Rugged meritocratists: Explaining Trump supporters’ opposition to social justice efforts


by Erin A. Cech

In the wake of the election of President Donald J. Trump, social justice efforts and public activism have taken on renewed importance.  Yet conservatives in general and Trump supporters specifically seem to oppose policies and efforts that advance equality for disadvantaged groups.  Popular narratives on the left presume that Trump supporters are more opposed to such social justice efforts because they are more overtly biased toward racial/ethnic minorities, women, and the poor.  But is this accurate?

Although intentional racism, sexism, and classism often anchors opposition to social justice efforts, such overt bias may not be necessary to foster opposition. Belief in a cultural ideology called the meritocratic ideology may be an equally or more important factor than overt bias in Trump supporters’ resistance to social justice efforts.  The meritocratic ideology is a popular belief in the U.S. that frames American society as generally fair and explains lack of success as the result of individual deficiencies in effort and talent.

In a recent study using survey data collected three weeks after the presidential election, I find that Trump supporters are indeed more opposed to social justice efforts than other Americans. But, in contrast to popular liberal narratives, this opposition has much more to do with their adherence to the meritocratic ideology than their overt bias. Trump supporters, in short, tend to be “rugged meritocratists.”

As I discuss, these findings have important implications for equality advocates and scholars. Calls to social action which presume that recipients already agree that structural inequalities pervade U.S. society are likely to speak right past rugged meritocratists.

Comparing Trump supporters and non-supporters’ views of U.S. society

In late November 2016, I conducted an online survey of over 1100 Americans through the survey platform Qualtrics.  The survey sample mirrors the U.S. population by gender, racial/ethnic category, and age.  I was interested in the cultural lenses that Trump supporters use to view U.S. society and how their lenses differ from those of other Americans. I was especially curious about Trump supporters’ understanding of deep-seated race, gender, and class differences in the U.S.  To what extent do Trump supporters recognize the existence of enduring processes of inequality, and how does this (lack of) recognition impact their preferences for policy and social action?  Given the republican control of congress and the recent executive actions taken by the Trump administration, Trump supporters’ perspectives on inequality are particularly salient in the current socio-political climate.

Four questions are at the center of this study: (1) Do Trump supporters hold more overtly biased views of women, racial/ethnic minorities, and the poor than non-supporters?  (2) Are Trump supporters more likely to believe in the meritocratic ideology? (3) Are Trump supporters indeed more opposed to social justice efforts? (4) Does overt bias drive Trump supporters’ opposition to social justice efforts, or does their adherence to the meritocratic ideology play an equal or more important role?

I find that Trump supporters have greater overt biases toward Blacks, Hispanics, women, and the poor compared to non-supporters. For example, Trump supporters are more likely than non-supporters to see Blacks as less intelligent and hardworking than whites. This is net of differences among the survey respondents by race/ethnicity, gender, education and other demographics.

Second, Trump supporters are much more likely to adhere to the meritocratic ideology than other Americans. They are more likely to agree, for example, that “U.S. society is equitable and fair,” that “society has reached a point where white Americans and racial/ethnic minority Americans have equal opportunities for achievement” and that “individuals are personally responsible for their position in society.”

Third, Trump supporters are indeed more likely to oppose social justice efforts—to believe, for example, that too much money is spent on homeless shelters and that women, racial/ethnic minorities, and the poor are too demanding in their push for equality.

Finally, bringing these three pieces together, I tested whether Trump supporters’ opposition to social justice efforts were driven more by their greater overt bias or by their greater adherence to the meritocratic ideology.  The analysis points to the latter: Trump supporters’ adherence to the meritocratic ideology helps explain their opposition to social justice efforts, while overt biases have little impact.

Put another way, Trump supporters’ resistance to social justice efforts has little to do with their greater overt bias toward the poor, racial/ethnic minorities, and women; rather, Trump supporters are “rugged meritocratists”—their resistance to social justice efforts is explained in large part by their belief that the social world is already fair and just.

Why would belief in the meritocratic ideology be more important than overt bias in opposition to social justice efforts? The meritocratic ideology is more directly connected to cultural narratives about the necessity of social activism: recognizing the validity of social justice efforts requires that people believe that U.S. society is not yet equal.  Rugged meritocratists, who frame social advancement systems as already fair, likely view equal rights efforts as a demand for “extra” rights.

This does not mean, of course, that rugged meritocratists do not contribute to racist, classist, and sexist social structures. The meritocratic ideology helps constitute more subtle forms of bias like color-blind racism and benevolent sexism, which explain gender and racial inequality as the collective result of individual preferences or “culture.”  As such, the meritocratic ideology not only promotes opposition to social justice efforts but also anchors social bias.

What to do about rugged meritocratists? Implications for inequality scholarship and activism

The results of this study suggest several considerations for inequality scholarship. They point to the need to take cultural beliefs about inequality—not just overt and subtle biases—seriously as mechanisms hindering social justice efforts. Further, more research is needed to understand when and how the meritocratic ideology is invoked in individual interactions and political discourse.

The findings also have important implications for equality advocacy and activism.  First, they show that Trump supporters do tend to express more overt social biases than non-supporters.  These greater levels of overt bias may be connected to the rise in instances of hate speech, vandalism, and violence after the 2016 presidential election and this overt bias will likely continue to retrench unfair treatment of women, people of color, and the poor.

However, equality activists should not assume that overt bias is the greatest—or the only—cultural blockade to social justice efforts.  Overt bias may be sufficient in some cases to produce opposition but it is not necessary—the meritocratic ideology may serve as an equally powerful and more ubiquitous hindrance to social justice efforts. Rugged meritocratists, whatever their political affiliation, may put up substantial resistance to social justice efforts and equality activism because such efforts do not align with their framing of American society.

So how can activists and scholars convince rugged meritocratists of the enduring presence of structural inequality?  A century of social science research has demonstrated the prevalence of these systemic inequalities in virtually every corner of U.S. society.  But formalized social science knowledge may not be the most effective vehicle for belief change. Recent research suggests that emotionally compelling anecdotes that serve as exemplars of broader patterns of structural disadvantage are generally more successful at shifting people’s perceptions of U.S. society than aggregated trends or statistics.

In sum, resistance to social justice efforts appears to be based less in overt social biases than in a particular framing of the social world—one that denies structural inequality and blames victims of that inequality for their own circumstances. To see meritocracy in a deeply unequal nation is to understand U.S. society in a fundamentally different way than how it is understood by those working to address systemic inequality. Inequality scholars and activists must keep this in mind, or rugged meritocratists will remain unconvinced by demands for social justice.

Erin A. Cech is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan who examines cultural mechanisms of inequality reproduction.  

This post summarizes findings from “Rugged Meritocratists: The Role of Overt Bias and the Meritocratic Ideology in Trump Supporters’ Opposition to Social Justice Efforts.”

 Image: Fibonacci Blue via Wikimedia Commons

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