Trump's Win Uncovers New Deep Divides in America's Social Fabric

Emma Esselstyn (center), a student at the University of Washington joins thousands of protesters march down 2nd Avenue on November 9, 2016 in Seattle, Washington. Demostrations in multiple cities around the country were held the day following Donald Trump
Thousands of protesters march down 2nd Avenue in Seattle, Washington, on Nov. 9, 2016. Social scientists say the deep divides being revealed since Donald Trump won the presidential election are not about ideology. (Image credit: Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

Deep in the heart of Alabama, psychologist Josh Klapow is getting worried.

"I know people hanging up the phone on their best friends in the world."

It's safe to say that the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election has been contentious. In Chicago, New York and other big cities Wednesday night (Nov. 9), anti-Trump protesters took to the streets. In Birmingham, Alabama, even widespread deep-red politics haven't saved average Americans from uncomfortable conversations with their friends and neighbors.

"People are absolutely burning personal bridges, because they're making the decision, consciously, saying, 'I cannot live with you for voting for that person,'" Klapow, a clinical psychologist at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, told Live Science. "This is the most socially damaging thing I've ever seen."

In Hillary Clinton's concession speech to Donald Trump on Wednesday, the Democratic candidate called America "more deeply divided than we thought."

And indeed, exit polls that show major gaps in Republican and Democratic support by social class, by ethnic and racial identity, and by geography paint a grim portrait of American unity. Strangely, though, surveys on specific policies and party affiliation show that the American public is not particularly polarized: Ideology is the domain of a noisy few. [Life's Extremes: Democrat vs. Republican]

The divisions in America are instead cultural, experts say. And this more intransigent division can explain how a rabble-rouser candidate with a potpourri of political views captured the presidency in a system that has long calcified into liberal and conservative wings. 

"The cut in the electorate isn't a clear left and right," said Peter Ditto, a political psychologist the University of California, Irvine. "It's kind of an up and down, or it comes in diagonally where education and ethnic identity seem to be the things that are determining votes."   

What the polls missed

Men preferred Trump over Clinton 53 percent to 41 percent, according to CNN. Women were a near mirror image, preferring Clinton to Trump 54 percent to 42 percent. Whites preferred Trump over Clinton 58 percent to 37 percent; blacks preferred Clinton 88 percent to Trump's 8 percent. College grads went for Clinton 52 percent versus 43 percent for Trump, while those without a college degree chose Trump over Clinton by 52 percent versus 44 percent.

The divisions seen in 2016 exit polls aren't new. The Republican candidate in 2012, Mitt Romney, took 52 percent of the male vote (versus 45 percent for Obama), while Obama took 55 percent of the female vote (versus 44 percent for Romney), according to CNN exit polls. Similarly, 59 percent of white voters went for Romney in 2012, while 93 percent of African-American votes went to Obama.

Ahead of this election, pollsters and pundits expecting a Clinton victory fell into one of two traps, said Morris Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford University and the Hoover Institution. They may have missed people who were unwilling to admit their support for Trump for fear of social censure, he said. More important, though, was that the likely Clinton turnout was overestimated, while the likely Trump turnout was underestimated.  

"The Democrats were too confident in their ground game," Fiorina said, and didn't consider that voters weren't as enthusiastic about Clinton as they had been about Obama. [Nasty Elections: 5 Times Presidential Candidates Went Low]

Ideological overlap

The election upended conventional thinking in other ways, too. In previous years, gridlock in Congress raised worries over the polarization of the left and right. Political scientists agreed that Democrats and Republicans had become more polarized since the 1970s. They now tend to run in lockstep: Rarely will you find a Republican who supports abortion rights, or a Democrat who likes open-carry gun laws.

"The party and the ideology have lined up much more closely than they were in the past when the Democrats had a conservative wing and the Republicans had a liberal wing," Fiorina said.

It doesn't follow, however, that the American public also became polarized. In fact, while activists and donors increasingly identify strongly with one or the other party, the general public has been fairly consistent over the past 40 years, Fiorina wrote in an essay in September. The number of people who identify as "moderates" or "don't know" on the nationally representative General Social Survey has stayed steady at around 40 percent since the 1970s. The long-running American National Election Surveys likewise find that on the issues, Americans don't conform as neatly to their party’s official stance. On issues ranging from military spending to government-provided health care, Americans cluster around moderate positions, with typically around 10 to 15 percent of people staking out positions on the "very liberal" and "very conservative" sides.  

All of these voters, however, must choose between two increasingly different political parties, Fiorina said.

The public is closely divided," between these two parties, Fiorina said, "but not deeply divided." Many, he said, simply don't fit comfortably in either.

Enter Trump. He presented a mix of ideological positions, Fiorina said: Anti-immigration policy not so alien to the right alongside a proposed infrastructure stimulus plan that seemed out of the Democratic playbook. Praise of Russia that makes Republicans blanche, with condemnation of Islam that makes Democrats shudder.

"I think a large part of the voting for Trump was not really issue-related," Fiorina said "It was just a desire to stick it to people [that Trump voters] think had been looking down on them."

"I'd be willing to be that the New York Times helped Trump by being so over-the-top," Fiorina said, referring to the paper's strong anti-Trump editorial stance. There's general contempt among the Democrats' well-educated upper-middle class constituency for "the patriotism and the religiosity and the lifestyle" of conservatives, Fiorina said.   

"I think people sense that," he said.

Two Americas?

Trump voters wanted to send a defiant message, agreed political scientist Keith Poole of the University of Georgia. [The 5 Strangest Presidential Elections in US History]

"The way to understand this election is that it was a 'FY' election," Poole said, "You can't say it, but that means f*** you."

Between 40 and 50 percent of the lowest-income families in America haven't seen an increase in income for the past 40 years, Poole told Live Science. The economic gains of the past eight years have gone mostly to those in the upper-income brackets, he said.

"That's why you keep seeing these polls that say America's on the wrong track," Poole said. In a country divided along economic lines, Trump tapped voters, many rural, who felt left behind, he said.

And those voters might not know anyone who supported Clinton — just as many urban Clinton supporters might not know a single Trump voter. Americans are increasingly segregated in bubbles of people like them, said UC Irvine's Ditto. Partisans seek out news sources tailor-made to support their opinions, he said. And people choose neighborhoods where they feel comfortable, which often means they end up living next door to people who vote just like them, Ditto added.

"That's harder because the policies can change, and the divisions can stay the same," Ditto said.

Indeed, Ditto said, Trump's election was more about personality and morals than policy vision. Trump resonated with conservative voters because he spoke to values that political conservatives tend to cherish more than liberals: authority and traditionalism, for example, Ditto said.

"It's not that the two sides have completely oppositional values but different things bother them, and other things they allow to go," Ditto told Live Science. [5 Animals With a Moral Compass]

According to psychology's Moral Foundations Theory, liberals tend to care most about issues of care and fairness, while conservatives care about those things, too — but also worry about things liberals don't tend to care much about, like loyalty, deference to authority and sanctity.

Thus, when Trump made statements that struck liberal voters as unforgivably racist or homophobic, Trump supporters didn't necessarily love those statements, either, Ditto said, but they aren't bothered as much as liberals.

"When he says racist things, they go, 'Yeah, I don't like that, but it's not a deal-breaker for me," Ditto said. "Where for liberals, it's a deal-breaker."

That kind of morality schism is hard to overcome, Ditto said. It turns into a self-sustaining cycle of distrust and fighting.

"It's possible that something could intervene to bring the country back together," he said. "External threats do that. But my guess is we're going to be looking at this kind of conflict continuing."   

In Alabama, there's little sign of reconciliation so far, Klapow said. People who had previously lived in harmony with people they disagreed with are "calling each other out" over the results of the election, he said. And the schisms aren't over the usual political arguments, but over whether Trump is morally fit to lead — and whether voters for either side are good people, he said.

"It's going to change the social fabric," Klapow said, "because nobody wants to hold hands right now."

Original article on Live Science.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.