Fear and Loathing in the American Electorate: Part 1
The most important question facing American democracy today
This is Part 1 of an eight-part exploration of the 2020 American National Election Study, focusing on the motivations and sources of information driving the American electorate, especially the Republican/conservative voters who cast their votes for Donald Trump in 2020. Here are quick links to the other seven parts.
- Part 2: Demographic predictors of 2020 vote
- Part 3: Media consumption — Where do voters get their information and what difference does it make?
- Part 4: Seven “deplorable” beliefs that predict 2020 Presidential vote
- Part 5: The role of conspiracies and misinformation in the 2020 election
- Part 6: Partisan animosity
- Part 7: Combining sources of behavior — Path models of the 2020 Presidential vote
- Part 8: Republicans have crossed the Rubicon — Conclusions and implications
A few months ago, I reported here on my virtual road trip through the badlands of Republican governmental performance in the 33 states in which the GOP holds decision-making power. That analysis revealed a nearly universal failure by GOP-controlled states to provide their citizens with levels of public service and support equivalent to the benefits received in other states. Compared to citizens in the 17 states controlled by Democrats, we saw that citizens in GOP-led states:
- Suffered from inadequate COVID-19 vaccination programs, in many cases exacerbated by state leaders’ active subversion of public health policies and outcomes, resulting in the highest death and hospitalization rates in the country.
- Had significantly worse healthcare systems and healthcare outcomes.
- Had significantly worse educational systems and educational outcomes.
- Had significantly lower median incomes.
- Suffered under tax systems that prioritize low taxes over citizen services and support.
These results beg an obvious next question:
Why do voters in GOP-led states continue to elect Republicans, when those officials have failed, often over decades, to provide the level or quality of public services enjoyed by citizens in Democratic-led states?
To answer this question — which is perhaps the most important question facing American democracy today — we must dive into the psyche of the American voter. Classic democratic theory tells us that voters faced with two candidates for elected office will chose the one whom they believe will best represent their interests. Classic democratic theory also tells us that voters will use their votes to hold office holders accountable for their performance. But these simple shibboleths do not seem to apply to the voters who have consistently put Republicans in power across the country.
Today, in states like Florida, we see Republican Governors and legislatures not only failing to protect their constituents from a pandemic that has killed nearly 800,000 Americans and over 5,000,000 people worldwide, but actively subverting such efforts, encouraging their citizens to engage in risky behaviors, forego masking and social distancing, and even subject their children to possible infection and death by blocking safety measures in schools. And they are not trying to hide these actions, they are actively and loudly running on them.
Republican office holders believe killing their constituents and collapsing their healthcare systems is good politics.
Nobody seems to believe Republicans will pay an existential price for these death-dealing policies and actions (or inactions). Pundits and pollsters speculate about the GOP losing a few “moderate” voters here and there, but most of the media buzz these days is about how the Republican Party is poised to take over the House and Senate in 2022, and inevitably the Presidency in 2024, thanks to its aggressive and as yet unchallenged efforts to nullify electoral accountability in any state where it currently holds power.
It’s as if all the failures and incompetence of the Republican Party exist on one plane of reality and all the punditry and speculation about upcoming elections exists on another, and neither seems to meaningfully intersect with the other.
What do Republican leaders know about their constituents that the rest of us do not? How is it that members of a demonstrably incompetent, corrupt, and even treasonous political party can stay in power, and even prosper, when their behavior looks more like that of war criminals than dedicated public servants?
We need data!
What’s in the 2020 American National Election Study?
Since 1948 the University of Michigan, recently joined by Stanford University, has conducted a massive election year survey for every Presidential election. These surveys, based on sophisticated sampling techniques and rigorous quality control, are considered the Gold Standard of American polling. Maintaining consistency across questions and wording over decades, the ANES studies have provided the underlying data for thousands of academic American politics studies.¹
The 2020 ANES study was recently released to the public on the organization’s website. All the ANES studies can be found there, freely available for download, along with supporting documentation and code books. The 2020 study includes responses from 8,280 respondents, collected in two waves before and after the November 3 election. The fresh cross-sectional sample includes 5,441 pre-election interviews and 4,779 follow-up post-election interviews. Respondents provided answers to around 1,700 questions covering a wide range of topics, including identity politics, immigration, media trust and misinformation, institutional legitimacy, and feelings toward candidates, other public figures, and political parties. Content added in the post-election survey included data on voting experiences, attitudes toward public health officials and organizations, anti-elitism, faith in experts and science, trust in government, attitudes toward climate change and gun control, rural-urban identity, perceptions of foreign countries and threats, group empathy, social media usage, misinformation, and personal experiences.
Where to begin?
My analysis of this large and complex dataset was conducted using the R statistics package, the RStudio IDE, and numerous statistical packages available in the R ecosystem; most importantly, packages for structural equation modeling, complex survey design analysis, large dataset analysis, and visual display of graphics and tables.
I began this investigation as an offshoot of work I was doing with Kimberly Clark and Matthew Tullman on vaccine hesitancy and the potential effectiveness of persuasive advertising (see “How Not To Fight Vaccine Hesitancy: Lessons from Brain Science (and Nancy Reagan)”, available here). As we watched the transformation of vaccine reluctance into outright resistance and even violent confrontation by GOP and Trump loyalists, it became clear to me that whatever was motivating these people was not going to be changed by a few 30-second TV ads or Facebook posts.
Deeply irrational and self-destructive behavior is most likely grounded in lifelong personal experience: how you were raised, who your friends are, who you look up to, what media you consume, and what beliefs and attitudes you hold, probably formed over many years.
The 2020 ANES surveys provide a massive and timely collection of data through which these and alternative explanations of political attitudes and behavior can be explored in depth.
“Fear and Loathing” is more than a catch-phrase
If an adequate explanation of the viability of the Republican Party cannot be found in its ability to care for the interests and needs of its voters, as classic democratic theory would presume, then where can it be found? The answer is incorporated in the title of this piece: fear and loathing.
The Republican Party stays in power because it has invested decades cultivating and grooming a constituency of voters who are animated not by self-interest, but by a deep fear and suspicion of “others”, combined with a deep loathing of anyone who might challenge their beliefs and prejudices with an alternative version of truth and reality.
In the remainder of this report, I will explore several clusters of variables that together help account for the anomaly of the irrational Republican voter. We begin with a set of hypotheses that have been presented in the academic literature about the sources of political attitudes and behavior in the American electorate. These hypotheses focus on five major areas:
- Demographics: Urban vs. rural, rich vs. poor, men vs. women, young vs. old, religious vs. nonreligious — how do these demographic categories differentiate Trump voters from Biden voters in 2020?
- Media consumption: Are conservative voters binging on right-wing propaganda? How does social media usage relate to political attitudes and actions?
- “Deplorable” beliefs and attitudes: The ANES study contains several psychological scales that measure beliefs and attitudes such as racism, misogyny, authoritarianism, social dominance orientation, anti-minority sentiment, (lack of) empathy for disadvantaged groups, trust/distrust of government, elites, media, and science, national identity, perceived international threat, and financial insecurity. How strongly do different positions along these scales differentiate Democratic from Republican voters?
- Conspiracy theories and acceptance of misinformation: Was COVID-19 developed intentionally? Did Russia interfere in the 2016 election? Is hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) an effective treatment for COVID-19? How do people’s willingness to embrace conspiracy theories spill over into their political behavior? How does an uncritical acceptance of misinformation and outright lies by Republican elites contribute to the thinking and behavior of Republican voters?
- Partisan animosity: Over the years, antipathy toward the opposite party and its candidates has increased radically.² Partisan identity can be measured by Party ID and liberal-conservative self-placement. Partisan animosity can be measured by comparing “feeling thermometers” for partisan groups and individuals (like Presidential candidates). To what extent is Republican voting behavior a function of direction and strength of partisan affiliation and animosity toward political adversaries?
What does the 2020 ANES surveys have to say about each of these areas? In this report, I will focus primarily on where this dataset appears to support or contradict popular explanations of right-wing political beliefs and behavior. I will then present multivariate path models that explore how these variables might combine to impact voting decisions. In a final article, I will consider what these findings imply for the future of elections and democracy in America.
Continue to Part 2: Demographic predictors of 2020 Presidential vote
- Including my own dissertation, published in 1984, which tracks American public opinion about foreign policy across five ANES studies from 1960 to 1980.
- Abramowitz, Alan I., and Steven Webster. “The rise of negative partisanship and the nationalization of US elections in the 21st century.” Electoral Studies 41 (2016): 12–22; Iyengar, Shanto, and Masha Krupenkin. “The strengthening of partisan affect.” Political Psychology 39 (2018): 201–218.