“I talk about crime, I talk about lack of education, talk about no jobs, and I'd say what the hell do [blacks] have to lose, right? It's true. And they're smart and they picked up on it like you wouldn't believe. And you know what else? They didn't come out to vote for Hillary. They didn't come out. And that was big—so thank you to the African American community.”Footnote 1
– Donald Trump at his last stop on his victory tour, in Hershey, Pennsylvania
Late on a hot and humid Tuesday night in Mississippi, with 99.9% of precincts reporting, Republican Senator Thad Cochran stepped to the podium to thank his supporters for nominating him to the GOP ticket in the 2016 Mississippi Senate primary election. Cochran's words, “We all have a right to be proud of [Mississippi] tonight,” now seem ironic as the controversy surrounding his victory continued to grow. Cochran had implored democratic, and most significantly African-American voters to turnout for him in the Republican congressional primary runoff, inspiring anger from his opposition (CSPAN 2014). His argument was simple: a victory by his challenger, the young, surging Tea Party darling, Chris McDaniel, would spell disaster for progressives and especially African-Americans across the state (Nave Reference Nave2014).
Cochran's purported strategy worked to perfection: the counties with the largest increase in votes from the general primary to the runoff election coincided with the percentage of African-Americans in each county (Cohn and Willis Reference Cohn and Willis2014; Eten Reference Eten2016). In other words, the Mississippi Senator successfully used the looming threat of a Tea Party victory to mobilize African-Americans in a Republican primary. Through not-so-subtle fliers and door hangers highlighting McDaniel's ties to the Tea Party's “hostile screamers,” blacks helped Cochran defeat a Tea Party movement promising to fight against then President Obama and “take back their country” (Costa Reference Costa2014; Nave Reference Nave2014).
After Thad Cochran's unexpected win, we are left wondering about the ability of reactionary movements to mobilize black voters. To problematize: does the Far Right pose a threat so grave that it serves to actually mobilize African-Americans? Questions such as these become even more pressing when considering the end of President Obama's tenure, and the rise of Donald Trump. Consider the fact that white turnout increased from 2012 to 2016, while black turnout decreased over the same period.Footnote 2 While it is true that Obama's victory in 2012 rode a wave of increasing back turnout, covering 20 years,Footnote 3 the fact of the matter is that, relative to whites, black turnout declined in 2016.Footnote 4 Furthermore, evidence suggests that reactionary conservatives, such as Tea Party sympathizers, are more engaged in politics than other Americans (Parker and Barreto Reference Parker and Barreto2013; Towler Reference Towler2014). Therefore, African-American political mobilization is critical to combating a significant segment of America determined to not only halt social change, but to return society to a far less progressive past.
In this paper, we investigate the relationship between the current reactionary movement and African-Americans, using a movement–counter-movement framework. We argue that African-Americans who hold strong negative feelings toward Donald Trump are more politically engaged than blacks who do not. Furthermore, a framework that positions social movements as related, and often in response to one another offers a nuanced understanding of conservative reactionary movements as a potential catalyst for progressive political engagement in response.
This project advances the literature on social movements and African-American political engagement. To start, we examine political mobilization beyond traditional factors (sociodemographics), as well as explanations historically important to our understanding of black political action, such as the black church and group consciousness. Further, much scholarship presents conservative movements elevating electoral participation on behalf of its cause(s) (e.g. Lipset and Raab Reference Lipsit and Raab1970; Munson Reference Munson2009; Parker and Barreto Reference Parker and Barreto2013), but this project offers an example of progressive mobilization spurred by the reactionary right. However, even with important theoretical interventions guiding our analysis, we first take a moment to interrogate the project's premise: whether or not the hostility and racial antipathy associated with Trump and contemporary reactionary conservatism presents a threat to African-Americans.
We examine African-American political engagement by taking a closer look at reactionary conservatism and race in America, contextualized by Trump's rise to power. Then, we briefly explain why the current political environment is ripe for African-American mobilization in response to a reactionary movement. Finally, we turn to public opinion data to test whether or not African-American attitudes toward the reactionary right serve as a catalyst for political mobilization. Without definitively suggesting that we are witnessing an organized political counter-movement, our findings support the initial claim: strong negative attitudes toward President Trump are significantly associated with higher levels of African-American political engagement, even after considering numerous alternative explanations.
Recent accounts of the 2016 general election are already chronicling the dramatic drop in black political engagement following President Obama's tenure.Footnote 5 Perhaps the threatening political environment, characterized by Trump, can propel blacks to once again reach similar heights. Scholarship suggests that political context directly influences an individual's decision to engage in politics. For example, hostile socio-political climates tend to encourage threatened individuals to view their perceived benefits from participating in politics in terms of group interests; a sense of group consciousness is vital for under-represented groups seeking solidarity in the face of oppressive groups or state structures (Dawson Reference Dawson1994; Giles and Evans Reference Giles and Evans1986; Giles and Hertz Reference Giles and Hertz1994; Key Reference Key1949; Radcliff and Saiz Reference Radcliff and Saiz1995; Uhlaner Reference Uhlaner1989). While we flesh out what African-Americans think of Trump later in the paper, we think it safe to say Trump and the reactionary right represents an unfriendly political milieu to which the black community is exposed.
Furthermore, when threats such as racial retrenchment breed anger, as opposed to fear, these threats are capable of mobilizing the target group. Social psychologist, Richard Lazarus, asserts that a disruption in the pursuit of goals produces anger, especially when the goal is designed to enhance an individual's sense of self through the validation of their group identity (Lazarus Reference Lazarus1991). Thus, anger, especially combined with anxiety about a loss in social prestige, motivates individuals to challenge perceived threats by engaging in politics (Cottrell and Neuberg Reference Cottrell and Neuberg2005; Lerner and Keltner Reference Lerner and Keltner2001; Parker and Barreto Reference Parker and Barreto2013).
Perceived threats that validate group membership help individuals overcome barriers to political participation, and group solidarity is historically at the center of African-American political movements capable of sustaining beyond the various costs required (i.e. time, knowledge of politics, etc.).Footnote 6 However, while we make the case for black mobilization in response to Trump, a majority of the literature on counter-movements focuses on conservative movements capitalizing on perceived threats of social change.Footnote 7 History shows that progressive social movements are often met with a strong reactive counter-movement seeking to halt all social change. Consequently, our evaluations of the success and future strength of progressive movements depend on understanding the dynamics of oppositional counter-movements (Meyer and Staggenborg Reference Meyer David and Suzanne1996).
What Makes a Counter-movement?
Some of the most exhaustive scholarship on movement dynamics by Meyer and Staggenborg (Reference Meyer David and Suzanne1996) focus on political opportunity structure. Meyer and Stattenborg argue that counter-movements thrive when social movements are perceived as threats to existing interests. For example, a policy response from the government to appease one group may be perceived as a threat by another, and present an opportunity for mobilization (Meyer and Staggenborg Reference Meyer David and Suzanne1996). For instance, the election of President Obama, marriage equality, and immigration reform all acted as threats mobilizing support for the Tea Party and reactionary conservatism (Parker and Barreto Reference Parker and Barreto2013).
Still, scholarship tends to overlook the relationship between social movements and counter-movements even though movement–counter-movement interaction is an “on-going feature of contemporary politics” (Meyer and Staggenborg Reference Meyer David and Suzanne1996, 1628). Since most social movements aim to extract concessions from the government, the relationships between movements and counter-movements is indispensable, as this dynamic interaction often shapes state responses. For instance, the interaction between movements and counter-movements has shaped our understanding of the battles over abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, gay rights, gun control, busing, nuclear power, and environmental policies, to name a few. In each case, a social movement of political significance was met with a movement in opposition—a counter-movement. Therefore, as the state is unable to “resolve conflicts definitively,” social movements as vehicles for opposing other social movements continue to moderate our understanding of movement success and failure (Meyer and Staggenborg Reference Meyer David and Suzanne1996, 1630).
In most cases, counter-movements emerge in opposition to social movements that have the potential for significant social change. For example, in response to court-ordered desegregation in the South, a counter-movement for private academies made substantial gains. Specifically, the formation of private academies in Mississippi occurred in response to a sizable organized group of African-Americans presenting a credible threat to school segregation (Andrews Reference Andrews2002). Similarly, anti-feminist movements are credited with dampening the impact of the women's movement in the 1970s and 1980s (Faludi Reference Faludi1991; Ryan Reference Ryan1992; Schreiber Reference Schreiber2008); much of the limited successes of the women's rights movement, and even many of the concessions, are attributed to the rise of a New Right that successfully painted pro-feminism as anti-family (Conover and Gray Reference Conover and Gray1983).
A Conventional Approach: Reactionary Movements
Still, even as other movements may share similar elements with the reactionary right, reactionary conservative movements remain consumed by attitudes that oppose social reform of any kind (Parker and Barreto Reference Parker and Barreto2013). Reactionary movements often capture national attention, and, in most cases, successfully lobby for regressive policy (Kabaservice Reference Kabaservice2012). Bluntly stated, these movements have influenced national politics through the Republican Party's platforms. Additionally, reactionary conservative movements are well organized, national movements that all have (or had) sizeable memberships, organized chapters, political candidates, and a policy platform.Footnote 8
For example, the “Know Nothing” Party of the 1850s, was a reactionary movement responding to the great social change of immigration to America from Western Europe. Similarly, growing out of a white supremacist need to recapture the South in the decades following reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s preached fraternity and proclaimed Catholics, Jews, Orientals [sic], immigrants, and especially blacks enemies of America (Jackson Reference Jackson1967; Lipsit and Raab Reference Lipsit and Raab1970; Parker and Barreto Reference Parker and Barreto2013). Other movements, such as the 1960s reaction to civil rights and the Cold War (that also propelled Barry Goldwater to the Republican Presidential Nomination), fit such a model. The most notable movement organizations of the 1960s-reactionary right—such as the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade, Americans for Constitutional Actions and the infamous John Birch Society—all shared vitriol for social progress perceived as threatening traditional American values and way of life (Hixon Reference Hixon1992; Lipset Reference Lipset1955). Working from predisposed worldviews, 1960s reactionary conservatives identified agents of social change, such as minorities and progressives, as conspirators and traitors destroying their sacred way of life (Lipsit and Raab Reference Lipsit and Raab1970; Parker and Barreto Reference Parker and Barreto2013).Footnote 9
For an example of a current reactionary counter-movement, we need to look no further than the Tea Party and Trump's presidential rise.Footnote 10 Reacting to social progress, specifically immigration, gay and lesbian rights, and the symbolic election of the first non-white President, the Tea Party movement promoted social change as subversion (Parker and Barreto Reference Parker and Barreto2013). With sympathy amongst threatened (generally white) Americans, the Tea Party movement initiated a GOP takeover of the House of Representatives with a gain of 68 seats since 2010, and, in the 2012 election cycle, 48 of the 52 House incumbents claiming loyalty to the Tea Party won (Bailey, Mummolo, and Noel Reference Bailey, Mummolo and Noel2012).
Since the rise of the Tea Party, America has also witnessed the roll back of 60 years of civil rights gains. Backed by the Tea Party, movements adding strict voter ID requirements, purging voter rolls, and limiting or altogether ending early voting have become commonplace (Berman Reference Berman2015; Mock and Voting Rights Watch Reference Mock2012; Ward Reference Ward2015). Moreover, quantitative analyses suggest reactionary attitudes significantly predict opposition to progressive change and under-represented groups generally, and claim reactionary attitudes endure over time.Footnote 11 So it comes as no surprise that analyses are connecting the dots between the Tea Party and Trump's rise to power.Footnote 12 As reactionary conservatives continue to actively push for policies that disproportionately affect poor and minority communities, such as voter ID requirements, the contemporary reactionary right is aligning with the past. Considering the enduring strength of reactionary attitudes, the potential to mobilize African-Americans in response is critical to understanding the prospect of racial progress in the future.
The Case for Progressive Counter-Movements
Scholarship on right wing social movements pales in comparison to work that prioritizes progressive movements in the United States, especially as it pertains to the struggle for basic civil rights. Historical accounts make clear the fact that the black community resisted oppression from the very beginning (e.g. Franklin Reference Franklin1974; Hahn Reference Hahn2003; Holt Reference Holt2011). Perhaps the most elaborate account of black counter-mobilization to reactionary movements, however, is the civil rights movement. In these mainly sociological perspectives, the black community counter-mobilized against white supremacy in their fight to desegregate schools and public spaces. Collective grievance, and the resolve to correct the feeling of injustice, motivated insurgency on the part of the black community (e.g. McAdam Reference McAdam1982; Morris Reference Morris1984). But this was pure protest, beyond the bounds of electoral politics.
Shifting to electoral politics, Parker (Reference Parker2009) shows that black veterans dove headlong into electoral politics at a time during which doing so could prove a hazard to their health, given the propensity for white supremacists to murder black folk who sought to vote. Having experienced better treatment from foreign comrades while serving abroad, and laying their lives on the line to protect American democracy, blacks returned to unremitting hostility in the South. The ensuing outrage pushed black veterans to take the lead in state and local movements for civil rights. Veterans, such as Medger Evers, returned from service to deep southern states like Mississippi to become leaders in the black community, organizing voter-registration efforts, demonstrations, and boycotts (Parker Reference Parker, Mark Q. and Towler2009). Similarly, scholarship also suggests Latino political interest and engagement increased in response to the threat Proposition 187 posed immigrant communities in California (Pantoja and Segura Reference Pantoja and Segura2003; Pantoja et al. Reference Pantoja, Ricardo and Segura2001). Like black veterans’ in the Jim Crow south and Latinos in California, an electoral response to Trump's racially regressive politics today fits squarely within a historical tradition of underrepresented communities engaging in politics as a form of resistance.
While black veterans’ and Latinos' activism are only a few of many examples of resistance, the current project offers added value to the broader literature for at least two reasons. First, this analysis examines African-Americans responding to a perceived threat on a nationwide scale, offering reason to speculate about African-American political engagement across the country.Footnote 13 Second, African-American mobilization responding to an already reactionary movement expands our understanding of movement–counter-movement dynamics; we are going one step beyond a traditional analysis focused on the initial movement and response, and are presumably the first to do so empirically. Before turning to public opinion data to test the theoretical expectations promoted here, the following further details why we might expect African-Americans to mobilize in response to a reactionary movement today.
THEORY AND HYPOTHESES
If we consider the last decade of the reactionary right's policy success and the perceived racist threat Trump represents, a multitude of examples suggest an opportunity for African-American mobilization in response. Starting with the Tea Party, reactionary conservatives relentlessly attacked President Obama. All the while, blacks overwhelmingly supported him at the polls and in public opinion surveys throughout his presidency.Footnote 14 From Tea Party Republicans calling for Obama's impeachment, to GOP leaders identifying their top goal as making Obama a one-term President (NBCNews 2010), conservative attitudes toward Obama were laced with racial resentment (Barreto et al. Reference Barreto, Cooper, Gonzales, Parker and Towler2011; Parker and Barreto Reference Parker and Barreto2013). Support for Trump's candidacy exploded when he questioned Obama's birthright citizenship, and Trump has continued to antagonize the black community ever since.Footnote 15
However, conservative opposition to Obama comes as no surprise considering scholarship suggests racism plays a significant role in determining white opposition toward black political candidates (Kinder and Sears Reference Kinder and Sears1981; Parker et al. Reference Parker, Mark Q. and Towler2009; Tesler and Sears Reference Tesler and Sears2010). The influence of modern day racism, or racial resentment, is most known for its place in opposition toward affirmative action and other race-conscious programs (Feldman and Huddy Reference Feldman and Huddy2005; Kluegel and Bobo Reference Kluegel and Bobo1993; Sidanius et al. Reference Sidanius, Shana, James and Felicia2000). Racial resentment relies upon anti-black affect, or a “pre-existing negative attitude toward blacks” (Feldman and Huddy Reference Feldman and Huddy2005, 169). In other words, racial resentment is catalyzed by the gains and growing demands of black Americans, and further fueled by the first African-American President in history (Barreto et al. Reference Barreto, Cooper, Gonzales, Parker and Towler2011; Kinder and Sanders Reference Kinder and Sanders1996).
As accusations of racism within the contemporary reactionary right have existed since its inception, Donald Trump's rise to power depended on specifically fanning that flame. For example, Donald Trump's strong anti-immigration rhetoric, labeling undocumented immigrants as gang members and rapists, motivated some Latinos to naturalize in order to vote against him in 2016 (Preston Reference Preston2016).Footnote 16 Trump's unapologetic and racially conservative politics, along with the violent and discriminatory treatment of blacks condoned at his rallies, led to fierce African-American protests against Donald Trump during his campaign.Footnote 17 Furthermore, Trump was openly hostile toward the African-American community's response to his rhetoric and policy stances. At a campaign rally, Trump voiced his opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement by proclaiming they are “looking for trouble.”Footnote 18 Trump's political appointees also represent a real threat to African-American progress. Specifically, Trump is selecting white men as federal judges at the highest rate in three decades, and attorney general Jeff Session's has renewed America's war on crime and blindly supports police and prosecutors.Footnote 19
Finally, the reluctance of Trump to condemn racism and white supremacy, such as describing the 2017 Unite the Right protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia, as “very fine people” cements Trump as a racist threat, and continues to pit the current reactionary right against the African-American community.Footnote 20 Accordingly, Trump's targeted racial attacks since Obama's presidency have created circumstances ripe for African-American mobilization in response, and the racialized political environment the black community is enduring offers an opportunity to better understand the relationship between political context and political engagement.
Along with the anecdotal evidence, scholars have also closely examined the relationship between reactionary conservatism and racial resentment. For instance, research suggests that Tea Party sympathizers are “considerably more likely” to express an “anti-Black animus” through racially resentful attitudes (Barreto et al. Reference Barreto, Cooper, Gonzales, Parker and Towler2011, 127).Footnote 21 With evidence from both qualitative and quantitative scholarship suggesting reactionary conservative movements harbor racism, it is reasonable to argue that the reactionary right today could be perceived as a movement dangerous to black America.
In addition, when directly asked about their opinions of Trump, African-Americans who strongly oppose him describe racism as a main reason why. Even though some blacks somewhat opposed the President, and others even approved—mostly on the basis of economics, taxes, and immigration, the large majority of African-Americans we talked to express strong opposition to what they perceive as racism and discrimination. In other words, blacks who strongly opposed Trump do so because they believe he is racist, and represents a racist threat to the black community.
For example, a respondent from Virginia strongly opposed Trump “because he is a racist and he is bringing hate back.” Another respondent from Ohio expressed that they “strongly feel [Trump] is a racist, and is bad for America,” while one respondent from North Carolina thinks Trump “seems intent on dividing us as a country and trying to make everyone afraid.” To best summarize black opposition to Trump, a Californian proclaimed Trump a “Racist, misogynistic, asinine, infuriating bigot.” Therefore, even as both anecdotal and evidence-based examples suggest Trump and reactionary conservatives represent a racial threat, blacks also say as much when asked.Footnote 22 Thus, we are left asking whether negative perceptions of Trump and the reactionary conservative movement behind him are driving African-Americans into politics.
The remaining investigates whether or not the reactionary conservative movement today leads to counter-mobilization amongst African-Americans. Our analysis will focus on comparing African-Americans with strong negative opinions of Trump to those with somewhat negative or no strong opinions at all. Due to a lack of variation in black attitudes toward Trump (an overwhelming amount of strong opposition), the most useful comparison juxtaposes blacks who strongly oppose Trump with blacks who have yet to form a strong opinion. If strong opposition to Trump really is an indication that blacks view the current political climate as unusually hostile, then they should engage politics at higher rates. If, however, black opposition to Trump does not reflect blacks perceiving a racial threat, then blacks who have yet to form an opinion about Trump will engage politics the same as those who oppose him. Therefore, we focus our analysis on African-American political engagement to test the following hypothesis:Footnote 23
African Americans with negative opinions of Donald Trump will engage politics at higher rates than African Americans who have yet to form an opinion.
Having detailed a theoretical framework explaining African-American political mobilization in response to the contemporary reactionary conservative movement, it is essential we also discuss possible alternative explanations. Scholarship identifies racial group consciousness (or linked-fate) and church attendance as all related to African-American political engagement (Dawson Reference Dawson1994; Harris Reference Harris1999). African-Americans have found great success mobilizing through group-based resources. The black church is the oldest social institution in the black community, and also the institutional backbone for black civic engagement (McAdam Reference McAdam, McAdam, McCarthy and Zald1999). The church exists with a built-in organizational structure and membership base perfect for launching political action, and occupies the same capacity today.Footnote 24 Furthermore, religion also encourages blacks to exercise extreme courage in trying times, and may push blacks into politics in spite of Trump (Harris Reference Harris1999) Hence, it may be African-American church participation that accounts for significant differences in political engagement.
Similarly, group-based models suggest that racial group identity is also a powerful mobilizer (Dawson Reference Dawson1994). Through perceived shared interests, blacks gain a sense of solidarity essential for group mobilization (Miller et al. Reference Miller, Gurin, Gurin and Malanchuk1981). Blacks may perceive political engagement as a way to advance their community regardless of their opinions of Trump. If this is the case, it may be that black opposition toward Trump is really indicative of group identity and we must account for this explanation. Yet, if opposition toward Trump predicts political engagement while considering both church attendance and racial group consciousness, then President Trump is motivating blacks beyond group-based explanations. The previous discussion results in our second hypothesis:
Given the power of group-based resources in black political behavior, it's unlikely that opinions on Trump will have an independent impact on mobilizing the black community.
DATA AND METHODS
To test our hypotheses regarding the mobilizing effect of political context, we turn to the 2016 Black Voter Project (BVP) Pilot Study, an original dataset collected in the months following the 2016 election. The BVP Pilot Study consists of 511 responses from African-Americans located in six battleground states first identified in the 2011 Multi-State Survey of Race and Politics, all with significant African-American constituencies:Footnote 25 GA, MI, MO, OH, NC, and VA—as well as the state of CA.Footnote 26 Due to concerns regarding low African-American mobilization during the 2016 general election post-Obama (Gillespie and King-Meadows Reference Gillespie and King-Meadows2014)—with reports suggesting African-American turnout dropped as much as 12% in some battleground states (Fraga et al. Reference Fraga, Sean, Jessie and Schaffner2017), we focus our examination on black political engagement.
We rely upon two proxies to assess whether or not an individual views the contemporary political environment, dominated by Trump and reactionary conservatism, as threatening. We start with general approval for Donald Trump as it offers a baseline for African-American attitudes toward the current political context. We then look toward a measure of more fervent feelings of threat as respondents were asked whether or not an individual believes that Trump is “destroying the country.” In this case, respondents must agree that Trump represents an actual threat to America. For ease of interpretation, responses for both Trump approval and agreement with the assertion that Trump is destroying the country are coded into separate dichotomous variables (0 or 1). For example, responses for strongly disapprove of Trump, somewhat disapprove, approve and no opinion of Trump are each coded into separate variables (0–1) and modeled simultaneously to aid in a comparison of strong disapprovers of Trump to blacks with no opinion.
In order to examine political engagement, we assess whether or not African-Americans voted in 2016, their intention to vote in 2018, their political interest and their participation in a number of other political behaviors that go beyond voting, such as signing a petition, boycotting, demonstrating, attending a political meeting, contacting their representative(s), and donating to a political campaign.Footnote 27 Both voting in 2016 and vote confidence for 2018 were coded on two-point scales (0–1), where higher values correspond to African-Americans who voted and blacks who expressed certainty in their vote in the 2018 midterm elections, respectively. Political interest was coded on a three-point scale (0–1), such that high values reflected high levels of political interest.
In addition to opposition to Trump, a number of other sociodemographic and political factors might also be associated with political engagement; so, we account for other factors, such as approval of former president Obama and political knowledge (an index of questions about congressional representation, the vice president and Supreme Court justices), as alternative explanations that may be associated with political action (see Appendix for full coding of all variables). Furthermore, by focusing on Trump, our examination stretches beyond mobilization due to attachment to other social movements or protest organizations advocating for social change.Footnote 28
Prior to jumping into an examination of the 2017 BVP Pilot Study, research focused on African-American voter turnout in the 2010 midterm election already offers preliminary results that validate our claim. Relying upon a black oversample in the 2011 MSSRP, scholarship suggests that there is a significant association between negative opinions of the Tea Party, symbolic of the threatening political context prior to Trump's presidency, and black voter turnout in the 2010 midterm election.Footnote 29 Even after accounting for alternative explanations, such as political knowledge, age, gender, education, partisan identity, ideology, racial group identity, and favorability toward Obama, African-Americans with strong negative opinions of the Tea Party movement were significantly more likely to vote in 2010. To be specific, the predicted probability that blacks who strongly opposed the Tea Party voted in 2010 was 95%, at least 9% higher than blacks with no opinion of the reactionary conservative movement. Therefore, even though we believe Trump a strong proxy, the threatening political context of the reactionary conservative movement is not necessarily unique to Trump or the current political circumstances.Footnote 30
2016 General Election Results and Analysis
While a preliminary glance at the 2010 midterm election suggests that the Tea Party, and the politically threatening context it represents, is a powerful mobilizer for African-Americans, we turn to the 2016 BVP Pilot Study to assess whether or not this relationship remains powerful at a time when black electoral participation decreased for the first time in three decades. Although Trump supporters are not exactly the same as Tea Party sympathizers, Trump is the de facto leader of a reactionary conservative movement hostile to racial progress and the black community. Nonetheless, does Trump's hostility equate to a political context threatening enough to evoke political engagement?
To begin, our results suggest that black attitudes toward Trump, specifically strong opposition, are related to political engagement. Figure 1 presents the bivariate relationship between approval for Donald Trump and African-American political engagement.
According to Figure 1, there is a relationship between disapproval for Trump (especially strong disapproval) and African-American political engagement. In the cases of political interest and turnout in the 2016 general election, 10 percentage points separate the proportion of blacks that strongly disapprove of Trump from those who simply disapprove, and over 20 percentage points separate strong disapprovers from blacks with no opinion of Trump at all. When it pertains to confidence in vote in the 2018 midterm elections, close to a 40-point gap separate blacks that strongly opposed Trump to those with no opinion of the President. Lastly, a scaled measure for political engagement—that includes petitioning, boycotting, demonstrating, meeting, contacting an official, and donating to a campaign—is also associated with black attitudes toward Trump. Looking at the highest levels of engagement, 13 percentage points separate strong disapprovers of Trump from both blacks that somewhat disapprove and those with no opinion.
Going one step further, the BVP Pilot Study allows for an opportunity to test a more precise measure for the racial threat Trump represents. Nonetheless, a more specific measure of a perceived threatening environment—whether or not African-Americans believe Trump is destroying the country—offers results that are just as telling.Footnote 31 As displayed in Figure 2, the differences between blacks who believe Trump is destroying the country and individuals who fail to express an opinion is considerable.
For example, more than a 20-percentage point gap exist between the number of blacks who strongly agree Trump is destroying the country and those with no opinion when asked about political interest and voter turnout in the 2016 general election. When measuring intention to vote in the 2018 midterm elections and other methods of political engagement, the gap between the number who strongly agree and those that hold no opinion remains. Our bivariate results suggest that there is an association between the way African-Americans perceive their political environment and political engagement for both a general and a more specific measure of contextual threat.
Our next step is to account for alternative explanations when examining the relationship between perceived political context and political engagement. Thus, we turn to multivariate modeling in which we account for ideology, partisanship, political knowledge, political trust, approval of now former president Obama, and measures of group-based mobilization (group identity and church attendance), along with various sociodemographic and political measures. At first glance, the bivariate results hold even after accounting for an overabundance of additional factors (see Tables A1 and A2 in the Appendix). Although it is useful to point out the statistical significance of the main independent variables—Trump approval and belief he is destroying the country—far more information can be gleaned from examining predicted probabilities.Footnote 32 Figure 3 displays the predicted probability of a respondent engaging in politics depending on their approval of Trump.
First, after accounting for other factors, the differences between black approval of Trump and interest in politics become insignificant (see Table A1 in Appendix). In other words, variables such as political knowledge, approval of Obama and group-based measures account for differences in black political interest. However, when predicting voter turnout in the 2016 general election, intent to vote in the 2018 midterm elections and political acts beyond voting, strongly disapproving of Trump predicts significantly higher levels of political engagement across the board (see Figure 3). For instance, when compared to blacks with no opinion of Trump, individuals who strongly disapprove are 30% more likely to have voted in the 2016 general election. Moreover, when it comes to an individual's intention to vote in the 2018 midterm election, blacks that strongly disapproved of Trump are over 40% more likely to express confidence in their 2018 midterm participation than blacks with no opinion of Trump. Lastly, although not as pronounced, blacks that strongly disapprove of Trump are significantly more likely to participate in multiple (four or more) acts of political engagement beyond voting.
Clearly, how some African-Americans feel about Trump on a basic level—approval as a political figure—is a strong predictor of different types of political engagement. However, original data allows for a unique opportunity to validate the theoretical link between contextual threat and political engagement using a more precise measure of threat: whether or not Trump is destroying the country. Figure 4 displays the predicted probability of a respondent engaging in politics depending on whether or not they believe Trump is destroying America.
Similar to approval for Trump, blacks that believe Trump is destroying the country engage in politics at levels far superior to those with no opinion. Moreover, we find that blacks that believe Trump is destroying the country are also significantly more likely to be interested in politics. For example, compared to blacks with no opinion of Trump, those who believe that he is destroying the country are over 25% more likely to express a high interest in politics. When it comes to voting, threatened blacks are 18% more likely to have voted in 2016, as well as over 20% more likely to express confidence in their 2018 midterm-election participation. Furthermore, blacks who agree that Trump is a threat to America are significantly more likely to engage in four or more political acts beyond voting, such as calling their representative or donating to a political campaign.
Surprisingly, significant differences also emerge between blacks who somewhat believe Trump is destroying the country and blacks who strongly believe this is the case. For example, when compared with blacks who somewhat agree that Trump is destroying the country, blacks who express strong agreement are 10% more likely to be highly interested in politics, and 20% more likely to feel confident they will vote in 2018, respectively. Thus, there are stark differences in the probability of engaging politics between blacks threatened by the current political environment and both those with less forceful opinions or no opinion at all when considering a multitude of other, theoretically important, explanations.
DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION
In this paper, we examined the influence of the current political context, driven by the reactionary impulse that resulted in the election of Donald Trump, on possible African-American counter-mobilization. Our results suggest that, on balance, blacks respond to a threatening political climate with increased political engagement. In doing so, our findings add to a broader understanding of social movement dynamics and African-American mobilization. For instance, our work suggests that the current reactionary conservative movement has the potential to mobilize African-Americans beyond other factors. Even after accounting for historical explanations of black political mobilization, church attendance and group consciousness, blacks that express opposition toward the contemporary political context, or believe that Trump is destroying the country, are significantly more likely to engage in politics. These results jibe with other work in American politics in which negative affect promotes political activity (e.g. Marcus, MacKuen, and Neuman Reference Marcus, Neuman and Mackuen2000; Valentino et al. Reference Valentino, Brader, Groenendyk, Krysha and Hutchings2011).
Further, this analysis suggests continued movement dynamics beyond the initial reactionary conservative movement, highlighting the utility of a framework centered on the interaction between social movements and counter-movements. In this case, our analysis also suggests there is the potential for counter-movement-mobilization post-Obama when African-Americans are searching for reasons to engage politics with similar ambition. Hopefully, we can also look toward other under-represented groups, such as Latinos and Muslim Americans, to find examples of similar movement dynamics in action.
Throughout this paper, we have argued that strong negative opinions of Donald Trump will drive African-American political engagement, and that such mobilization is best understood from a movement counter-movement framework. The results offer strong evidence for our initial claim. Nonetheless, the analysis does not come without limitations and future steps to further enhance our understanding of movement dynamics. For example, while the pilot study data focuses on states that have proved instrumental to electoral politics over the past decade, more widespread data collection of African-American attitudes toward Trump and the current political environment could aid in understanding how reactionary conservatism influences blacks at the state and local level across the country. Additionally, panel data are ideal for understanding changes in political engagement from one time to another; however, no such data for African-Americans exists at this time. Still, the powerful and consistent differences between threatened blacks and those without such opinions presents strong evidence that, at the very least, some blacks in instrumental battleground states are mobilized by the political environment that Trump represents. Moreover, the fact that we have significant findings with a sample of only 511 respondents—with 6 percent of the sample having no opinion when asked their approval of Trump and 19 percent failing to express an opinion on whether or not Trump is destroying the country—we believe that our results are underestimating the relationship between black attitudes toward Trump and political engagement.
Finally, Donald Trump's presidency offers an opportunity to expand how we think about the relationship between the reactionary right and progressive political movements as black attitudes toward Trump may prove a powerful a mobilizer post-Obama. It might be time for progressive politicians and party leaders who depend upon African-American political engagement for success to take note, and potentially shift their mobilization strategy in black communities to emphasize the damaging effects of Trump and the reactionary conservative movement on racial progress.Footnote 33 Such a scenario might be enough to spark a national African-American political counter-movement, carrying on the highly engaged status African-Americans displayed under President Obama; a level of engagement that can swing battleground states and once again exert an African-American voice into the local, state, and national political conversation.
APPENDIX: STUDY DESCRIPTION, QUESTION WORDING, AND CODING
DESCRIPTION OF STUDY: 2017 BVP PILOT STUDY
The data collected are from an online questionnaire administered by Survey Sample International (SSI), which is a non-partisan, survey research center with access to mobile panels for market and academic research. Dr. Christopher Towler, an Assistant Professor of Political Science, is the principal investigator on this survey. The survey was administered online based on randomly selected email addresses from lists of panel respondents who identify as African-American or black. An online questionnaire was fielded throughout the month of April, 2017. With a total 511 African-American respondents, the survey had an average interview length of 18.5 min with an incident rate (completes/completes + screened) of 76.5%. The survey was stratified across age, education, and gender evenly distributing respondents across the states of GA, MI, MO, OH, NC, VA, and CA.
VARIABLE CODING AND WORDING
Vote in 2016 Election
Voting in the 2016 general election was measured by: “Did you vote in the 2016 general election in November?” It was coded either 0 or 1, where voter = 1.
Vote Confidence in 2018 Midterm Election
A respondent's confidence in their vote in the upcoming 2018 midterm elections was measured by: “Do you plan to vote in the 2018-midterm elections?”
Respondents were able to express whether or not they were confident, felt it was likely, were not sure, or did not plan to vote in the 2018 midterms. Recoded either 0 or 1, where confident voters in 2018 = 1.
Political Interest was measured by: “In general, how interested are you in news about what's going on in government or politics: extremely interested, very interested, slightly interested, or not interested at all?”
Responses were re-coded on a three-point scale (0–1), with low, medium, and high levels of interest. High levels of political interest = 1.
Political Engagement Index
Political engagement is indexed by the following items, and was transformed into an average score scaled from 0 to 1:
(1) “Signed a petition?” Recoded on to a dichotomous variable where Yes = 1.
(2) “Boycotted, or deliberately bought, certain products for political, ethical or environmental reasons?”
Recoded to a dichotomous variable where Yes = 1.
(3) “Took part in a demonstration?”
Recoded to a dichotomous variable where Yes = 1.
(4) “Attended a political meeting?”
Recoded to a dichotomous variable where Yes = 1.
(5) “Contacted, or attempted to contact, a politician or civil servant to express your views?”
Recoded to a dichotomous variable where Yes = 1.
(6) “Donated money or raised funds for a social or political activity?”
Recoded to a dichotomous variable where Yes = 1.
Reliability: α = .81; more acts of political engagement = 1.
Approval of Donald Trump
Approval for President Trump was measured by: “Based on what you have heard, do you approve or disapprove of Donald Trump's presidency?”
Responses were coded into four dichotomous variables (0 or 1), where 1 was either strongly disapprove, somewhat disapprove, approve, or no opinion, depending on the dummy variable.
Belief That Trump is Destroying America
This question asked a whether or not a respondent agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “Donald Trump's presidency is destroying America.”
Responses were coded into four dichotomous variables (0 or 1), where 1 was either strongly agree, somewhat agree, disagree, or no opinion, depending on the dummy variable.
Political knowledge is indexed by the following items, and was transformed into an average score scaled from 0 to 1:
(1) “Do you know who has the final responsibility to decide whether or not a law is constitutional?”
Recoded to a dichotomous variable where Supreme Court = 1.
(2) “Do you happen to know what job or political office is held by Michael Pence?”
Recoded to a dichotomous variable where Vice President = 1.
(3) “Which political party currently has the most seats in the House of Representatives in Washington, DC.”
Recoded to a dichotomous variable where Republicans = 1.
Reliability: α = .65; highly knowledgeable = 1.
Approval of Barack Obama
Approval for Barack Obama was measured by a feeling thermometer from 0 to 10, where 10 = very favorable opinions.
Linked Fate or Group Consciousness
Linked fate, or group consciousness, measured respondents’ answers to the following: “Do you think that what happens generally to African Americans will have something to do with what happens in your life?”
Responses were coded on a four-point scale, where higher values correspond to less group consciousness.
Question asked for the year a respondent was born, and remained linear such that higher values correspond to younger individuals.
Southern region was based on the state of residence for each respondent. Coded either 0 or 1, where GA, NC, and VA = 1.
This question determined the respondent's gender. It was coded either 0 or 1, where female = 1.
These questions determined the respondent's highest level of education: “What is the highest level of education you completed?”
Recoded on 0–1 scale, with three categories where college degree and beyond = 1.
This question determined the respondent's party identification: “Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a Democrat, a Republican, an independent, or what?”
Coded into three different variables on a two-point scale (0–1), where for each dummy variable Democrat = 1, Republican = 1, and Independent/other = 1.
This question determined the respondent's political ideology: “When it comes to politics, do you usually think of yourself as a Liberal, a Conservative, a Moderate, or haven't you thought much about this?”
Three different dummy variables were created on a two-point scale (0–1) for different ideologies, where Liberal = 1, Moderate = 1, and Conservative = 1 for each individual variable.
This question asked how often a respondent attended religious services. It was coded on a six-point scale, where higher values correspond to less church attendance.
This question determined the respondent's marital status. It was coded either 0 or 1, where married = 1.
This question asked whether or not a respondent owned their home. It was coded either 0 or 1, where home owners = 1.
This question measured the household income of the respondent: “What was your total combined household income in 2007 before taxes?”
Income was separated into four dichotomous variables, including a measuring for respondents who refused to provide income information so that a significant number of respondents would not be excluded from the models. Each was coded on a two-point scale (0–1), where lowest level was <40 K, and highest level of income was >80 K.
This question asked respondents: “How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right?” It was coded on a four-point scale, where higher values correspond to less political trust.