Character  &  Context

The Consent of the Governed May Depend on Who’s Doing the Governing

Illustration of a person speaking at a podium in front of a crowd of people

Historically, elected office in the United States has been a white man’s game. Racial and gender diversity among winners of House, Senate, and gubernatorial elections have increased steadily since the late 1980s, but as a nation we are far from parity. The current Congress is the most diverse in U.S. history, and the incoming 116th Congress will likely be even more so. Though the modal political candidate is still a white man, this year’s contests feature record numbers of women, people of color, and openly-LGTBQ individuals, especially on the Democratic side.

Unfortunately, the persistence of racial animus in American society means that there may also be a dark side to candidate diversity. How sure are we that all of their constituents will perceive the election of diverse candidates as legitimate? What if some portion of the governed don’t consent?

In an article recently published in Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, we find that perceptions of electoral fairness are strongly related to racial attitudes. Specifically, we find that White Americans with more negative attitudes toward African Americans were more likely to indicate that the 2008 and 2012 elections were unfairly conducted. This effect persists across two measures of racial attitudes (racial resentment and negative stereotypes of Blacks relative to Whites) and after controlling for other key reasons voters might find a given electoral outcome objectionable (e.g., party identification and political ideology). Further, racial attitudes have weak or non-existent relationships with perceived electoral fairness in prior but comparable presidential contests.

Our results add to a broader set of findings indicating that racial attitudes have become strong predictors of political preferences that may at first glance appear to have nothing to do with race. For example, research by political psychologist Michael Tesler finds that opinions about Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus, the Affordable Care Act, and even the breed of dog owned by the Obama family ware strongly predicted by measures of racial animus. This “spillover of racialization” stems from the high salience of race and ethnicity in the last three presidential elections. In 2008 and 2012, of course, Barack Obama was the first African American to be elected (and re-elected) president of the United States, linking race to politics in the mass public consciousness like never before. In 2016, candidate Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric focused heavily on disparaging his African American predecessor as well as racial and ethnic minorities in general. If anything, racial attitudes mattered even more in 2016, when both candidates were white. Other group-based attitudes can influence vote choice as well. Indeed, with Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, it’s no coincidence that attitudes about women were more strongly related to vote choice in 2016 than ever before.

President Donald Trump’s White House has continued to appeal to a racialized notion of the “real America” at the expense of those who do not fit that mold. Many 2018 Republican nominees have followed suit, espousing messages of gloom and doom linked to racially-tinged concerns about violent crime, drugs, and illegal immigrants and courting the endorsement of the president. In response, Democrats have embraced diversity as never before in their selection of nominees.

Thus, concerns related to identity will likely be central to the 2018 midterm election. So, how might this dynamic impact the perceived legitimacy of elections that bring a more diverse slate of leaders to power? Social-psychological research suggests that legitimacy is based largely on the perceived fairness of the process by which a leader is selected. On this score, Americans’ trust in their own elections has been declining for almost two decades. The presidential election in 2000 was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court, and subsequent years have seen persistent (but largely unfounded) concerns about individual voter fraud. More recently, of course, Russian interference with U.S. elections has taken center stage.

Our research implies that racial attitudes have the capacity to spill over into these kinds of concerns about the legitimacy of the electoral process, and it seems likely that attitudes about other marginalized groups (e.g., women, Muslims, members of the LGBTQ community) may have the capacity to do the same. In a time when trust in the integrity of elections is lower than ever, and political preferences are so strongly bound up with concerns related to identity, leaders from diverse backgrounds may face an uphill battle as they attempt to govern. Among their constituents may be many who are not inclined to consent to their leadership.

With this in mind, it is essential that social scientists continue examining dynamics that may undermine perceptions of electoral fairness and legitimacy.


Jacob Appleby is Visiting Professor of Psychology at Tulane University. He studies how stereotypes and prejudice influence attitudes and behavior in social, political, and legal contexts. Read more about his work at: jacobappleby.wordpress.com.

Christopher Federico is Professor of Political Science and Psychology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. He studies the social and psychological foundations of ideology, belief systems, and partisanship and the bases of intergroup attitudes.

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