Affirmative action and the politics of realignment

Martin Gilens, Paul M. Sniderman, James H. Kuklinski

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Over the past thirty years, the Democratic party has carried the mantle of racial liberalism. The party's endorsements of equal rights, fair housing laws and school busing have cost it the support of some whites, but these losses have been concentrated at the periphery of the party, among those least committed to its guiding principles or most unsympathetic to its efforts on behalf of racial equality. We argue that with the rise of affirmative action as the primary vehicle to advance racial equality, racial politics have become divisive in a new way, and that opposition to affirmative action now encompasses whites within the liberal core of the Democratic party. Contrasting traditional survey measures of affirmative action attitudes with an experimentally-based, unobtrusive measure of opposition to affirmative action, we show that racially liberal whites are reluctant to admit their anger over racial preferences when confronted with traditional survey questions in a telephone interview. When measured with an unobtrusive instrument, however, white opposition to affirmative action is found to be just as strong among liberals as conservatives, among Democrats as Republicans, and among those most committed to racial harmony and equality as among those least committed to such values. We argue that whites' anger over affirmative action stems less from a lack of concern with racial equality than from a commitment to individual achievement and self-reliance. Thus, while core constituents of the Democratic party are more opposed to affirmative action than has previously been recognized, the Democrats can draw strength from the enduring commitment of many whites to the goal of racial equality.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)159-183
Number of pages25
JournalBritish Journal of Political Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1998
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Political Science and International Relations


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