Threats to Racial Status Promote Tea Party Support Among White Americans

39 Pages Posted: 28 Apr 2016  

Robb Willer

Stanford University

Matthew Feinberg

University of Toronto

Rachel Wetts

University of California, Berkeley

Date Written: May 4, 2016

Abstract

Since its rapid rise in early 2009, scholars have advanced a variety of explanations for popular support for the Tea Party movement. Here we argue that various political, economic, and demographic trends and events – e.g., the election of the first nonwhite president, the rising minority population – have been perceived as threatening the relative standing of whites in the U.S., with the resulting racial resentment fueling popular support for the movement. This “decline of whiteness” explanation for white Americans’ Tea Party support differs from prior accounts in highlighting the role of symbolic group status rather than personal experience, or economic competition, with minority group members in generating perceptions of threat. We tested this explanation in five survey-based experiments. In Study 1 we sought to make salient the president’s African-American heritage by presenting participants with an artificially darkened picture of Barack Obama. White participants shown the darkened photo were more likely to report they supported the Tea Party relative to a control condition. Presenting participants with information that the white population share (Study 2) or income advantage (Study 3) is declining also led whites to report greater Tea Party support, effects that were partly explained by heightened levels of racial resentment. A fourth study replicated the effects of Study 2 in a sample of Tea Party supporters. Finally, Study 5 showed that threatened white respondents reported stronger support for the Tea Party when racialized aspects of its platform (e.g., opposition to immigration) were highlighted, than if libertarian ones (e.g., reduced government spending) were. These findings are consistent with a view of popular support for the Tea Party as resulting, in part, from threats to the status of whites in America.

Keywords: Racial threat, Tea Party movement, racial resentment, status, whiteness

Suggested Citation

Willer, Robb and Feinberg, Matthew and Wetts, Rachel, Threats to Racial Status Promote Tea Party Support Among White Americans (May 4, 2016). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2770186 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2770186

Robb Willer (Contact Author)

Stanford University ( email )

Stanford, CA 94305
United States

Matthew Feinberg

University of Toronto ( email )

United States

Rachel Wetts

University of California, Berkeley ( email )

310 Barrows Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720
United States

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