What Drives Support for the Alt-Right?

New research tries to answer whether it's about race or class.

Posted Dec 27, 2019

There is disagreement about what explains recent electoral outcomes in support of far-right parties and policies around the globe. The debate is often framed in terms of two competing hypotheses. One is that the rise in support for the far-right is due to economic distress; the other is that it is due to racism. While the two are not entirely separable, especially in a country like the United States, the disagreement may be put in terms of which is the most important or fundamental factor: class or race.

History in HD/Unsplash
Source: History in HD/Unsplash

A recent attempt to provide a psychological profile of the “alt-right” in the United States provides a compelling entry into this debate. The alt-right is a subset of the American electorate that has received a great deal of attention since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Those identified with it include high profile figures, such as Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer, and the decentralized movement is associated, among other things, with the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA.

While the alt-right has received a lot of coverage over the past few years, the authors claim that this is “the first systematic quantitative examination of the alt-right’s psychology, using a nationally representative random-probability sample to provide insight into alt-right adherents’ demographics, traits, values, and goals.” In particular, they sought to find out which of two main profiles was most correct: “antiestablishmentarianism” or “supremacism.” The first centered on things such as trust in mainstream media, suspicion of elites, and views about the economy. The second centered on things such as dehumanization, motivations to express bias towards Blacks and act on behalf of Whites, and social dominance orientation.

They collected data from two sample populations shortly after the 2016 U.S. presidential election and based the bulk of their conclusions about the psychological profile of those who self-reported as identifying with the alt-right on responses to a slew of questions by subjects in a representative sample. In addition to reporting data on the psychology of those identified as alt-right, the researchers compared their psychological profiles with those of both non-alt right Trump voters and non-Trump voters. They also reported findings of the demographics of alt-right members (who tend to be White, male, Midwestern, non-college educated), as well as estimates of their prevalence (approximately 3% of U.S. population and 5% of Trump supporters). Finally, the researchers reported some tentative comparisons between supporters of the alt-right and supporters of Antifa, a left-wing movement that has also received a good deal of recent attention, in particular, for its sometimes violent responses to alt-right gatherings.

The authors’ three main takeaways are very interesting. First, they found some evidence that alt-right supporters exhibit greater “antiestablishment” tendencies, such as suspicion of mainstream media, than both non-alt-right Trump voters and non-Trump voters. However, these tendencies did not appear to apply to economic issues. Alt-right supporters were both more trusting of big business and more optimistic about the economy than members of the other two groups. “These results accord with research suggesting that changes in people’s material circumstances have little to do with support for Far-Right political movements.”

It doesn’t appear that class issues explain support for the alt-right, and perhaps not for the far-right, more generally. However, the authors did find “abundant support for portrayals of the alt-right that emphasize their belief in and desire to advance the supremacy of dominant groups such as Whites at the expense of less-dominant groups.” And they found that alt-right supporters were more like non-alt-right Trump voters than non-Trump voters.

A second finding is that there appears to be more explicit and blatant intergroup bias than many would think remains the case today. Many contemporary studies focus on implicit and other subtle forms of bias. But the authors of this study see a reason for a “rebalancing” of research on these topics, with “greater attention [being put] back on blatant and explicit, as well as subtle and implicit, processes” in studies of the psychology of those involved in contemporary political discourse and action.

A third, more tentative, finding has to do with differences between what drives support for the alt-right and what drives support for what is often taken to be its left-wing counterpart, Antifa. The authors found that "[A]ntifa support appears to be associated with less authoritarian and socially domineering tendencies than is alt-right support.” But the authors caution that their comparison here is exploratory, and more work is necessary in order to draw firm comparisons between these two groups.

This study makes an interesting, if harrowing, contribution to our understanding of the current political landscape in the U.S. and beyond. It appears that there is a significant segment of the population whose political allegiances are motivated by a drive to dominate those perceived as other. This does not mean that economic and class issues are irrelevant to the shape of the current political landscape, but it does suggest that issues of race are more central.