Report: “The 2020 Election: A Cultural Post-Mortem”

By Bo Yun Park (Harvard University)

The Culture and Contemporary Life Talk Series is a new initiative launched by the Sociology of Culture Section of American Sociological Association. It provides an opportunity to discuss the pressing issues of our time and analyze them through a cultural lens. The members of the Culture and Contemporary Life Series Committee—Hannah Wohl, Lisa McCormick, Meltem Odabas, Matt Rafalow, and Shai Dromi—curated a series of events that are scheduled to take place once every four to six weeks throughout the academic year.

The theme of its inaugural event, which drew 80 participants via Zoom on December 10, 2020, was the 2020 election and its aftermath. Mabel Berezin (Cornell University), Bart Bonikowski (New York University) and Corey Fields (Georgetown University), moderated by Ruth Braunstein (University of Connecticut), addressed how cultural sociology could help us better understand the 2020 election cycle. The discussions centered around three main themes: 1) the utility of terms such as populism and fascism, 2) the need to better identify Trump voters, and 3) the steps to take to strengthen democratic resilience. 

THE USAGE OF ALARMIST TERMS: FASCISM AND POPULISM

Ruth Braunstein started the conversation by asking the panelists to speak to the use of dramatic—if not alarmist—terms such as fascism or populism and share their respective thoughts on the role they play in helping us understand of the current political moment.  

Mabel Berezin expressed her sense of surprise in seeing fascism reemerge as the word du jour. Highlighting that her recent annual review on the renaissance of the term fascism speaks to Ruth’s point,1 she called for a thorough consideration of the analytical value of the term. She pointed out that the term was often used in an imprecise manner, especially within the context of the United States. When the term was coined by Mussolini and Gentile, it referred to “nothing like what’s going in the U.S.,” she noted. We thus would need to be more careful in our historical analyses of the subject matter.  

Bart Bonikowski concurred that the terms such as fascism or populism often tend to be used in an overly simplistic manner. Populism, along with the concepts of nationalism and authoritarianism, are often misunderstood. Populism refers to a mode of political discourse that puts a vilified corrupted elite against a glorified people. Authoritarianism in turn indicates a way of governing that violates democratic norms. If understood correctly, these terms can significantly enhance our understanding of the comparative dimension of radical politics. Ethnonationalism, in particular, is a central concept in understanding the rise of radical politics. It activates a sense of fear and anxiety among majorities and enabled a mobilization of these sentiments for political gains—not just in the United States, but also in Europe and beyond.

Corey Fields added that the demonization of outgroups by white people is nothing new and that the notion of Christian white nationalism is not surprising to black people. These notions travel across time and space.The political efficacy of those terms brings about fascinating analytical questions. Now, we all have to talk about it.

THE IDENTITY AND MOTIVATIONS OF TRUMP VOTERS 

Ruth Braunstein proceeded with the observation that many voted for another four years of Trump. She asked the panelists to share their thoughts on who those voters were and what their motivations may have been be.

Corey Fields pointed out that the overarching story seems to be the intensity of partisanship: “People are voting because they identify themselves as Republicans.”As such, there is a fair amount of partisan voting. Not only has the Republican partisanship become more important in terms of its meaning, but there seems to be no parallel in the Democratic Party in terms of political identity. Democratic political professionals should be concerned about providing a clearer message: “This is Us. This is what we believe in.”

Mabel Berezin stressed that it would be hard to imagine that all the people who voted for Trump are white nationalist. What would be important to know is who are those people who just voted for Trump for reasons we are not imagining. What are the stories we haven’t thought about? We have to tap into those. 

Bart Bonikowski addressed the issue of whether nationalism has increased. He clarified that the United States is not becoming more xenophobic. What has happened is a massive sorting through an ethnonationalist party. A vote for Trump is either endorsing ethnonationalism or condoning it; it was either an appeal or something that had no bearing to them. While we should be cautious not to essentialize their political beliefs, it would be important to remember that Republicans did not vote for just any Republican.

DEMOCRATIC INSTITUTIONS AND DEMOCRATIC RESILIENCE

Ruth Braunstein brought up the fact that some people continue to question the election results and that there could possibly be a widespread loss of faith in democratic institutions.    

Bart Bonikowski strongly emphasized that we should be alarmed about potential future forms of democratic erosion. The coup aside, we are witnessing a democratic backsliding. There is some evidence that courts are shifting, giving a lot of power about voting rights to state GOPs pursuing voter disenfranchisement. Democracy will suffer if we don’t stay more alert.

All panelists agreed that we are facing a complicated moment and hoped that changes are under way. 

SELECTED QUESTIONS FROM THE AUDIENCE

Q: Anna Skarpelis, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University,asked how each panelist—who respectively represent different forms of sociological inquiry—would suggest people get a better handle on what Mabel called “the stories that are out there” [referring to people’s motivations to vote for Trump]. 

A: Mabel Berezin answered that would be some new thinking to do and called for more research on better understanding both who voted for Trump and why. She pointed out that we should “open our minds to try to get at this particular problem.”

Q: Fernando Dominguez Rubio, Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of California, San Diego, asked if the panelists saw “any possibility in the near future (i.e., 2-3 election cycles) for the GOP to backtrack its current transformation into a full-fledged ethno-nationalist movement?” 

A: Bart Bonikowski replied: “It’s possible, but I’m not sure they will have incentives in the near-to-medium-term to do so. Trumpism worked and they’ve doubled down on it.”

A: Corey Fields called for a consideration of what lefty democratic policy can do for you and that a simple anti-Republican message was not the way to go. 

Future events of the Culture and Contemporary Life series will discuss topics that include the “culture of poverty” and blackness in the 21st century, as well as a the COVID vaccine. 

PANELISTS* 

Mabel Berezin (www.mabelberezin.com) is Professor of Sociology at Cornell who writes on challenges to democratic cohesion and solidarity in Europe and the United States. She is the author of Illiberal Politics in Neoliberal Times: Culture, Security, and Populism in the New Europe (Cambridge 2009) and Making the Fascist Self: The Political Culture of lnter-war Italy (Cornell 1997). She is working on a manuscript titled The End of Security and the Rise of Populism under contract at Oxford University Press. The book examines the current global resurgence of nationalism and the populist challenge to democratic practice.

Bart Bonikowski is Associate Professor of Sociology at New York University. Using relational survey methods, computational text analysis, and experimental research, his work applies insights from cultural sociology to the study of politics in the United States and Europe, with a particular focus on nationalism, populism, and the radical right. Building on past publications in scholarly journals, he is completing a book manuscript titled Radicalized: How the Right Has Mobilized Nationalism and Undermined Liberal Democracy, which is under advance contract with Princeton University Press.

Corey D. Fields is Associate Professor and te Idol Family Chair of Sociology at Georgetown University. His research explores the role of identity – at the individual and collective level – in structuring social life. He is the author of Black Elephants in the Room: The Unexpected Politics of African-American Republicans (University of California Press 2016). The book explores the dynamic relationship between race and politics in contemporary U.S. politics, and has been covered in a number of media outlets. Corey’s current research draws on the experiences of Black professionals in the advertising industry to examine the relationship between racial identity and profession identity. 

MODERATOR*

Ruth Braunstein is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. Her award-winning research has been published in the American Sociological Review, the American Journal of Cultural Sociology, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Political Power and Social Theory, Sociology of Religion, Theory and Society, and Qualitative Sociology, among other outlets. She is the author of Prophets and Patriots: Faith in Democracy Across the Political Divide and co-editor of Religion and Progressive Activism: New Stories About Faith and Politics. Her current research explores how taxpaying and tax resisting are linked to contested understandings of political community, good citizenship and morality in the United States.                  

1 For more details, please refer to:Berezin, Mabel. 2019. “Fascism and Populism: Are They Useful Categories for Comparative Sociological Analysis?” Annual Review of Sociology 45(1):345–61.

* Information provided on the event’s poster.