Posted on August 9, 2018

The Demography of the Alt-Right

George Hawley, Institute for Family Studies, August 9, 2018


The Alt-Right has proven particularly challenging from an analyst’s perspective because of its amorphous nature and the anonymity of most of its adherents. Most Alt-Right activity takes place on the Internet, and fear of public exposure causes most people involved in the movement to rely on pen names.

{snip} Yet the constituency for explicit white identity politics remains, which is why it is helpful to understand the economic and demographic factors that are correlated with that ideology.

Alt-Right Core Attitudes


Movements like the Alt-Right are correctly classified as racist. However, there are elements to these kinds of movements beyond simple racial animus, anxiety, or resentment. Although the racist right can be ideologically diverse and make many different arguments, there are three key sentiments that are widely shared across these movements: 1) a strong sense of white identity, 2) a belief in the importance of white solidarity, and 3) a sense of white victimization. {snip}

The 2016 American National Election Survey (ANES), which was conducted over several waves during Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency, included several helpful questions on racial attitudes. Some of these were new additions to the survey. Respondents were asked how important their race was to their identity on a five-point scale ranging from “not at all important” to “extremely important.” They were also asked a question measuring their feelings of white solidarity: “How important is it that whites work together to change laws that are unfair to whites?” This followed the same five-point scale. Finally, we can assess survey respondents’ feelings of white victimization from their answers to the question of how much discrimination whites face in the U.S., also on a five-point scale, ranging from “none at all” to a “great deal.”

The survey included 3,038 non-Hispanic white respondents. Among these respondents, only a minority expressed high values on any of the above questions; about 28% expressed strong feelings of white identity; about 38% expressed strong feelings of white solidarity; and about 27% felt that whites suffer a meaningful amount of discrimination in American life. A much smaller minority, about 12% of respondents, expressed all three opinions. It is worth noting that a 2017Washington Post-ABC News poll estimated that about 10% of respondents supported the Alt-Right.


Do Changing Social Norms Fuel Right-Wing Radicalism?

Some observers have suggested that the contemporary far right is different from its ideological predecessors — that it is younger and more technologically competent, for example. Its leadership also appears to be less religious and socially conservative than earlier far right movements-though parts of the white nationalist movement have always expressed antipathy toward Christianity and other organized religions.


Sexual patterns that have emerged because of the decline of monogamy have seen a greater level of sexual choice for an elite of men and a growing celibacy among a large male population at the bottom of the pecking order. Their own anxiety and anger about their low-ranking status in this hierarchy is precisely what has produced their hardline rhetoric about asserting hierarchy in the world politically when it comes to women and non-whites.

Key Findings


The gaps between the married and the never-married respondents on these questions do not provide compelling evidence that the breakdown of traditional family norms is leading to a new interest in right-wing radicalism. However, the results for divorce are more interesting. On every one of these questions mentioned earlier, for example, divorced respondents were consistently one of the highest scoring groups. This may seem curious, as there is not an obvious connection between being divorced and feelings about race. It is possible that the experience of divorce makes one feel more alienated and negative in general. It is also conceivable that the causal connection is reversed, or that having these attitudes makes one more likely to get divorced.

The effect of having children in the home was inconsistent across questions. On average, respondents with children were much less likely to express strong feelings of white identity and solidarity, but somewhat more likely to say whites suffer discrimination.


These data indicate that socioeconomic status is a substantively important predictor of how a white person will answer these questions. On each question, there was a significant gap between respondents with a college degree and those without them.

We similarly see that unemployment and lower incomes are associated with much stronger feelings of white identity, solidarity, and discrimination (see below for income).

It is additionally worth noting that there is not a large gender gap on these questions. Although the ranks of radical right movements tend to be overwhelmingly male, men are not more likely than women to possess these kinds of feelings about race. In fact, on each question, a slightly higher percentage of women expressed these attitudes.


One thing worth immediately noting is that in no category of whites do we see more than one-fifth expressing consistent support for these ideas. We cannot accurately describe any one specific group as being the main constituents of Alt-Right ideas. We see that white Democrats are very unlikely to express these attitudes, as are those with college degrees and very high incomes. The lack of an obvious age gap is notable. The youngest cohort differs very little from the oldest. This suggests that the problem of white identity politics is not something that will be resolved by generational replacement. However, this also challenges the Alt-Right’s claim that the youngest whites are becoming increasingly receptive to their ideas.


The regression table above indicates that religiosity and family formation are much less significant than economic variables in each of these models. {snip}


These data indicate that there is no single measure that can predict which white Americans will have the attitudes that form the basis of white identity politics. However, they provide some useful insights. First, they suggest that religious practices have a negligible effect on white people’s racial attitudes. The rise of secularism in the electorate will have important political implications, but its impact on race relations may be insignificant.

Second, although marriage and children appear to be important determinants of these views in the descriptive statistics, their effects dissipate once we control for other characteristics. Never-married and currently-married respondents were not significantly different from each other, but divorce does seem to increase the likelihood that the respondent will believe whites suffer discrimination and the likelihood that a white person will agree with all three of the basic premises of white identity politics. Therefore, if we wish to discourage right-wing radicalism, encouraging more marriage will likely not be effective, but strengthening marriages and discouraging marriage dissolution may be helpful.


I should also reiterate that people who have a strong sense of white identity and racial grievance are not necessarily involved with radical movements. Therefore, the demographics of people who are active in the Alt-Right or related white nationalist movements may be different from what we see above. In fact, given that men are the overwhelming majority of the Alt-Right’s public supporters, and women actually scored slightly higher than men on these measures, this is almost certainly the case.

A year after images from Charlottesville shocked the world, the Alt-Right remains in a weakened state. The movement hoped it would be able to transition from the Internet into the real world, becoming a normal part of American politics. That has not happened. These data further indicate that the potential constituency for the kind of politics the Alt-Right advocates is relatively small. Majorities of white Americans reject the basic premises of white identity politics, and only a small minority agree with all of them. This does not mean the radical right is not a problem that can be safely ignored. More work needs to be done, but knowing the individual characteristics associated with far-right views is a useful initial step.

[Editor’s Note: A large number of charts and tables accompany the original story.]