2020 elections

White Voters Threw a Tantrum in 2016. Black Voters Are Responding With Pragmatism.

Black supporters of 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Black supporters of 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Theories that seek to explain President Trump’s unlikely 2016 election range from the convincing (racism, misogyny, and anti-immigrant animus) to the less convincing (anxiety about dire economic circumstances) to the almost comically euphemistic (“cultural anxiety” and backlash against “political correctness” run amok). But despite their differences, subscribers to each appear to have settled on a common theme: Trump voters backed their candidate because they felt their social standing had become precarious, and believed that he could somehow restore it. So far, he’s responded like many of his detractors predicted he would. He has implemented the cruelest border-security agenda in recent memory and used his platform to enrich himself, his family, and their allies. His inexperience with governing — he’s never held public office and was best known previously for real estate and reality TV — has resulted in striking and sometimes dangerous ineptitude, as his failed effort to fund his border wall by shutting down the government and needless saber-rattling toward North Korea and Iran illustrate.

None of these deficiencies were unforeseeable, nor do they seem especially troubling to many of his supporters. They might even be endearing: At least one study suggests that a small but influential contingent of Trump acolytes takes pleasure in chaos and revels in the president’s lies while conducting their own online misinformation campaigns. Even those who feel differently aren’t especially put off — Trump’s approval ratings among his fellow Republicans have rarely dipped below 80 percent since he took office. In 2016, he won white voters across gender, age, and income levels by healthy margins, and if he wins again in 2020, it will likely be with a similar coalition. That so many whites and Republicans, a party which is overwhelmingly white, have responded to the alleged perception of lost social standing by electing the most visibly unhinged, inexperienced, and insecure candidate in the field speaks volumes about their cost-benefit analysis — but might say even more about their fellow voters who also faced uncertain futures but responded differently.

Specifically, there are few measures by which black Americans aren’t traditionally among the most socially and financially precarious. From median income and homeownership to employment, education, and arrest and incarceration rates, most social indexes find black people at or near the bottom and whites at the top. This is exacerbated by black Americans’ long-term role as political punching bags — from their Reagan-era casting as leeches bleeding government coffers dry to the Bush- and Clinton-era crackdowns on black poverty, despair, and addiction through harsher policing and imprisonment. Trump, for his part, has vacillated between describing black people as filth-dwellers of questionable citizenship and lambasting black luminaries for protesting racism and not thanking him loudly enough for all the things he thinks he’s done for their communities. Yet there’s been no comparable gravitation by black voters en masse toward a bigoted autocrat vowing retributive violence against their political opponents. On the contrary, black voters have overwhelmingly embraced pragmatism — sometimes to a fault.

The Trump presidency — as with plenty before it — is as amenable as any to radical countermeasures by black people. Instead, polls indicate that black primary voters are coalescing behind Joe Biden, whom many believe has the best odds of defeating the Republican in 2020. “We just want to win,” Michael Nutter, the black former mayor of Philadelphia, told Politico earlier this month, explaining why black voters are backing Biden early despite the abundance of younger, nonwhite, and more progressive options. “Because Donald Trump is so damaging and so frightening to many people in this country … the primary theme is, ‘I just want to be with someone who I believe can actually win.’ And that’s what people care about.” The tradeoff is significant: Biden’s history of cozy relationships with segregationists is not just well known — he’s boasted about it. As a senator, he authored the 1994 crime bill that lent federal sanction to mass-incarceration efforts nationwide, which affected black people disproportionately. His various gaffes — calling then-presidential candidate Barack Obama “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean”; saying that “[poor] kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids” — not only cast doubt on his understanding of how racism manifests in political discourse, but his political instincts more generally. But the tradeoff has also occasioned what might on its surface appear to be strange bedfellows: Biden’s early polling lead is driven by support from both black voters and Democrats more likely to hold racist and sexist views than their counterparts who support Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris — the three who, along with Biden, round out the top four candidates in most polls.

According to a Washington Post analysis from last week, “racial resentment” followed by “hostile sexism” are the voter priorities that best predict Democratic-primary support for Biden. The metric also includes categories like abortion rights, increasing taxes on the rich, adopting clean and renewable energy by 2035, and Medicare for All. The presence of racist and sexist views was determined by a questionnaire developed by psychologists to detect animus via indirect means, in order to prevent respondents from “defaulting to answers that they know are socially preferred.” These include queries about whether respondents believe that slavery and segregation have made progress difficult for black people; whether black people should learn to work and live without “special favors”; and whether “women seek to gain power by getting control over men.” The correlation between these hostile or resentful views and support for Biden was more dramatic than in any other included category. This is not to say that the majority of Biden supporters hold such views. But the Post’s data indicates they’re significantly more likely to than their counterparts.

There is, of course, precedent for black voters making peace with racist allies when faced with less-desirable — and often more racist — alternatives. Most recently, Virginia governor Ralph Northam and state Attorney General Mark Harris weathered simultaneous blackface scandals but retained black support; Republican control of state politics in the wake of them resigning was the other option. And there are other factors driving their support for Biden: That younger black voters prefer Sanders while older ones back Obama’s former vice-president likely stems from generational disagreements about the salience of uncompromising progressivism and the goodwill generated by the first black presidency. But in neither case are black voters backing a radical or someone vowing violence. In fact, most are supporting the candidate whose experience and record are best-known to them, and who they feel presents the least possibility for error. Whether they’ve arrived at the right conclusion, even by those metrics, is debatable, and there’s plenty of time for things to change — the Democratic primaries are still months away. But so far, black voter behavior leading up to 2020 is a damning indictment of white voter behavior in 2016. The majority of white voters saw a flicker of precariousness and threw the Election Day equivalent of a tantrum. Black people — for whom precariousness is, in a disproportionate share of cases, a persistent condition — have responded by reinvesting in a status quo that’s rarely worked for them, knowing intimately how much worse things can get.

The 2020 Election Will Be Defined by Black Voter Pragmatism