Please join us for a colloquium being given by Bart Bonikowski, Associate Professor of Sociology at Harvard University.
The Polarization of Nationalist Cleavages in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election
Research in political science has acknowledged the importance of ethno-nationalism (or more commonly, nativism) as a constitutive element of radical-right politics, but it has typically reduced this phenomenon to its downstream correlates, like attitudes toward ethnic and religious minorities or immigration policy preferences. Sociologists, on the other hand, have extensively studied nationalism as a feature of political culture, but have not weighed in on debates about institutional politics, and the radical-right in particular. In this study, I bring these literatures together by considering how multiple conceptions of American nationhood shaped respondents' voting preferences in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and how the election outcome built on long-term changes in the distribution of nationalist beliefs in the U.S. population. The results suggest that competing definitions of nationhood constitute important cultural cleavages that have become effective mobilized by candidates from both parties. In particular, I show that exclusionary varieties of nationalism were strongly predictive of Trump support in the Republican primary and the general election, while disengagement from the nation was predictive of Sanders support in the Democratic primary. Moreover, nationalism has become sorted by party: over the past twenty years, respondents identifying with the Republican Party have become predominantly ethno-nationalist, while those identifying with the Democratic Party have come to increasingly espouse creedal and disengaged conceptions of nationhood. The mutual reinforcement of nationalist cleavages with other sources of cultural and demographic distinction represents a potential danger for the long-term stability of U.S. democracy. More broadly, this research demonstrates that to understand the 2016 presidential election—and contemporary American political culture—scholars should take nationalism seriously as a primary source of collective identification and political behavior.