Identity Whistling

I’ve seen a few editorials along the lines of this one or this one:

An expanding working class may have dealt the final blow to the Kathleen Wynne Liberals, whose support has now become concentrated among upper class Ontarians and a shrinking middle class. For now, Doug Ford’s PCs hold a strong hand with working class voters—nearly double the support of either the Liberals or NDP. If Ford can sustain his working class support until June 7, he will sweep to a majority government.

It’s eerily similar to what we were hearing about Trump, isn’t it? And in Trump’s case, we’ve got a growing body of evidence that it wasn’t about economics, it was really about identity threat.

Donald Trump’s success in the 2016 campaign for the U.S. presidential election has defied the expectations of many Americans. This study is the first to demonstrate experimentally that the changing racial demographics of America are directly contributing to Trump’s success among Whites by increasing perceived threats to their group’s status. It is also the first to show that White Americans’ responses to increasing racial diversity depend on how identified they are with their ethnic group.

Major, Brenda, Alison Blodorn, and Gregory Major Blascovich. “The threat of increasing diversity: Why many White Americans support Trump in the 2016 presidential election.” Group Processes & Intergroup Relations (2016): 1368430216677304.

The most obvious finding in Table 1 is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, there is little to no evidence that those whose incomes declined or whose incomes increased to a lesser extent than others’ incomes were more likely to support Trump. Even change in subjective assessment of one’s own personal financial situation had no discernible impact on evaluations of Trump or on change in vote choice. Likewise, those who lost a job between 2012 and 2016 were no more likely to support Trump. […]

Mass opinion changes on status threat-related issues were not, by themselves, the driving force in increasing affinity for the Republican candidate. Instead, increasing relative distance from the Democratic candidate on threat-related issues, such as immigration and China, consistently predicted Trump support in a positive direction, whereas decreasing relative distance from the Republican candidate on trade and China also predicted change in the direction of voting for Trump. These consistently significant coefficients indicate that change over time in the candi dates’ perceived positions relative to those of individual respondents had a significant impact in increasing support for Trump. The pattern in Table 1 makes it clear that it was change in how the candidates positioned themselves on status threat-related issues combined with smaller changes in public issue opinions that predicted increasing support for the Republican candidate in 2016.

Mutz, Diana C. “Status Threat, Not Economic Hardship, Explains the 2016 Presidential Vote.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, April 19, 2018, 201718155.

Ironically, a lot of the people banging on about the evils of “identity politics” are engaging in it themselves; people who identify with a privileged group are paranoid about losing those privileges, and will lash out at anyone who’s arguing for a more level playing field. But they recognize that “white people are inherently superior” and similar assertions are monstrous, so they need to hide behind some sort of coded language or flimsy argument. They aren’t part of an identity, oh no, so they can’t be engaging in identity politics! It’s not about a loss of privilege, oh no, it’s about working class voters feeling disenfranchised! It’s not about racism, oh no, it’s about immigrants taking our jobs!

You can see how this could explain the Ontario election: Ford was a horrifically unfit candidate, but identity-threat dog whistles could make him highly valued by a white majority that felt they were under threat, valued enough to transcend his flaws. The missing piece is whether he actually blew those whistles.

Earlier this month, the leader of the Ontario PCs generated significant controversy when he brought up the issue of immigration on the campaign trail, suggesting Ontario should “take care of our own” before worrying about immigrants. On a Google Hangout recently streamed by figures on the far-right linked to several Canadian hate groups, white nationalists appeared thrilled at the prospect of Doug Ford becoming Premier of Ontario. One avowed white nationalist even bragged that Ford was directly communicating with white nationalists using a “dog whistle” – ‘dog whistling’ refers to the use of coded language to disguise racist ideas to a general audience while signalling to racists themselves.

His recent attacks on Toronto “elites” and the media seem like conscious evocations of the bully-boy rhetoric Trump used to great advantage in his 2016 campaign. And his crude style – he once pledged to give his own party an “enema” – hasn’t backfired on him, yet. […]

In recent days, for example, he went out of his way to shun a planned leaders’ debate hosted by a Toronto-area black organization. Over the weekend, he drew boos during a speech to a Somali group during which he promised to reinstate an anti-gang police task force that had been intensely criticized for over-policing poor neighborhoods with large black populations (the Liberal government had pulled the plug on the task force).

Roger Keil, a York University urban geographer who studies politics and planning in Toronto’s suburbs, adds that when Ford was running for mayor, he didn’t exactly race to defend an opponent, a longtime local and federal politician named Olivia Chow, who came in for nasty racial attacks – just one of several that marred that election.“He never made an attempt to put himself between the racist and sexist overtones,” says Keil. “The real Doug Ford is a mean, clever strategist who has demonstrated time and again that he knows exactly what he’s doing.”

All signs point to yes. The best counter-argument isn’t to deny he made those whistles, it’s to argue Canadians are too savvy to fall for them. Click through on that last link and you’ll see what I mean; it goes to great lengths to point out that Toronto is very diverse, and that other conservative groups who used identity-threat dog whistles have been punished for it in the polls. All of them happened before Donald Trump, though. Trump may have shoved the Overton window so far that we’ve grown tolerant of certain whistles. Ford was also one of the first Canadian politicians to have a major press organization blast out and legitimize his whistles, much as Fox News did for Trump.

We need more data up here to be sure, but I suspect identity-threat dog whistles were enough to push Doug Ford over the top. Either way, they’ve become a major player in the North American political landscape.