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Dangerously Divided: How Race and Class Shape Winning and Losing in American Politics, Zoltan L. Hajnal

Reviewed by Natalie Masuoka

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Explanations for American voting behavior and attitudes have taken on a curious frame since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, such that there have been growing claims that race is no longer central to American politics. Obama’s election was labeled evidence of a new “post-racial” America. Then, when Donald Trump was elected in 2016, public narratives emphasized the role of social class by pointing to the voting bloc of white, working-class, and rural voters who had helped decide the outcome of the election. Zoltan L. Hajnal’s Dangerously Divided joins an important collection of recent academic work that directly challenges the argument about the reduced role of race in American politics.

Hajnal does not sugarcoat his position: “A key aspect of this story is not just that race matters but also that it eclipses the other important dividing lines in American society” (p. 13). Race has always been a core feature of American politics, and it is present even in the constitutional Framers’ debates over the structure of government. The interpretation that recent events indicate a reduced role of race discounts the historical centrality that race has always played in American government. Hajnal offers empirical evidence and an unambiguous argument that race continues to direct most patterns in American politics.

Much of the current research that seeks to confirm the continued role of race in twenty-first-century American politics has focused on the measurement and influence of racial attitudes such as racial resentment on voter preferences. Dangerously Divided instead focuses on political outcomes such as descriptive representation and public policy passage, demonstrating clear variation across racial groups. This book offers a creative measure, which is the calculation of electoral “winners” and “losers.” The calculation of winners and losers is designed using two dependent variables: voting for the winning candidate and holding a policy preference that is matched by public policy passage. Hajnal’s analysis shows that the group that is most likely to lose in elections are African Americans. Relative to whites, blacks are more likely to vote for the losing candidate, and they are least likely to see their policy preferences reflected in policy passage.

I walked away from this book thinking just how important and insightful this finding is for our understanding of civic engagement. So much of our explanation for voting behavior centers around the ideas of motivation, efficacy, and a sense of democratic justice. This, then, raises a question: in the face of their continued exclusion, how is it that blacks continue to be one of the most consistent turnout groups in the country? Why would blacks continue to hold any faith in our political system when they more consistently see their preferences on the losing side of the election? While blacks are always singled out as a distinctive voting group given their political cohesiveness, this is probably a much more important orientation for understanding just how unique black voters really are.

The book also takes on an explicitly partisan orientation by concluding that one solution to American inequality is to elect more Democrats. For Hajnal, when Democrats are in control, less policy incongruence is experienced by voters of color, and, contrary to what one might expect, whites are not disproportionality disadvantaged by Democratic policies. Hajnal’s analysis shows that relative to communities of color, white gains are simply not as great as they are when Republicans are in control. In this way, Hajnal tries to assuage white anxieties that gains for communities of color do not necessarily mean losses for whites.

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