A Sociological Take on the 2016 Election

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Professor Irene Bloemraad speaks to Berkeley Connect students.

The 2016 presidential election is everywhere, filling every headline from Buzzfeed to the New York Times. Everyone has opinions to offer – but sometimes, it can be hard to make sense of it all. As the Spring 2016 semester drew to a close, students in Berkeley Connect in Sociology got a chance to discuss the complex forces at work in this year’s election with three sociologists with expertise in social movements, immigration issues, and income inequality.

Professor Cihan Ziya Tugal began the discussion by speaking about Donald Trump’s incitation of a new populist movement. Populism has risen here and there throughout American history, but why is it happening again now? “It’s happening due to an extreme polarization of wealth, and the resulting fall of the white middle class,” posited Tugal. Fears related to race and rising immigration are intersecting with America’s internal economic story of financialization. However, the lack of organization in Trump’s campaign is “a hodgepodge, when you compare it to other populist movements throughout history,” added Tugal. Thus, the populism Trump has encouraged has yet to rise to revolutionary or violent populism.

Professor Irene Bloemraad elaborated on the question of immigration. With white people making up less than two-thirds of the United States’ population today, and only decreasing whiteness to come in the future, the platforms of some of the candidates in this election seem baffling, from the standpoint of long-term demographic trends. Both Trump and Ted Cruz are strongly anti-immigration. “Why are they saying these things if it could be electoral death down the road?” asked Bloemraad. The reality is, while there may be a large and growing demographic representation of Latinos and Asians, these groups are not necessarily a voting power. Bloemraad explained that many of them are not registered to vote, and even fewer turn out.

Professor Kim Voss’s presentation focused on income inequality and voting patterns. “Politics shape income inequality,” she explained. Elections shape how income is taxed, which impacts how much after-tax income remains in different populations, and how much money is collected to fund government programs that assist various populations. Cruz and Trump both propose huge tax cuts, while Bernie Sanders proposes tax increases across the board, with wealthier families seeing massive tax hikes. The candidates are very polarized. However, explained Voss, “American elections are won not by the side that does the best at changing people’s minds, but by the side that does the best at getting voters to turn out.” It’s up to the people who turn out to determine the policy on what’s going to happen in the future.

In the US, there’s usually a pretty abysmal voter turnout. Young people in particular don’t turn out. One student wondered why this is. “It’s a lack of exposure and experience,” hypothesized another student. “We haven’t experienced multiple presidencies, so we don’t know we’ve liked or haven’t liked.”

Another student offered, “There’s a lot of distrust of the political system in our generation.”

The panel of professors urged students to care about voting, regardless of the insignificance of a single vote. Tugal explained, “You have to look at it the context of other kinds of people not voting. When disadvantaged people don’t vote, it’s because institutions are set up so they won’t vote. Some candidates actually benefit from young people voting less.”

“It’s true that one vote is kind of irrational,” added Bloemraad. “But as a collective action, voting is still important.”

Posted by Madeline Wells, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant