January 3, 2018

Let’s pick up the conversation where we left off: On the question of how the divisive politics that frustrate so many people came to be. Last month, a political scientist told Abdallah Fayyad that, to persuade people to vote their way, savvy politicians can “manipulate the salience of a divisive issue.” But how does that work? How do voters come to care about the issues they care about? To find out, Abdallah called up a leading researcher on the idea of political salience. Here’s his report.


The U.S. has seen a rebirth of identity politics under President Donald Trump, but it’s hardly the only place where politicians emphasize differences over commonalities. In recent years, Indian politicians from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party have exacerbated the tensionsbetween Hindus and Muslims. They have called for Muslims to convert to Hinduism, discouraged interfaith marriages, and demanded that Muslims sing the national anthem to prove their love of country. Politicians have often tried to mobilize voters by capitalizing on cultural, ethnic, or religious differences. But how do these divides become prominent in the first place, and what makes exploiting them so effective?

Cultural and ethnic groups can become tempting targets for politicians when they’re the right size to sway an election, according to Daniel Posner, a political science professor at UCLA. “Politicians are always thinking: ‘We know that mobilizing groups along ethnic lines can get us big voting blocs. So what is the most usefully sized, ethnically defined political coalition that we can mobilize in order to win office in a competitive election?’” he said. And coalitions aren’t only divided along ethnic lines; they’re often defined by religion or race as well. In the U.S., for example, voting blocs are often viewed along racial lines, and that helps shape the campaign strategies of both Republican and Democratic candidates.

Posner’s research has found that politicians are not merely responding to pre-existing cultural divides, but fueling them. “What comes first is the competition for something. What comes second are the particular kinds of social divisions that are mobilized for the purposes of winning that competition,” he said. When there is an opportunity to win political power, “you can rummage around in the grab bag of cultural and historical grievances, and come up with a really great post hoc story for why it makes sense that we should divide ‘us’ against ‘them.’” While divisions exist in a country regardless of whether or not politicians exploit them, they are amplified when politicians use them as a tool to win votes.

Posner found valuable evidence for this phenomenon in southern Africa. In his 2004 paper “The Political Salience of Cultural Difference: Why Chewas and Tumbukas Are Allies in Zambia and Adversaries in Malawi,” Posner argued that the prevalence of cultural divides depends on the sizes of adversarial groups relative to a country’s population and “whether or not they will be useful vehicles for political competition.” His study looked at the Chewa and Tumbuka peoples in Malawi and neighboring Zambia. While the communities live in similar economic conditions in both countries, there tends to be more tension between Chewas and Tumbukas in Malawi than in Zambia. But the differences in tension only appeared when the border was drawn and two nations formed after the British gave up control of the region.

The Chewas and Tumbukas provided Posner with a natural experiment. The colonial-era border between the two nations placed the groups in two different political systems. And in Zambia, the two peoples constituted a much smaller portion of the population than they did in Malawi. As a result, politicians played up the two groups’ differences in Malawi, where they came to be pitted against one another, but largely ignored those differences in Zambia, where the two groups were united as “easterners.” The tensions were really about the political power they hold in each country.

“When I was in Malawi, I was struck by the fact that this cleavage between Chewas and Tumbukas was totally salient. Politics in the country revolved around that basis of social division and it was the main cleavage in the country,” Posner said. “Cross the border into Zambia and you had the same groups, yet the salience of the divisions between them was completely absent.” In Malawi, for example, the Chewas and Tumbukas associate with two opposing political parties, whereas in Zambia, the two groups view each other as allies and support the same party. And the political divide between the two groups has an impact on the way they treat one another in everyday life. In Malawi, Chewas and Tumbukas are less inclined to intermarry than they are in Zambia.

“Racial polarization is an outcome of politics, not the cause,” Posner said. This helps explain why in America, minority voters are often grouped together while white voters are addressed separately. Given the demographic shifts in the country’s electorate, Trump needed a strong coalition of white voters in 2016, and he was successful in turning them out. The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer and Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that Trump effectively used white identity politics to stoke cultural anxieties among white communities, which in turn gave them more incentive to go out and vote. Trump catered to the white working class, for example, by talking about stagnant wages and job loss, both of which, he argued, had to do with a broken immigration system. But his language didn’t resonate with working class people of color, who overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton.

And after white supremacists marched in Charlottesville last year, Trump decided to respond with divisive remarks instead of a unifying message. There were “very fine people on both sides” of the rally, he said. To many, his statement suggested a moral equivalence between neo-Nazi demonstrators and a group of counter protestors. And other Trump behavior in his first year in office has fueled racial tensions. There was the travel ban, the feud with the NFL, and the “Pocahontas” jabs at Senator Elizabeth Warren. Trump’s rhetoric on race may just be careless, but Posner’s research gives reason to view it as part of a broader political strategy.

In 2016, Trump’s victory relied on there being just enough white voters in key states to win him the presidency. And that may also be the case in 2020. “If he can turn things into a white versus non-white conflict, and successfully depict himself as the natural leader of the white coalition, then he can win,” Posner said. “And the surest way to do that is to turn everything that concerns American voters today—jobs, the terrorist threat, immigration, trade—into a story about whites being threatened by non-whites.” Trump is particularly skilled at this kind of strategy. But he’s not the only one to use it in American politics. In part, that’s because, as Posner explained, this just how political systems work. Unity, it seems, doesn’t mobilize voters in the same way that division does.

—Abdallah Fayyad, Atlantic projects fellow

Matt Peterson