Misperceptions of the truth

There is a clear story in the way Americans perceive our country.

We assume there are far fewer white Christians than there actually are, and that there are far more of everyone else – people of color, immigrants, non-Christians, non-straight people and non-binary people. To be fair, Americans also overestimated the number of left-handed people (estimate was 32%; reality is 11%). But it’s hard to ignore the directionality of our misperceptions.

These misperceptions have real political consequences.

In 2014, researchers Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson surveyed hundreds of white Americans who identified as political independents. They told half of them that California had recently become a majority-minority state – that white people were no longer the majority. The other half (the control group) weren’t told anything about white people becoming a minority.

Then they asked everyone the same question: do you lean toward Democrats or Republicans?

Those who were told white people were now in the minority in California were significantly more likely to support Republicans. Among people who live in the American west, the control group favored Democrats 31% to 16%. The group that was told California was now minority-majority flipped their preference – 33% leaning toward Republicans, 19% leaning toward Democrats.

In other words, white Americans lean toward Republicans when they think they’re becoming the minority.

To be clear, America really is browning. In 2013, the majority of newborn Americans were people of color. In 2014, the majority of public school students were kids of color. And in the next 25 years, America will no longer be a majority white country – at least according to the US census’s racial categories.

But conservatives have long known that stoking racial or faith-based fears works, and they’re leaning into this messaging.

I spent much of my childhood attending white evangelical Christian churches in the midwest, and I remember sermon after sermon painting Christians as victims. It started with a story about how Christians were being persecuted in a foreign country, often China, and how that echoes the biblical stories about Christians being persecuted. Inevitably the sermon would turn to Jesus being executed by the Romans, and then extrapolate this persecution to our lives as American Christians. The message was clear: it’s us versus the world – and the purpose of everyone else is to squash the fire of our faith.

It was immensely effective and often translated into policy positions, like being anti-abortion and pro-Iraq war. But more importantly, it painted white Christians as an aggrieved group – a belief that it’s not just you under attack, but people like you. This victim complex can be critical to political movements. That’s partially what drove thousands of people to Washington on 6 January 2021 to protest against the presidential election results. For an individual protester, it made no sense to call out from work, get on a bus and march on the Capitol; the outcome would have been the same regardless of whether or not you showed up. But if you tell yourself that you’re joining a group of “patriots” who are being erased from this country, and that you’re fighting for the soul of America?

My comment: Well, that story makes sense – and even though it’s patently incorrect, it’s the story that’s winning.

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