On Nov. 2, the evening before the 2020 presidential election, Portland State University Associate Professor of Political Science Kim Williams gave a public lecture about the effects of race, gender, and partisanship on U.S. elections. Williams’s research focuses on social movements, immigration, and racial politics in the United States, and argues that a careful, nuanced investigation of race, gender, and partisanship is essential in helping people make sense of both the 2016 and the 2020 elections. The event was moderated by Associate professor of political science Tamara Metz and was attended by over 30 students, staff, and faculty.
Williams began her talk by describing the recent historical context of U.S. elections, placing particular emphasis on considering the dynamics of the 2016 presidential election. Drawing upon the research of Emory University Political Science Professor Alan Abramowitz, Williams argued that negative partisanship has played an enormously consequential role in recent U.S. elections. In simple terms, negative partisanship describes the phenomenon whereby an individual’s political decisions are made not on the basis of their enthusiastic support for their own political party, but rather their strong dislike of the opposing political party. Or as Williams explained, “liberals and conservatives just like to hate each other.”
The acceleration and consolidation of this ideological divide can be seen in Congress, but it is also reflected in the attitudes of the general electorate; recent polls reveal that an increasing share of partisans see members of the opposing political party as “immoral” and “closed-minded.” These divisions have existed for several decades, but Williams argued that they were further exacerbated and indeed “taken to a new level” during the 2016 election.
Race has also played a critical role in influencing the voting patterns of the U.S. electorate. According to Williams, the Republican Party (GOP) has become increasingly dependent on white voters to win elections. A majority of white voters have voted Republican in every presidential election over the past 50 years, and 2016 was no different: 92% of all Trump voters in 2016 were white, and Trump won white voters by 21 points. Williams argued that these numbers reflect a larger story. As the white share of the total U.S. electorate continues to shrink, these voting patterns reveal white anxiety about the country’s rapidly changing demographics.
Finally, gender has also played a major role in U.S. elections. Over the past couple of decades, women have been more likely to vote Democrat, while men have been more likely to vote Republican. This gendered divide in voting patterns was, unsurprisingly, reflected in the 2016 election, where Clinton won women by 12 points while Trump won men by 12 points. This 24 point gender gap was the largest in over two generations.
While these statistics on partisanship, race, and gender all serve as valuable analytical resources, according to Williams, they do not tell the whole story. Indeed, a closer examination of 2016 voting data revealed that although an overwhelming number of Black women voted for Clinton, Clinton did not win the majority of white women voters. This insight, in turn, leads to a further, critical question: Why did so many white women support Trump in the 2016 election despite his openly misogynist rhetoric and behavior?
According to Williams, answering this question requires a turn toward the concept of intersectionality. Intersectional approaches posit that the combination of various oppressions or privileges fit together to produce outcomes that are unique and distinct from any disadvantage or advantage standing alone. As Williams emphasized, while the majority of women voted for Clinton, the majority of white women did not. This suggests that the effects of race and gender in the 2016 election must be considered not as separate, but interconnected variables.
In order to extend this analysis further, Williams drew upon a 2017 study conducted by a trio of researchers from Stanford University and the University of Maryland titled, “A Possessive Investment in White Heteropatriarchy? The 2016 Election and the Politics of Race, Gender, and Sexuality.” Upon conducting a detailed demographic breakdown of 2016 voting data, the researchers found that straight, white men were most likely to support Trump in the 2016 election, followed by white, married women and non-married white women. In contrast, the overwhelming majority of black, straight women and black lesbians voted for Clinton. These findings led the researchers to conclude that a portion of white women exhibit a “possessive investment in white heteropatriarchy,” or systems and structures that perpetuate racial and gendered hierarchies, a gender binary system, and normative heterosexuality that are grounded in racist and misogynistic ideals. Insofar as white women have internalized the values of these systems of racialized and gendered hierarchies by virtue of their particular location in existing social structures, white women occupy a comparatively advantageous position in these systems of hierarchy and are thus are more likely to vote for a candidate such as Trump who embodies these values. Williams affirmed the conclusions of the study and suggested that the voting behavior of white women in 2016 was primarily related to their positions within existing racist and heteropatriarchal orders.
Upon concluding her analysis of the 2016 election, Williams turned her attention to the dynamics of the Trump presidency and the 2020 presidential election. As Williams explained, Trump’s tenure has seen a rise in racially-motivated hate crimes which, she argued, have been fueled by Trump’s racist rhetoric. She also showed several video clips that showed Trump and political allies making openly misogynistic statements about women. Thus, according to Williams, Trump has continued to appeal to racist and patriarchal systems of hierarchy, and his continued support shows that these value systems are still profoundly present in the U.S. and will likely play a major role in the 2020 election and beyond.
The upshot, according to Williams, is that Trumpism, along with the white heteropatriarchy that he embodies, will survive Trump, no matter who wins the 2020 election. While this may be a disheartening prospect for many liberals and Democrats, Williams offered two silver linings to conclude her presentation: the recent shift in white liberal attitudes toward accepting the existence of white supremacy and systemic racism, and the shift toward mail-in voting, which promises more accessibility and less voter intimidation in future elections.