Group identification, rather than policy, explains the 2016 election

Posted on June 22, 2016

Political activists have a notion that there is something beyond logic and self-interest that drives the choices of average voters.

We know that low-income Whites often vote against their own economic interests. We know that very religious Americans often support unreligious and even immoral candidates. “What’s the Matter with Kansas” is nothing new. And yet we still cite candidates’ policies to explain the 2016 election.

Yes, people who read articles about politics—you and I—tend to pick our candidates based on the policies they trumpet. That’s reasonable because the point of governance is to adopt and enforce a set of policies. But you and I are not average voters.

Average nonpolitical citizens don’t focus on a laundry list of issues. In fact, they know extremely little about the facts of public issues, who in government is responsible, or the process of enacting and implementing legislation. (Walk door-to-door for a candidate or cause and you’ll quickly learn this first hand.)

Rather, when average Americans are considering political candidates, there is one overriding (but vague) question in their minds: “Who is on my side.”

Our messaging book, Voicing Our Values, describes how to use progressive values to place yourself on the side of your audience. But only a minority of Americans can be persuaded about anything important. The majority have chosen their side before you even speak.

Usually, the most important factor to a voter is the group with which s/he identifies. Americans are most often not searching for a candidate who agrees with their issue positions, they’re looking for someone who represents their group.

This is not a recent phenomenon. For most of American history, people in an ethnic group tended to vote for their own, and that wasn’t irrational. In the absence of knowledge about where candidates stood issue-by-issue, it was reasonable to assume a person, if elected, would represent and protect his own group.

Today, group identification is much more complex than Italian, Irish or Jewish citizens voting for their own. The most influential group so far in the 2016 elections has been people whose overriding political concern is grievances against nonwhites: primarily against Latinos, African Americans, and Muslims. As you know, this group provides Donald Trump’s bedrock of support, and it’s not because of the policies Trump professes. These voters know almost nothing about his policies and, let’s be honest, Trump doesn’t really have any in the conventional sense. This identification group supports him because he is one of them—their living, breathing caricature.

Trump expresses his membership in this group, not by listing policies, but by expressing grievances. When Trump says he is going to build a border wall or block entry to Muslims, his group doesn’t care whether or not he means it literally, he is simply saying to them “I’m on your side.”

This is also true of what we call “dog whistle” politics. Trump was the loudest “birther” in America. It has never mattered whether the claim was true, credible, or absurd, it’s about group solidarity. When people in the same group assert that President Obama “is a Muslim,” the truth is irrelevant—it’s a way of shouting that the President is as far from being “one of us” as is possible. These statements are the political equivalent of wearing gang colors.

Trump is not the only candidate to benefit from group identification. A good number of Bernie Sanders’ supporters know little about the legislation he supports. They know he shares their enemy—Wall Street. And many young Sanders’ voters were no doubt affected by peer conformity or peer pressure. At the same time, many Hillary Clinton supporters know little about her policies and voted for her simply because of the idea that, for decades, she has fought for their group.

The point is, just because Trump “won” doesn’t mean that Americans (or even Republicans) want to enact racist policies. Just because Sanders “lost” doesn’t mean that Americans (or Democrats) oppose his progressive ideas. Many of our fellow countrymen picked a political side first and then rationalized at least some of the policies (and failings) of their candidate. The conscious and unconscious cherry-picking of facts to support what we already believe is called “confirmation bias,” which is thoroughly proven science.

Today, both Trump and Clinton need to solidify support from groups that did not favor them in the primaries. For both, it’s more important for them to speak differently, signaling their identification and connecting with these groups, than it is to promote a list of policies that these voters won’t even know exists.