American Sociological Association

Section on Political Sociology

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
December 2016
Volume 
44
Issue 
8

Sociologists Reflect on the 2016 Presidential Election

Before the 2016 Presidential election came to a close, ASA asked a few members to send Footnotes some thoughts about a certain facet of the election. Below are some of their observations on addressing climate change in the election, xenophobia, using sociology to process the results, and the role of gender in the election. In addition to Footnotes, more sociologists are sharing their thoughts on the ASA blog, Speak for Sociology (bit.ly/speak4sociology). The thoughts expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views, opinions, or positions of the American Sociological Association.

Climate Change and the Election

Todd Beer, Lake Forest College; blogs at sociologytoolbox.com

I’ll admit that even though there is this expectation of the objective academic, it is very hard for me to research and teach about the sociology of climate change without it becoming personal and emotional. The predictions of the scientific consensus are dire and our social institutions are slow to take sufficient action. The presidential election and its outcome magnified this emotive response.

Climate change received a combined six minutes of attention in all three presidential debates. That’s it. In her policies, Secretary Clinton proposed to continue the path Obama initiated in his second term, aiming to reduce U.S. emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. On the other hand, Trump tweeted that climate change was a hoax. He spoke of not only withdrawing from commitments made under the globally-celebrated 2015 Paris Agreement, but also of reviving the fading coal industry, ending Obama’s Clean Power Plan, gutting the EPA, reinstating the Keystone XL pipeline project, and retracting our commitment to provide billions of dollars to temper the negative impacts of climate change in developing countries. Clinton’s policies would have likely continued on the path of modest but insufficient reductions. If Trump’s actions match his campaign rhetoric, our efforts to avoid catastrophic impacts of climate change will not only stall, but reverse. In many ways, this was not a surprise. Sociologists (see numerous pieces by Dunlap and McCright) have documented the influence of conservative free market think tanks and fossil fuel companies in making climate change a politically polarizing issue starting back in the 1990s. The climate denial machinery just received a powerful seat at the head of the table.

While climate change is one of many issues, it is hard not to think of climate change as an overarching issue that will impact nearly everything else we research and teach. Concerned about racialized police brutality and mass incarceration? As we saw after Hurricane Katrina, the racialized police state is amplified in times of national disaster. Hurricanes are predicted to increase in strength due to climate change. Concerned about inequality? Climate change hits the poor first, both here in the U.S. and around the world. Research gender? Women in the Global South are disproportionally burdened with much of the day to day adaptation to climate change – tending crops more at risk from unpredictable weather patterns, collecting water from sources threatened by increasingly prolonged drought, and collecting firewood from forests we increasingly want to remain intact. Study social movements? Organized groups are increasingly using disruptive protest to halt new fossil fuel projects, like the Dakota Access Pipeline, and pushing for institutional divestment from fossil fuels.

2016 will be the hottest year on record with every month thus far setting an average temperature record high. As a discipline, is the span of our engagement in the issue broad enough and deep enough considering the predicted consequences of inaction? Climate change received just six minutes of attention in all three presidential debates. As a discipline, are we giving it more than that?

For more on this topic, see “Climate Change and the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election” thesocietypages.org/roundtables/climate-change-roundtable/


Islamophobia and the Trump Campaign

Charles Kurzman, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Casual Islamophobia was a recurring theme in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, from the moment he descended into the race on a hotel elevator.

“The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems,” Trump said in his campaign announcement. “It’s coming from more than Mexico. It’s coming from all over South and Latin America, and it’s coming probably—probably—from the Middle East. But we don’t know. Because we have no protection and we have no competence, we don’t know what’s happening. And it’s got to stop and it’s got to stop fast.”

The problem of migration from the Middle East seems like an afterthought in a speech devoted primarily to insulting immigrants from Mexico. It was unclear whether the comment referred to illegal immigration, or refugees, or all migrants. Trump did not elaborate. But the theme grew over the months. In fall 2015, a reporter asked whether the government should create a database of Muslim Americans. Off the cuff, Trump said he would consider the idea. “We’re going to have to look at the mosques. We’re going to have to look very, very carefully.”

A few weeks later, he issued a brief press release calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” In the spring, Trump said, “It’s already probably too late, because many people have been allowed into our country that we should have never, in a million years, allowed,” including children who might later become radicalized.

Islamophobia was only one theme in an ethnonationalist campaign that blamed foreigners and minorities for many of the problems facing the United States, but it tapped into a partisan gap that has emerged over the past several years. After 9/11, 19 percent of Democrats and 29 percent of Republicans expressed unfavorable attitudes toward Muslims, averaging nine surveys through mid-2010. In the nine surveys since then, the gap has more than doubled: Democrats’ unfavorable attitudes rose to 31 percent, while Republicans averaged 58 percent.

During the presidential campaign, one survey firm (Public Policy Polling) fielded the question, “Do you think the religion of Islam should be legal or illegal in the United States?” In October 2015, 36 percent of Republican respondents said Islam should be illegal, and another 25 percent said they were not sure. In December 2015, the proportions fell slightly to 26 percent illegal and 21 percent unsure. If these samples are representative, then around half of Republicans — who normally support religious freedom — are unwilling to grant this freedom to Muslims.

Where did this animosity come from? Over the past decade, as documented in sociologist Christopher Bail’s Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream,” campaigns vilifying Muslim-Americans have made serious inroads on the political right. These campaigns argue that Islam is a political ideology, not a religion, and therefore not deserving of religious freedom. Consider the paranoid report issued by Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy in September 2015, accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of trying to replace the U.S. constitution with sharia, through “a stealthy form of jihad” that had “enabled this organization to insinuate itself gradually into a position from which it can assault the pillars of our society.”

In support of his proposal to ban Muslim immigration, Trump cited Gaffney’s organization as a “very highly respected group of people who I know actually.”

When Muslim-Americans engaged in periodic violence — in San Bernardino in November 2015, Orlando in June 2016, and New York and New Jersey in September 2016 — Trump claimed vindication on Twitter.

The rarity of this violence was left for fact-checkers. According to a dataset that I maintain, an average of 26 Muslim-Americans are arrested for or carry out plots of violent extremism each year. Fewer than half of the plots are aimed at targets in the United States, and most of the plots involve undercover law enforcement agents or informants at an early stage. Over the 15 years since 9/11, these plots have resulted in 118 fatalities, out of a total of more than 230,000 murders in the United States during this period. (This dataset is available at kurzman.unc.edu/muslim-american-terrorism.)

In the days after 9/11, when it was unclear whether the United States might suffer further attacks on that scale, President George W. Bush visited a mosque in Washington, D.C., and held a press conference with Muslim leaders, calling for unity and tolerance. “America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens,” Bush said. “And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect. Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes. ... Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior.”

It is hard to imagine a Republican leader reaffirming those values in 2016.


How Sociology Helps to Process the 2016 Presidential Election

Lisa M. Martinez, University of Denver

Shock. Disbelief. Sadness. Anger. These were just some of the emotions I felt as I watched the election returns and it became increasingly clear that Hillary Clinton—and all of us—were going to lose. What started as an evening waiting for a historic event quickly turned into a sense of impending doom. Like many, I reached out to friends to find solace and possible explanations for what was about to happen. Quickly, the conversation turned to whether or not to address this with our students and, if so, how?

I barely had time to process the outcome before walking into my 8:00 a.m. “Social Inequality” class the next day. As I entered the classroom, the shock was written on the students’ faces, which I can only compare to the expressions I encountered the day after September 11. Not yet finding my own words, I opened up the space for students to offer their thoughts. After some silence, a student began by recounting all the ways a Trump presidency would be bad for America. Another who works at an elementary school shared how afraid she was for her undocumented students and their parents. Still another student shared that her grandfather had survived a concentration camp and wondered aloud whether or not something similar could happen again. Some students sat stoically, listening and nodding, while others silently shed tears.

As we grappled with our emotions, the conversation shifted into a discussion about the election in relation to course material. Students quickly made connections to readings from the previous week, including Piven and Cloward’s Why Americans (Still) Don’t Vote. Others found relevance in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Ian Haney Lopez’s Dog Whistle Politics. They also wondered whether Bernie Sanders could have defeated Trump and if this election was a response to Obama’s presidency. The conversation went on for about 20 minutes when a student asked, “What can we do?”

A day later, I participated in a post-election panel with colleagues from across campus. Still unsure about what to say, I felt anxious as I still had not fully come to terms with results, nor had my fellow panelists. It didn’t help to learn that the number of RSVPs had tripled and university administrators were now planning to attend. It was clear from audience members’ questions that they, too, needed a space to collectively process and come to terms with a Trump presidency. After the panel, a student asked, “Does activism matter?” When I told her it did and it does, her face lit up and she said, “Good. That’s all I wanted to hear.” Two other women asked a similar question, “What can be done?”

In response to my students and the audience members, there is a lot we can do. For starters, we can use the tools of our discipline to understand and analyze the factors that led to the deep divisions in our country. We can translate what we know into informed action whether this occurs through political strategizing or activism. We also have an obligation to our students to teach public sociology and bring social issues to light. Through our scholarship, we can counter racist and xenophobic scapegoating by providing counter-narratives around the pain marginalized communities will and are experiencing. We can also focus our energies on social movements, disruption, and resistance. But we must also engage in long-term planning by mobilizing, registering voters, and getting out the vote in 2018 and 2020.

We know that racism, xenophobia, and sexism are not new. If anything, this election has exposed the breadth and the depth of the schisms in our country along these and other lines. Most of us will get through the next four years but we must not allow ourselves to get complacent. Now more than ever, our role as sociologists is to inform and participate in broader collective responses to the threats to marginalized communities and the ongoing progressive project.


Masculinity, Inequality, and the 2016 Presidential Election

Tristan Bridges, The College of Brockport-SUNY, and C.J. Pascoe, University of Oregon

Shock, surprise, handwringing, sadness, recrimination, and analysis by social commentators, academics, activists, and politicians themselves followed the 2016 presidential election. Certainly there have been no shortage of explanations as to how a rich white man with no political experience, multiple failed businesses and marriages, who is on trial for sexual assault, whose recent claim to fame involves starring on a reality television series, and whose supporters feature bumper stickers reading things like “Trump that Bitch” will become the 45th president of the United States. As many of these commentaries have pointed out, this election is the perfect storm of intersecting inequalities: inequalities of class, race, gender, sexuality, religion, nation among others. Indeed, the anger that fueled this election reflects the conservative and populist movements across the globe in recent years.

Sociological research and theory on masculinity and gender inequality explain, in part, the success of a man who uses “locker room talk,” regularly objectifies women, calls them “nasty,” and looms over them in a way that is recognized as dangerous by survivors of violent relationships or sexual harassment. The easy answer is that men are voting for the continuation of an unequal gender system that privileges them. 

Economically struggling white men were among the most eager to embrace (or overlook?) Trump’s support for gender inequality. 53 percent of men voted for Trump, while 41 percent voted for Clinton. 72 percent of white men with no college education supported Trump; less than one quarter of that group voted for Clinton. Given Trump’s advocacy of gendered (and raced) inequality, this may come as little surprise. What might be more complicated to explain is that 62 percent of white women with less than a college education and 45 percent of college-educated white women voted for Trump, too.

It’s not just men voting in men’s “interest.” It’s women as well. This might be best understood with a concept that never gained much traction in the sociology of men and masculinities, but is worth revisiting—sociologist Arthur Brittan’s concept of “masculinism.” As Brittan wrote almost three decades ago, “Masculinity refers to those aspects of men’s behaviour that fluctuate over time…. Masculinism is the ideology that justifies and naturalizes male domination… Moreover, the masculine ideology is not subject to the vagaries of fashion – it tends to be relatively resistant to change” (Brittan 1989, emphasis ours). Brittan’s work reminds us that, despite incredible change, ideologies that justify inequality are most visible when the forms of inequality they justify are under siege. It is under those moments that we get a good look at how ideologies perpetuate inequality. When systems of inequality are challenged, questioned, and made to sweat, ideologies can’t be passively relied upon to work for those in power. They require work, renewed efforts to maintain legitimacy if they are to stand up to such attacks. Masculinism was publicly challenged this election; a spotlight was shown on forms of privilege and inequality that are rarely so visible to the naked eye.

The workings of masculinism might have been intensified by a sort of collective version of what social psychologists refer to as “moral licensing.” Research shows that when people are presented with the opportunity to demonstrate that they are good, moral people, they are more apt to follow that opportunity by expressing support for inequalities that they might otherwise not be willing to admit to (e.g., Merritt, Effron, and Monin 2010). That is, given the opportunity to demonstrate that we are “good” people, we’re more likely to engage in “bad” behavior. We’re more likely to support racially prejudiced views, for instance, after having been primed with an opportunity to say that we’d be willing to vote for a Black presidential candidate (e.g., Effron, Cameron, and Monin 2009). When we demonstrate “good” moral qualities publicly, we feel more justified in supporting systems of inequality in public ways, too.

On a collective level this process might look something like this: We became a liberal enough nation to accept a Black president. We became a liberal enough nation to even consider a woman president. From this perspective, electing a Black president didn’t usher in a post-racial society; in fact, it might have “morally licensed” the expression of more intensified racist sentiments. The fact that for the first time a woman was one of the major party presidential candidates may have had a similar effect, morally licensing many to feel justified in supporting the misogyny, racism, and xenophobia that characterized this election.

Considered this way, the election of Donald Trump is at least partially the result of the “progress” we’ve been making. Ideologies like masculinism—those ideologies that uphold the durable systems of inequality in societies—are resilient. Indeed, they may even be intensified by the gains made by marginalized groups over the past several decades. This election, perhaps, is a testament to the work that has been done to challenge inequalities and a reminder that such gains are never fully secured.

References

Brittan, Arthur. 1989. Masculinity and Power. New York, NY: Basil Blackwell.

Effron, Daniel A., Jessica S. Cameron, and Benoît Monin. 2009. Endorsing Obama Licenses Favoring Whites. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45(3): 590-593.

Merritt, Anna C., Daniel A. Effron, and Benoît Monin. 2010. Moral Self-Licensing: When Being Good Frees Us to Be Bad. Social and Personality Psychology Compass 4(5): 344-357.