The Unite the Right marchers aren’t alone, according to brand new research.
In the runup to the 2018 Unite the Right rally in Washington, DC, this Sunday — the sequel to last year’s infamous Charlottesville, Virginia, tiki torch demonstration — it’s vitally important to try to figure out just how significant the movement known as the alt-right is as an American political force. If people like white nationalist Richard Spencer are marginal cranks, whose ideas have no resonance with a wider audience, the best thing to do might be to ignore them.
But new research from the University of Alabama’s George Hawley, published by UVA’s Institute for Family Studies, suggests this isn’t the case. According to Hawley, a political scientist who specializes in demography and the far right, roughly 12 percent of America’s 198 million non-Hispanic whites have beliefs consistent with the alt-right’s worldview. Whether or not they would describe themselves as alt-right, Hawley argues, they share the movement’s belief in a politics that promotes white interests above those of other racial groups.
If Hawley is right, then the alt-right’s constituency isn’t a tiny fringe. It’s 24 million Americans.
How the study worked
It’s obviously difficult to measure how many people see themselves as alt-right. People are notoriously shy to express overtly racist attitudes to pollsters, and aligning yourself with the alt-right is aligning yourself with an openly racist movement.
To get around this problem, Hawley decided to measure polling on three different metrics that were more about identification with whiteness than anti-minority sentiments. This, he explains, is a way of figuring out who would be open to alt-right thinking while avoiding the problems associated with just asking people if they’re racist:
Movements like the Alt-Right are correctly classified as racist. However, there are elements to these kinds of movements beyond simple racial animus, anxiety, or resentment. Although the racist right can be ideologically diverse and make many different arguments, there are three key sentiments that are widely shared across these movements: 1) a strong sense of white identity, 2) a belief in the importance of white solidarity, and 3) a sense of white victimization. Although someone who rates high on all of these views may not necessarily identify with the Alt-Right or a similar movement, we can anticipate all or nearly all individuals who are involved in white identity politics to share these attitudes.
On Hawley’s schema, someone counted as an alt-right sympathizer if they expressed support for all three of the key sentiments. If someone had “a strong sense of white identity” and “a belief in the importance of white solidarity,” but not “a sense of white victimization,” then they wouldn’t qualify — meaning Hawley’s 12 percent figure might not count many people who rate highly on some measures of white racial resentment.
To assess how many Americans held these three attitudes, Hawley looked at data from the 2016 American National Election Survey (ANES), a survey conducted before and after every presidential election that is one of the gold-standard databases in political science research. The sample of 3,038 non-Hispanic whites answered a battery of questions that allow one to assess them on the three criteria of alt-right sympathy, as Hawley explains:
Respondents were asked how important their race was to their identity on a five-point scale ranging from “not at all important” to “extremely important.” They were also asked a question measuring their feelings of white solidarity: “How important is it that whites work together to change laws that are unfair to whites?” This followed the same five-point scale. Finally, we can assess survey respondents’ feelings of white victimization from their answers to the question of how much discrimination whites face in the U.S., also on a five-point scale, ranging from “none at all” to a “great deal.”
Hawley then crunched the numbers to figure out how people scored on each of these three metrics. Twenty-eight percent fit the first criterion, a strong sense of white identity; 38 percent fit the second, a deep belief that whites need to work together. And 27 percent fit the third, the sense that whites are major targets of discrimination in today’s America.
The center of the Venn diagram of those three groups — people who expressed high values on all three of the different metrics — was 12 percent of the entire sample. From that, it’s fair to conclude that 12 percent of white Americans share certain core beliefs of the alt-right movement — and thus are at least open to being recruited by it.
What to take from the study’s findings
The wrong thing to conclude from Hawley’s data is that there’s a massive number of people who are active participants in the alt-right. Last year’s Charlottesville rally only had several hundred participants; this year’s DC sequel isn’t expected to be orders of magnitude larger.
This isn’t a surprise. The alt-right is an extremely online-focused, extremely marginal movement. People who don’t closely follow the news or spend a lot of time online are unlikely to know a ton about the movement or self-identify with it, let alone spend time and money to attend its rallies.
But while the alt-right as a practical political movement is marginal, Hawley’s research shows that its ideas are more popular than it might seem. Large numbers of people think the way that they do, and shape their political identity around a sense of white grievance and identity. They may not march around the streets yelling, “Jews will not replace us!” but they are extremely receptive to a politics that positions whites as victims and a growing minority population as an existential threat.
This kind of white identity politics has become more and more common in the mainstream conservative movement since Trump’s ascendancy. Just this week, Fox News host Laura Ingraham went on an anti-immigration rant that could just as easily been given by alt-right luminary Richard Spencer. Former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke even tweeted out his endorsement of Ingraham’s monologue.
“The America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore,” Ingraham said during her Wednesday night show. “Massive demographic changes have been foisted on the American people, and they are changes that none of us ever voted for, and most of us don’t like.”
You can find similar rhetoric from Fox News host Tucker Carlson, whom the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer has referred to as “literally our greatest ally.” Rep. Steve King, a prominent anti-immigration Republican from Iowa, tweeted last year that “we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies”; the Daily Stormer has termed King “our guy.”
These mainstream figures are activating this latent alt-right constituency, bringing them into the conservative movement and the Republican Party as a core constituency. And nobody has done this more effectively than President Donald Trump: Study after study has shown that Trump’s primary and general election victories were driven by the racial resentment and demographic panic he activated among white voters.
This, as the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer writes, is how the alt-right wins — not by attracting open adherents to its own movements, but by laundering its ideas through the White House:
White nationalists win by activating white panic, by frightening a sufficient number of white people into believing that their safety and livelihoods can only be protected by defining American citizenship in racial terms, and by convincing them that American politics is a zero-sum game in which white people only win when people of color lose. While this dynamic has always been present in American politics, it has been decades since the White House has been occupied by a president who so visibly delights in exploiting it, aided by a right-wing media infrastructure that has come to see it as a ratings strategy. It is not just the white nationalists who win when racialized fears surrounding crime, immigration, and terrorism shape the political behavior of white voters. Donald Trump also wins. And both the Trump White House and the men who rallied in Charlottesville for the cause of white power know it.
It matters that 24 million Americans have a worldview similar to the alt-right’s, and not because all of them will be marching with tiki torches on Sunday evening. It’s because many of them might show up at the ballot box in 2018, 2020, and beyond.