In the United States in 2016, the degree to which a person deeply identified as white was one of the strongest predictors of support for Donald Trump among Republicans, much more than, for example, economic anxiety. Since the 2016 election, however, the dominant story in the United States has been the open rage against immigrants, which goes well beyond purely economic resentment.
Immigrants do not only “take” “our” jobs; they are “criminals and rapists” who threaten the very survival of whites. Interestingly, the fewer immigrants there are living in a state, the less liked they are. Nearly half of residents in states with almost no immigrants — such as Wyoming, Alabama, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Arkansas — believe immigrants represent a threat to American culture and values.
This phenomenon predated 2016, but Trump’s election made it that much easier to talk about it openly. In a clever experiment highlighting this, researchers recruited online respondents in eight deep-red states: Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Mississippi, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Just before the 2016 election, the researchers told respondents they would receive a $1 bonus if they would let them make a $1 donation to an anti-immigration organization on their behalf. Some respondents were told their choice would be kept private, others that they might be contacted by another person for verification. Before the election, more than half the people who knew the donation would be kept private authorized it, versus just a third who thought it might not stay secret. But when the same experiment was conducted right after the election, that difference entirely disappeared! The victory of someone who expressed overt anti-immigration views had freed respondents up to openly give money to an anti-immigrant group.
But we don’t like to think of ourselves as racists. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Jean Tirole and his colleague Roland Bénabou argue that our beliefs about ourselves are shaped in part by our emotional needs; we feel terrible when we disappoint ourselves. Hence, if we have negative thoughts about others, it is tempting to rationalize our behavior by blaming them. The more we can persuade ourselves migrants are to blame for bringing their children with them, the less we worry about the children in their little cages. We overweight any piece of news, however thin, that supports our original position, ignoring the rest.
Over time, the instinctive defensive reaction we started from is replaced by a carefully constructed set of seemingly robust arguments. At that point, we start feeling any disagreement with our views, given how “solid” the arguments are, has to be either an insinuation of moral failure on our part or a questioning of our intelligence. That’s when it can get violent.
Recognizing these patterns has important implications. First, obviously, accusing people of racism or calling them the “deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton famously did, is a terrible idea. It assaults people’s moral sense of themselves and puts their backs up. They immediately stop listening. Conversely, one can see why calling egregious racists “fine people,” and emphasizing there are bad people “on both sides,” as President Trump did, is clearly an effective strategy (however morally reprehensible) to gain popularity, since it makes those who make these remarks feel better about themselves.
It also explains why facts or fact-checking doesn’t seem to make much of a dent on people’s views, at least in the short run, in the context of migration. It remains possible that when the initial “How dare you challenge my beliefs?” reaction fades, people will adjust their views. We should not stop telling the truth, but it is more useful to express it in a nonjudgmental way.
The fact that voters put a premium on race or ethnicity or religion, or even the articulation of racist views, does not have to mean they feel very passionately about them. Voters do realize political leaders choose to play the ethnic or race card when convenient. Part of the reason they still vote for those politicians is they are deeply cynical about the political system, having convinced themselves all politicians are more or less alike. Given that, they might as well vote for the guy who looks or sounds like them. But that also means it can be surprisingly easy to make voters change their minds by highlighting what is at stake in an election.
We are struck by the curious history of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. As the signal policy initiative of the much-despised black Kenyan Muslim Barack Obama, it was something that many Republican governors refused to have anything to do with, even to the point of turning down federal subsidies to expand Medicaid, the act’s key mechanism to extend health care coverage. Yet by the 2018 midterm election, initiatives to expand Medicaid were approved in the deep-red states of Utah, Nebraska, and Idaho. Kansas and Wisconsin also elected new Democratic governors who vowed to expand Medicaid, where their Republican predecessors had not. This is not because people in these places became Democrats; they still voted for Republican congressmen and senators, often with very conservative views. But on this issue many seem to have decided to ignore the warnings of the Republican establishment and go with their own understanding of what was going to be good for them. Economics trumped Trump.
The most effective way to combat prejudice may not be to directly engage with people’s views, natural as that might seem. Instead, it may be to convince citizens it is worth their while to engage with other policy issues. This shift in debate is what we need to reestablish credible public conversation about policy, and prove that it is not just a way to use big words to justify doing very little.
Adapted from the forthcoming book “Good Economics for Hard Times,” copyright 2019. Available from Public Affairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group. Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo, MIT economists and winners of the 2019 Nobel Prize in economics, are co-directors of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.