A Painful Lesson in Why We Have to Take Status Seriously

Cecilia Ridgeway, Stanford University

I’m always harping on why we need to take status seriously as a dimension of social inequality along with wealth and power. But I was not prepared for such a painful demonstration of the importance of status to people as we saw in this election. Status, in this case, is how “people like you” are ranked, compared to others, in esteem and perceived value by culturally dominant voices in American society. Research has repeatedly shown that people react strongly to threats to their status. A sense of being unfairly disrespected is, research shows, a powerful trigger for anger and even aggression towards the source of the disrespect. There are plausible reasons to conclude that a sense of threatened status and disrespect drove at least some of the passionate anger behind the pro-Trump movement among white working-class and white non-urban voters.

We, as sociologists, know that growing inequality and the decline of well-paying blue-collar jobs has threatened these voters’ economic security. But the effect of the threat is not just economic—it is symbolic as well—a threat to a claim to being respected Middle Americans who have the means to enact a traditionally respectable American life. It was not, after all, the poorest working class voters who most favored Trump, but those who had higher claims to being in the honorable center of American society.

In the voices for Trump, however, the sense of being fed up with having their status challenged had more than economic sources. It also came from a sense of being threatened and displaced from their traditional position in society by social changes that challenge the racial and gender hierarchies that are historically embedded in the cultural image of the “respected Middle American.” The Trump voices see such changes happening all around as immigration increases diversity as well as women and people of color become more prominent in public positions. To make matters worse, urban elites, the professional classes that disproportionately control the dominant institutions of government, the economy, and the mainstream media, add insult to injury, the Trump voices believe. Institutional elites say these social changes should be embraced as the future and that they, the voices for Trump, are “racist red-necks” for being upset by them.

The intersectional status hierarchy of class-race-gender in America is changing. For business and professional whites, their “cultural elite” class status has, if anything, intensified with growing inequality. This gives them a class status advantage to buffer race and gender status changes. But working class and non-urban whites don’t have that buffer. They are the ones whose status positions are being most directly eroded and they are angry and want to halt the change. How should we, as sociologists, react? Of course, we need to address the core problems of economic insecurity and inequality. We also need, as Hochschild and others have said, to put aside our own, status-based contempt for resistant white voters and treat them as fellow citizens whose real economic problems need to be addressed. But as we engage in honest dialogue, we can never back down from our pursuit of racial and gender equality and defense of immigrant rights. There are status advantages you have to learn to give up in life in the name of equality and justice. Our job as teachers and scholars is to help people through this transition, not to say that it is ok for us all to stay where we are.

3 Comments

  1. I agree with Cecilia, but add in the problem of the unexpectedly strong support of women for Trump. Sisterhood was not powerful. Does our race/class/gender trilogy need to be better parsed? Does the election yield still another painful lesson: white women sufficiently share in the status grievance of their male counterparts that a Trumping sexist has no special impact?

    1. Harvey’s point is well taken. But actually, I think that it is not surprising that many (esp white) women voted with their other identity interests rather than gender. The evidence is that while gender is a powerful initial framing identity, it works its effects on behavior primarily as a background identity that modifies (and intersects with) the performance of other, more situationally specific identities, rather than acting as a foregrounded direct determinant of behavior. We almost never simply act as “women” or “men.”

  2. Short and very well expressed. We haven’t spoken in decades, but I wanted to tell you that I think your comment ring true. As someone who has always preferred teaching blue-collar and first generation college students at UWM and then at VCU (and who supported himself through N.D. and U.Wis., Madison) I think you properly highlight the status loss concerns of much of middle America. Simply put, Clinton unnecessarily lost the election because she listened to people like herself. Advisors who told her Michigan and Wisconsin were sure things, and so their status challenged populations didn’t have to be directly addressed. She didn’t visit Wisconsin even once! If she had put in some time there and in Michigan we might not now have Trump. The Daley machine that controlled Chicago when I was growing up never would have made such a basic mistake. They took nothing for granted and contacted every potential voter. When I was away at college and turned 21 they even sent me everything necessary to register and to vote absentee. All I had to do was sign the forms and put them the stamped envelope.

    Best,

    John

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