Empathy as a Method for Understanding Why 53% of White Women Voters Voted for Trump

By William J. Kelleher

Several recent news articles, including one from The New York Times and The Atlantic, offer up an explanation for why 53% of white women voters voted for Donald Trump, despite the disrespect he has shown for women, particularly white women. For example, The New York Times article presents political scientist Kathleen Dolan’s explanation of this political behavior. That explanation can be stated in the form of this syllogism:

Empirical studies show that

  • A) voters generally tend to vote according to their party identification, and that
  • B) a majority of white women identify with the Republican Party;
  • C) therefore, a majority of white women voted for Trump rather than Clinton.

This “explanation” has the virtue of being relatively straight forward insofar as it consists of explicit inferences drawn from accepted facts. But I’m not satisfied with the explanation given. The implication that party ID caused the voting results seems overly mechanistic, shallow, and insufficient. I still want to know why so many white women voters voted for Donald Trump.

I suggest that to answer that question requires an exercise of empathy to go beyond the mere drawing of inference C) from the facts of A) and B).

Empathically, I understand the American voter to have a meaning of “politics” in mind that guides the voter’s choice. In general, to the American voter “politics” means the competition of two political parties for governmental power and office. Thus, to participate in “politics” is to position oneself in relation to one party or the other. (Sometimes voters cherry pick from the offerings of the two major parties; sometimes they deny identifying with either party, and call themselves “independent” of either party. Rarely, of course, voters identify with some third party. In any case, they seem to understand themselves as acting in relation to one of the two major parties.)

I also understand empathically that for the white female voters under consideration in this example, “politics” is assumed to be a realm of behavior outside and distinct from the “social” realm, in which gender identities are understood to exist. Because the two realms are assumed to be distinct, the rules for participating in each are also distinct. Thus, while party ID is generally not a primary reason for liking one person over another in the social realm, it often is a primary reason for voting for one person over another in the political realm.

Professor Dolan finds that in the social world, “sex really matters.” Dolan refers to her studies on attitudes “about male and female candidates in general, and found that [respondents] held gender stereotypes about their strengths and weaknesses, like women excelling at health policy and men at crime policy” (see this study). Yet the voting of those respondents was not guided by their stereotype beliefs, but tended to follow party ID.  Why is that?

While Dolan does not reach this conclusion, her findings lend support to my empathy-based suggestion that the voters in question have this mental separation of the political and the social, with each realm having its own set of rules for behavior. While this configuration of meanings is probably not the result of an informed political theory, it does seem to be what enabled white women voters to vote their party ID, even though they fully recognized Trump’s behavior violated the social norms requiring respect for women.

This explanation, which goes deeper than party ID-as-cause, cannot be arrived at by gathering statistics, but only by empathizing with the mental reasoning, some of which may be unconscious, of these American white women voters. I see empathy as a way of getting to the meanings these voters have acted on although they may not have thought through their intellectual positions. Hence, the meanings I mention are more in the nature of pre-theoretical, and of pre-intellectual awareness.

Dr. Kelleher earned his Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1984. He is the author of several books, including The Human Birth Defect, which uses empathy to explain human pre-history. He is a blogger at Internet Voting for All and can be reached via email at wjkellpro@aol.com. His political science papers can be accessed at Academia.edu

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