Find Mediators Near You:

The Election Wasn’t About What You Make, But About Who You Know

The number of theories proposed to explain the results of the recent election is almost equal to the number of pundits proposing them.  From micro-analyses – the Comey effect, the Benghazi hearings, media attention, differences in charisma – to mid-range explanations – lower millennial turnout, narrow margins in swing states — to the sweeping – white rage, boutique politics, a worldwide shift to the right – every theory has its partisans.  Isn’t it time for conflict theorists to weigh in?

Two theories about conflict, and particularly about means of diminishing conflict, hold promise in understanding the election, though not necessarily in ameliorating the conflicts revealed there.

The first is the Contact Hypothesis theory, articulated by Gordon W. Allport and later developed by many others, which suggests that suspicion and bias toward others is likely to be diminished when the groups have regular contact with each other, especially under certain conditions.  These are usually given as

  • Personal interaction
  • Equal status
  • Common goals
  • Support of authorities, law or customs

In this essay I want to focus primarily on Personal Interaction, which would seem to be the first requisite of the four. How did personal contact, or its absence, influence the election?

Despite the decades-old mantra that “It’s the economy,” the results of the election didn’t in any obvious way turn on economic concerns.  According to exit polls ( /us/politics/election-exit-polls.html?_r=0), voters whose chief concern was the economy voted Democratic by a 10-point margin, 52-42%. Certainly depressed economic areas may have focused on this issue, but overall, the economy was not the factor most helpful to Republicans.

The Republican case depended far more than economics on two other factors: illegal immigration and terrorism. Those who rated terrorism as their main concern voted Republican by 18 percentage points, and those most worried about immigration went fully 2:1 Republican.  (According to Pew research, those who rated illegal immigration a “very big problem” tended Republican 79-22%, and terrorism was rated “very big” by 74% of Republicans and 42% of Democrats. (

What is distinctive about these two factors?  Unlike “the economy,” foreign policy, or climate change, terrorism and immigration are attributable to particular people in particular places. Despite the claim that “all politics is local” the relationship between voting patterns and experience of these two ills, and of the “others” exemplifying them, was almost perfectly inverse.  In other words, the fewer Muslims or immigrants in a state, the more likely that state was to have strong fears of the two and to vote accordingly.

Regarding experience of terrorism, the states most directly affected by 9/11 (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, from which the planes took off) have consistently voted Democratic in every election since 2004, including the latest.  States with other terrorist experiences, such as the DC area (9/11) California (San Bernardino) and Massachusetts (Marathon bombers) again have been almost solidly Blue.  Since 1995, the only large-scale foreign terrorist attacks in a Red state was the Orlando attack, which was perhaps as much due to homophobia as to faith.

General fear of Islam is most prevalent in states with tiny Muslim populations. None of the seven states that have banned Shariah law (AL, AZ, KA, LA, NC, SD, and TN), has a percentage of Muslims higher than .1.  South Dakota, for example, has ensured that its approximately 1400 Muslims will not take over its legal system.  Meanwhile, the four states with the largest percentage of Muslims (IL, VA, NY, NJ), are all Blue states, and have over 17 times the number of Muslims as the anti-Shariah states.

The same is true of immigration.  Of the 15 states with percentages of undocumented immigrants above the national average, 9 voted Democratic.  Of of the 23 states with less than 2% undocumented aliens, 19 voted Republican (3 of the other 4 were the northernmost New England states).             

Clearly the more Muslims, Latinos, and others in your community, the more likely you are to have met, worked with, and otherwise come into contact with them, often under conditions of equality, with common goals.  Apparently such contact does  lead to reduced fears.

Where are people of different backgrounds most likely to come into regular contact?  Most likely in heavily populated areas.  Here demographics again support the Contact Hypothesis: urban voters were significantly pro-Democratic (59% to 35%), rural voters pro-Republican (34% to 62%). 

Further, if your chances of meeting “others” at home are slight, you may find post-secondary education your first exposure to a wider community. And education played an almost equally significant role in determining voter preference, with non-college whites voting Republican by 67% to 33%, and all persons with graduate degrees being pro-democratic (58% to 37%). 

If the Contact Hypothesis offers a significant insight into voter behavior, another theory cross-cultural conflict amelioration suggests what might have been, and what in the end must happen, for our divisions to heal.  That theory is the development of Superordinate Identities, as described by Samuel Gaertner and John Dovidio.  If we can get people focus on their commonalities rather than their differences as sources of their identity, we can promote unity rather than division.  There can be little doubt that the two sides took diametrically opposed positions on the subject of common identity.

The Clinton campaign, like Obama campaign before it, strove to remind voters of their superordinate identities.  “Stronger Together” and “Yes We Can,” (which was a variant on Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s “Together We Can”) proposed that “American” is a superordinate and therefore inclusive identity.  “Make America Great Again,” on the other hand, clearly spoke to a narrower identity, and on many occasions labeled groups, whether by color, nationality, or religion, as outside the definition of “American.”  The racial divisions in voting patterns show that the parties’ messages were so heard, as either inclusive or exclusive, by those described

Unfortunately, these insights do not immediately suggest remedies.  Although America is constantly moving  toward greater contact between disparate groups, certain regions continue to be extremely homogenous.  Likewise, when division is an effective tool of one party, the goal of a common identity is itself in contention, which is no doubt exacerbated by the perceived imbalance between the parties of attention to those very identity groups.

There’s a story about two preachers that illustrates the point well.  One asks the other on Wednesday, “What are you going to preach on this week?”  The other replies, “I’m going to tell them that it is the duty of the rich to give graciously, and of the poor to receive graciously.”  On Monday they meet again.  “How did it go?”  “Pretty well.  I’ve convinced the poor; now I just have to work on the rich.”  To date we have apparently succeeded in persuading the “others” to embrace a common identity.  It only remains to persuade the increasingly slender, but still powerful, majority.




Richard Barbieri

Dr. Richard Barbieri is a board member of the Association for Conflict Resolution and Managing Editor of the journal ACResolution.  He is past president of the New England Association for Conflict Resolution and the Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program. MORE >

Featured Mediators

View all

Read these next


Mediation House Calls For Divorcing Couples

Although I hate to admit it, I’m actually old enough to remember the days when the family doctor made house calls. Childhood ailments brought visits from our kindly, joke-cracking pediatrician...

By Diane J. Levin

ABA Task Force’s 4 Elements On Quality Mediators

Recently while reading Deborah Laufer's ADR Network newsletter, I cam across the following: ABA Section of Dispute Resolution Task Force on Improving Mediation Quality - The Task Force focused...

By Jeff Thompson

The Last Gap in Negotiations. Why is it Important?

This is an excerpt of the entire paper. Please view the entire paper here. Please view the corresponding video here. **** Strategies and Ethics The current interest in studies of...

By John Wade