White women voted for Trump. Or so you have probably heard. In the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, the finding from early exit polls that 53 percent of white women voted for Trump formed the basis for a million social-media posts, op-eds, and rally placards. That this “fact” is not true is not even close to the biggest problem with its ubiquitous place in progressive social-justice discourse.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, Slate’s L.V. Anderson articulated what would become a ubiquitous theme in the social-justice media world: “White women sold out their fellow women, their country, and themselves last night.”
The 53 percent figure turned out to be erroneous, and corrected analyses eventually pegged Trump’s share of the white female electorate closer to 47 percent. Nonetheless, the impulse that propelled so many writers to blame white women for electing Trump proved strong enough to survive even after the factual basis was undercut. Indeed, left-wing opinion writers continued churning out polemics based on the erroneous 53 percent figure for years. The production line has kept running right through the 2020 elections, which have yielded more shaky early-exit-poll data that has been turned into another round of flagellation of white women for their alleged collective sin.
A Washington Post op-ed by Lyz Lenz, headlined “White Women Vote Republican. Get Used to It, Democrats.,” uses white women’s alleged support for Trump to urge Democrats to stop focusing on winning them. Lenz bemoans “the amount of money and effort that went to flip suburban women, who had no intention of voting Democratic at all, while other groups of voters were taken for granted.”
Lenz’s argument strings together a series of factual and logical missteps, each compounding the last. First, even after acknowledging that the 2016 exit polls showing Trump won white female voters were wrong, she uses the 2020 exit polls anyway. (“Exit polling indicates that Trump’s support had increased among White women.”) Lenz then concedes the figure could, at some point, be “adjusted,” without considering the high probability that the adjustment will in fact negate her premise.
Second, she treats the supposed failure of white women to turn against Trump as a reason Democrats should do less to try to win their votes, while proceeding to treat Trump’s gains among nonwhite voters as a reason Democrats should do more to win their votes. Of course, the whole idea that political parties should ignore constituencies they don’t win is quite odd, but Lenz doesn’t even apply an internally consistent standard to her self-defeating principle.
The most fundamental problem with Lenz’s argument is revealed in her dismissive suggestion “White women are not a swing voting bloc.” The word swing applies to states in the Electoral College. Because the system awards votes on a winner-takes-all basis, states that might swing from one candidate to another command most of the resources. Demographic blocs don’t work like that. It doesn’t matter if you “win” white women or Latino men or any other constituency. The margins are what matter.
Lenz is hardly alone in this fallacy. What makes her column worthy of close analysis is not that her reasoning is uniquely wrong but that it’s unremarkably so.
The conceptual fallacy undergirding all these polemics is a reduction of every facet of human thought to race and gender, so that — when taken to an extreme, which it often is — a person’s beliefs and actions simply reflect the identity category to which they belong. The “white women voted for Trump” genre is simply a political application of the anti-racism liturgy that diversity trainers like Robin DiAngelo have so profitably spread, with its quasi-religious tropes and emphasis on rituals of confession and expurgation of sin.
As a young white woman, I realize that white women did not do the work needed to keep Mr. Trump, and his boasts about sexual harassment, from the White House. They did not rise to the uncomfortable challenge of convincing other white women to support not just their own interests, but those of women and men of color, L.G.B.T. Americans, immigrants and people in poverty.
Or (in a column headlined “White Women Need to Admit We Let This Happen”):
How could white women have let this happen? … Our white privilege has us convinced that whatever happens next will not happen to us. We think our privilege will protect us.
The dogma can run so deep that its adherents who observe different political viewpoints within the “white female” category literally cannot make any sense of it. One column concluded that the white female participation in anti-Trump demonstrations must have been deceptive:
Following the 2016 election, an estimated three million women turned out in droves to protest Trump’s inauguration. Yet following the most recent election, and seeing white women’s support for Trump increase, that turnout feels performative.
Obviously, there’s no contradiction whatsoever between the facts that a subset of the white female demographic has left-wing views, expressed through attending protests and buying anti-racist books, while the total universe of white female voters could be more conservative. (Again, it isn’t: The exit-poll finding about rising white female support for Trump is almost certainly false.)
Here’s another, juxtaposing demand for anti-racist books this past summer against the supposed increase in white female support for Trump:
We received countless anti-racism book orders. And yet, despite all of the learning that supposedly took place via these books, in early November 2020 exit polls stated that among white women, Trump still held their support: An estimated 55 percent of white women voted for Trump. This is at least a two-point increase for this demographic since the previous election.
It’s not mysterious at all to imagine that some white women might have political views left wing enough to read radical books about racism, while the majority of white women might be conservative enough to vote for Trump. The population of anti-racist-book buyers is a fraction of the size of the electorate. It’s only a contradiction if you assume white women are a singular unit.
There is certainly value in prodding people who enjoy privilege to examine how being white, or male, or wealthy affords them privilege. But the crudest version of this practice flattens every other individuating characteristic into a simple binary experience of privilege versus oppression. Only a person who has been deeply inculcated into this pattern of thought would consider it normal to apologize for the fact that other people who share her skin color and gender voted differently than she did.
Even if you somehow assume that forcing people who voted Republican to apologize constitutes a viable political strategy, forcing Democrats to apologize because they share demographic traits with people who voted Republican surely does not.