at the White House, former President Donald Trump made clear his belief that the conditions that once brought him victory still hold true.
Despite a midterm election season that didn’t produce the tidal wave of Republican victories widely predicted, it would be easy to believe that one factor that the political conventional wisdom held as the driving reason people voted for Trump in 2016 and again in 2020 may remain: “economic anxiety.” Today, with high but possibly slowing inflation, many Americans are definitely anxious about their personal economies.
But economic anxiety has also proved to be a problematic explanation for the Trump phenomenon. While concern about current and future security is real for some Trump supporters, it can also be a term of artful avoidance, particularly of the racial resentment that research has shown to be a definitive element of voter psychology. The term also lets white voters with ample wealth who voted for Trump push responsibility for what’s happened since onto lower-income white Americans. (Trump won nearly 65% of the white working class in the 2016 general election, but also won about 38% of votes cast by white people with college degrees.)
Duchess Harris, a professor of American Studies at Macalester College, an expert on 20th-century African American political history and civil rights, thinks a different idea better explains one of the major forces shaping American politics in 2016 and right now. Harris told me before the midterms and in a subsequent conversation a few hours before Trump’s Tuesday announcement that this other idea explains everything from the razor-thin margins in midterm elections to the deep reservoir of confidence Trump maintains about his own prospects in 2024.
That idea is “linked-fate” voting, developed by Evelyn M. Simien, a professor of Political Science and American studies at the University of Connecticut. As Harris explains in the following Q&A, edited for clarity and length, it could be a useful way to understand where American politics might go next.
TIME: Even before the 2016 election, you were talking about why a significant number of white women could be expected to join white men in supporting Donald Trump.
HARRIS: This shouldn’t really have been a surprise. if your fate is linked to white men, if you believe that what you have flows from supporting them, you’re gonna vote with your husband or your dad or your brother. That’s true for most white women, for most women. You’re gonna vote with your community. You’re gonna vote with your church.
What is “linked-fate voting” and why do people need to understand it?
The concept of linked fate is voting for the greater good. Sounds simple, right? [Research shows that] the majority of Black people and the majority of all women do that. But it gets more complicated because of the way that race and gender work in our country. So what it really tends to mean is that women vote in ways that are beneficial for their group. Men vote in ways that are beneficial for themselves.
Oh, that’s deeply interesting.
The data shows that Black men were heading towards the GOP before Obama. And one of the things the GOP was doing, of course, was saying, ‘Democrats have neglected you and taken you for granted’—and ‘We have Colin Powell.’ That’s a very simple, condensed way of putting it, but that’s essentially the argument that was being made. And it was working. Republicans were making gains [election] cycle after cycle, especially with Black and Latino men. Once you get Obama, that brings it all to a halting stop. And then Black men are like, I’m gonna vote for the Black man—which also is still individualism, right? Once Obama’s turn is over, they just went back to what they’ve already been doing, which is voting on what they think is their individual best interest.
Let me put this another way. A lot of Black women didn’t like Hillary. But Hillary got the biggest voting bloc from Black women—94% of black women voted for Hillary. Fifty-two percent of white women voted for Trump [47% in the final verified voter data only available weeks after the election]. What you can say about white women is that they participate in linked fate as well, because their fathers, husbands, brothers, sons might have benefited from Trump. They had reason to think that.
The data is there. That is why Trump won. White women were like, ‘This is good for my husband.’ Men of all races don’t do that. They don’t say, ‘This is what’s best for my wife. This is what’s best for my daughter.’ You can take this back to the 18th century, when Abigail Adams writes [to her husband John Adams [a future president and member of the Continental Congress] in 1776 and says “remember the ladies.”
She asked her husband to keep women in mind while he shaped the new country’s political system, but white woman would not get the vote for another 144 years. You think that same dynamic continues to shape our politics?
Yeah. You got it. And, and in their own way, Black women and white women are also behaving alike too. It’s just that that sense of linked fate to the men in their lives produces very different [election] results. It isn’t just that it feels different. They have, since Black women got the vote in 1965, created different results.
Read more: How the Voting Rights Act Changed the World
If I try to say that, sometimes people are like, you’re just one of those angry Black feminists. And I’m like, listen, you know, look at white women. Look how they voted in 2016 and 2020. Look at what their President did. How’s that working for you? That, in large part, is how we got the Dobbs decision.
This is just like simple psychology. It’s just like the way we’re wired as human beings.
Prior to Obama, if I understood you correctly, there was some visible movement of Black men towards the GOP. How would you describe the primary reasons that was happening prior to 2008?
The Black men who moved to the GOP were clear about the fact that they were pro-life, didn’t support gay marriage. They were coming out of Christian traditions that didn’t uphold what the Democrats were upholding, and they felt like the Democrats took them for granted and just assumed that they would vote for them. And when you scratch the surface, a lot of Black men when you add on top of the social conservatism, were and are fiscally conservative.
By 2020, Trump had boosted his numbers with Black, Latino and Asian voters in small but not at all negligible ways. Given what you have described, what does this tell us about the runoff in Georgia, where there are two Black men, Republican Herschel Walker and Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock, trying to become a U.S. Senator?
I won’t hazard a guess about the outcome but whatever it is, expect somebody to win by just a few votes and expect that same pattern to show up in how Black men vote.
People keep acting like these are sneak attacks. The patterns in the data tell you loud and clear what’s up. Right? People [are] outwardly saying, ‘We like Herschel Walker, we don’t care whose abortion he [allegedly] paid for. We like you better than the guy who’s actually a reverend, even though I’m an evangelical.’ There wasn’t a red wave in the midterms but nobody won by much. We saw a lot of neck-and-neck, like 49% to 51% splits.
So then what is going on here? Why do you think linked-fate voting isn’t a bigger part of the political conversation?
Because people don’t want to acknowledge that we are a nation divided, because we have been socialized to think that we’re not. And I’m like, just because they taught you that elementary school doesn’t mean it’s true.
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