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Analysis of the 2016 Election from Sociological Perspectives

Author: Elijah Johnson

The 2016 presidential election was unlike any in recent history. Donald Trump, a billionaire businessman with no political experience, announced his candidacy for president in June, 2015. Many laughed at his candidacy in the beginning. He made what some thought were childish comments, such as labeling the other candidates with names. For example, he called former Florida governor Jeb Bush “Low Energy Jeb.” Trump called Texas Senator Ted Cruz “Lyin’ Ted.” Trump called former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “Crooked Hillary.” On top of that, Trump made what many thought were offensive and disqualifying comments and promises. Trump said “rapists” and “drugs” were coming across the Mexican border. How can a sociologist analyze and explain what many people saw as a bewildering election?  This essay will analyze the 2016 election with two different sociological perspectives: symbolic interactionism and conflict.

Symbolic interactionism is the sociological theory people’s actions are motivated by shared meanings that are socially constructed. For example, symbolic interactionism would say Trump is president of the United States simply because we believe he is, anoint him with the powers of the presidency, and act as if he is president (Bakeman 56). The label “president” and the meaning behind the label is socially constructed, yet it impacts the way people act and make decisions.

Within symbolic interactionism, there is the theory of stigma. A stigma is “a negative social label that not only changes others’ behavior toward a person but also alters that person’s own self-concept and social identity” (Bakeman 209). For the purposes of this essay, we will only look at how stigmas change other’s behavior toward those stigmatized. Devah Pager studied how one’s race impacts the probability of getting a job. Pager interviewed employers and said black men have many negative stigmas making it less likely for them to get hired. Pager said,

[The employers] talked about black men as being lazy and dangerous and criminal and dressing poorly; they were very candid about all of these negative characteristics that they attributed to black men. But then, right after that, when I asked them about their experiences over the past year with black applicants or black employees, they had a much harder time coming up with concrete examples of those general attitudes, and for the most part, employers reported having very similar kinds of experiences with their black and white employees. (qtd. in Bakeman 210)

Pager noted the negative stereotypes, regardless of whether they are true, still impact how people view black men.

Focusing on people’s perceptions of reality instead of reality itself is what led one man to correctly predict the outcome of the election. While many of the political pundits saw Trump’s candidacy as a joke, Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams was predicting Trump would win the general election by a landslide. When November 8th, 2016 rolled around, the professionals were humiliated, and the cartoonist was vindicated. How did so many professionals get it so wrong, while a cartoonist got it so right? The cartoonist was a trained hypnotist. The professionals were looking at the facts, while the hypnotist was looking at people’s perceptions.

Trump stigmatized other candidates throughout the campaign by attaching negative labels to their names. Regardless of whether Jeb Bush really had “low energy,” or whether Clinton was “crooked,” Adams says these labels stuck like glue and changed the way people perceived the candidates. After Trump started calling Clinton “Crooked Hillary,” Adams says, the label “created the confirmation bias trap that made everything Clinton ever did sound suspicious.” In essence, people look for patterns. Once a negative label is placed on someone, people’s brains start to recognize and cherry pick the information that fits that label. When new information came out about Clinton’s email scandal or speculation about pay for play in the Clinton Foundation, people became more and more assured that Clinton was “crooked.” Black men are often seen as poorly dressed, dangerous, and/or criminal even though the facts say otherwise. Pager says negative stereotypes about black men are pervasive throughout the media, and this shapes how employers view black men. The mere perception that black men are deviant and criminal impacts how they are treated by employers. In the same way, whether there was truth to Clinton’s scandals made no difference, Trump’s stigma stuck. When it comes to symbolic interactionism, it’s people’s perceptions that matter. Adams notes, “The mainstream media and the public now accept the idea that Trump ignored facts, science, and even common decency… and still got elected….facts don’t matter.”

Adams also analyzed how Clinton’s incident during the 9/11 memorial service impacted people’s perceptions. Clinton left the 9/11 memorial service in New York early because she felt “overheated.” As she was getting into her car, someone took video of her that appeared to show her collapse and need to be supported by security. Many different symbols were at play here, and made this event devastating to Clinton’s campaign, Adams says. First, there was the symbol of 9/11, one of the biggest attacks on the U.S. in recent memory. Second, people have the perception that a president must be strong and able to protect people against terrorist attacks. On that day, Adams called the end of Clinton’s campaign. “When a would-be Commander-in-Chief withers – literally – in front of our most emotional reminder of an attack on the homeland, we feel unsafe. And safety is our first priority,” Adams wrote. Afterward, Clinton’s campaign announced Clinton had pneumonia. But again, the facts didn’t matter, only the symbols of 9/11 and a president’s need to be able to protect against threats clashed as the American people saw the video of Clinton collapsing on her way out from the memorial. In Adams words, this combination made Clinton “unelectable.”

Another symbol that impacted the election was the concept of an “outsider” or “anti-establishment” candidate. In August 2015, a national Quinnipiac poll showed that 73 percent of Republicans wanted a “DC Outsider” as president. What a “DC Outsider” is and what it means are social constructs. And Trump used them to his advantage. Trump labeled himself as an outsider. Reflecting on his campaign, Trump said, “I went from being a true insider to perhaps the ultimate outsider ever.” Trump also labeled himself as anti-establishment, “I am a person that used to be establishment, when I’d give them hundreds of thousands of dollars. But when I decided to run, I became very anti-establishment because I understand the system better than anyone.” Trump’s use of symbolism went even further when he promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington D.C.

Trump also stigmatized illegal immigrants as drug dealers, rapists, and criminals. In his first campaign speech, he said,

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

The fact is illegal immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than native-born citizens. Nevertheless, Trump gave people a perception that illegal immigrants committing crimes was a major issue. Now, more than half of Americans support Trump’s executive order to build a border wall, hire ten thousand more immigration officers, and revoke money from sanctuary cities that refuse to deport illegal immigrants.

The issue of illegal immigration is where the sociological conflict perspective can also be applied. The conflict perspective focuses on how social groups dominate over others (Bakeman 30). In Trump’s first speech, when he said “They’re not sending you” across the Mexican border illegally, he emphasized the distinction between citizens of the United States and illegal immigrants. He made the class of people who had the power to vote – citizens – rise up against those who did not – illegal immigrants. In recent American presidential elections, whites vote more Republican, while blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans vote more Democrat. However, greater percentages of the black, Latino, and Asian American votes went for Trump in 2016 than for Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012. An explanation for why a greater percentage of people of color voted for Trump than Romney would be that “citizenship” is a status/class that can be held by any race. Thus, some people of color were unified with Republican white voters through their shared citizenship status towards the common goal of cracking down on illegal immigrants. Latino and Trump supporter Hector Barreto wrote, that a “broken” immigration system impacts “all communities, regardless of race.” He went on to write, “we love our country and want it to reach its full potential.”

Some immigrants who followed the procedures required to move to the United States legally rose up against those who did not come to America legally. Anand Ahuja, an Indian who immigrated legally to the United States, supported Trump. Ahuja said, “You should not reward people who have broken the law.” He also said, “I believe anybody who came in this country illegally should be deported.” Jewish refugee from Russia and now U.S. citizen Isaak Shikhman said, “We came to this country legally.” He continued, “It’s very important if Mexican people do the same.” Again, this represented a conflict between the class of people who have American citizenship and the class of people who came to America illegally.

Another conflict that helped elect Trump was the working class voters resentment in the Rust Belt towards Republican elites and big business. Trump was the first Republican presidential candidate to win Wisconsin since 1984, Michigan since 1988, Iowa since 2004. Sociologist Josh Pacewicz says that before the 1980s, local politics in the Rust Belt cities was a fight between labor union leaders and factory owners. Pacewicz notes,

Business owners and labor leaders clashed over workplace relations, maintained competing charities and called on voters to support either “labor” or “chamber” politicians for city council. During federal elections, associations like the Chamber of Commerce and the Labor Council were key to, respectively, Republican and Democratic efforts to get out the vote.

But come the 1980s, locally owned industries in the Rust Belt were in decline. Many were swept up by larger corporations. With the disappearance of the locally owned industries, came the disappearance of labor union leaders and factory owners. Not only did the Rust Belt working class lose jobs, they also lost their touch to politics. Instead of being influenced by union leaders, the local governments were influenced by community leaders who got big business and new professionals to the cities. Pacewicz interviewed a man from the Rust Belt in 2008. The man said, “We got businesses coming in with their money and saying, ‘Your city wants it!’ That’s not democracy — that’s communism. [But our leaders] don’t give a s— about what happens. We need to tear things down and take them back to where they used to be.” Many Rust Belters were Democrat before Trump came to the scene. But Trump promised to bring jobs home, back to the Rust Belt. After out of touch politicians and big businesses dominated over the working class in the Rust Belt states, the working class rose up, turned states that have gone blue in recent elections red, and won Trump the White House.

Another related conflict during the campaign was between the nationalists and globalists. Nationalists believe in protecting the rights of one’s own country, while globalists believe in more cooperation with other nations and surrendering some of one’s own country’s power to international organizations and deals. The worry about globalization is not new. Back in 1996, American historian Christopher Lasch argued in his book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy the founders of modern nations appealed to their nation’s middle class. However, as the world economy became more integrated and money started to flow freely across borders, politicians and the elite lost touch with their own nation’s citizens. Lasch wrote

[The top 20 percent in America] have ceased to think of themselves as Americans in any important sense, implicated in America’s destiny for better or worse. Their ties to an international culture of work and leisure…make many of them deeply indifferent to the prospect of American national decline.

American political commentator Robert Reich said, “We learn to feel responsible for others because we share with them a common history, …a common culture, …a common fate” (qtd. in Lasch). When people start thinking globally, they become “world citizens,” they lose this sense of cultural identity and with it the sense of responsibility for others, Lasch says. He says these global “new elites” turn to supporting themselves and their fellow elites, while ignoring their fellow countrymen. Lasch writes,

Instead of supporting public services, the new elites put their money into the improvement of their own self-enclosed enclaves. They gladly pay for private and suburban schools, private police, and private systems of garbage collection; but they have managed to relieve themselves, to a remarkable extent, of the obligation to contribute to the national treasury.

This feeling of being abandoned by the elite class resulted in a conflict led between middle class nationalists and elite globalists.

This battle was led by Trump. Trump echoed Lasch’s words when he said America’s “corrupt political establishment” was the “greatest power behind the efforts at radical globalization and the disenfranchisement of working people.” Trump promised to put “America First.” He said the United States was being taken advantage of through its trade deals with other countries. He said,

We will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism….I am skeptical of international unions that tie us up and bring America down….And under my administration, we will never enter America into any agreement that reduces our ability to control our own affairs. The nation-state remains the true foundation of happiness and harmony.

Nationalists rose up in support of Trump, and contributed to his winning the White House.

The 2016 election involved stigmas in addition to conflicts between different social groups. Trump stigmatized candidates and illegal immigrants, making the public see them in an unfavorable light. Native citizens and legal immigrants rose up against illegal immigrants, the working class rose up against the elite politicians and big business owners, and nationalists rose up against globalists. What was the result? The man some thought to be the most unlikely of candidates, Donald Trump, became America’s 45th president.

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Works Cited (Non-Internet sources)

Bakeman, Karl. “You May Ask Yourself,” 4th Ed., W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2015.

Lasch, Christopher. The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1996.