The 2020 Presidential Election from a Sociological Perspective

For many sociologists, the election between President Donald Trump and former vice-president Joe Biden is the most socially relevant in American history. To further unpack what this means, I interviewed four professors from the Sociology Department at Bates. Each professor has a different research specialty that shapes how they view the current election. 

Michael Rocque Associate, Professor of Sociology 

Research Specialty: Criminology

Professor Michael Rocque believes that electing a candidate who values the role of education would be beneficial for the criminal justice system. (Katherine Merisotis/The Bates Student)

Professor Rocque focuses on the issues that impact the criminal justice system and is interested in understanding why people commit crimes. The president impacts the criminal justice system by signing bills into law that influence how crime is managed. 

There has been concern about Biden’s support for the 1994 crime bill and the role the bill had in the disproportionate incarceration rate of racial minorities. Rocque believes that not all the flaws within the criminal justice system can be traced back to this single bill and that the problems predate 1994. Biden is running on a campaign that details how racial disparities and other social problems will be addressed within the criminal justice system. 

On the other hand, Trump has called for “law and order” in his campaign speeches. To Rocque, this has a double meaning that suggests the president is trying to reduce crime, but also criminalizing the behavior of protesters. This approach to reducing crime may further exacerbate the racial injustices seen in the criminal justice system. 

Education is linked with crime and justice, and Rocque believes that electing a candidate who values the role of education would be beneficial for the criminal justice system. He fears that electing the wrong candidate could result in the rise of extremist groups. Also, if a transition of power occurs, and if it is not done peacefully and amicably, there could be an increase in violence after the election. 

Francesco Duina, Professor of Sociology 

Research Specialty: Economic and Political Sociology 

Professor Duina focuses on national identity, international political economy, and international organizations like the European Union in his research. He believes that the result of the election will have a direct impact on his research.

Duina believes that over the past four years, the Trump administration has continuously tried to push a protectionist and nationalistic agenda that has weakenend ties with allies, given power to our enemies, given voice to far-right nationalistic parties across the world, and has gone against the unwritten rules that much of the world follows. In a Biden presidency, Duina foresees a movement towards a more traditional approach in dealing with foreign affairs, allowing our country to regain the allies it has lost. If Trump wins, he believes the trajectory our country has been on for the past four years will continue. 

To conclude, he lists inequality, racial matters, health, education, domestic tensions, and a vision for a better America and the world as issues both important to him, but also sociologists in general. These issues are all at the center of this election. He contends that the president of the U.S. is still the most powerful person in the world and that almost everything is impacted by this election, because the president has the ability to shape the country’s future. The results of this election might decide if the U.S. ends up on the right or the wrong side of history. 

Emily Kane, Professor of Sociology 

Research Specialty: Intersectionality, Poverty, and Family and Policy

Professor Emily Kane is particularly interested in how this election affects women. (Katherine Merisotis/The Bates Student)

Professor Kane often studies the intersection of race, class, and gender, and as a result, is particularly concerned with how this election affects women. Resulting from Kane’s intersectional view of sociology, she identifies the way “suburban women” are being portrayed in the election, the nomination of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, and Trump’s focus on law and order, as important issues. 

For Kane, studying marginalized populations in our country helps her to see the social implications of this election. Systemic racism is something that has long been studied by sociologists, but is much more recently been talked about by politicians. Systemic racism is at the forefront of many issues discussed in this election cycle. Housing, healthcare, education, employment, and wealth are just some of the areas where racial inequities continue to persist. Contrasting views on how much of a role systemic racism plays in creating inequalities in the U.S. are also coming to light this election. 

Moving away from social issues, Kane expressed her interest in polling. She teaches sociology research methods at Bates. In particular, she pays close attention to sample bias and social desirability bias. These were two factors that helped to explain why an unexpected Trump victory took place in 2016 after Hillary Clinton had been leading in the polls. With the coronavirus pandemic, studying the new challenges with polling this year interests sociologists like Kane. 

Ben Moodie, Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology

Research Specialty: Comparative Sociology and Cultures

Professor Moodie’s research is centered around the comparison of cultures. In thinking about the election, he made connections to the teachings of Michèle Lamont, Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Harvard University. Lamont’s research indicates that American men are more likely than French men to view money as a sign of individual achievement. Moodie says that this caricature is often what Europeans, and the French specifically, fear the most about America. Trump, who had never been a politician, ran for president and was elected largely because having money made him influential and valued in American society. 

In explaining how we have gotten to where we are at the time of the 2020 Presidential Election, Moodie took a look back to the 1970s. During that time, professionals often identified as Republicans more than other workers. However, over time, professionals have moved more toward the Democratic Party. He explained social liberalism among professionals as a likely cause, but also the fact that conservatives have become much more likely to offer criticism of those who are widely considered to be knowledgeable. This is evident with the coronavirus and Trump’s unwillingness to trust medical experts and scientists. Moodie believes that the coronavirus has shown Americans that it takes more than just one person to guide the country through times of crisis.  

I would like to thank Professor Rocque, Professor Duina, Professor Kane, and Professor Moodie for allowing me to interview them for this story. Their perspectives are just four examples of the way sociologists view the election. However, these perspectives help to show why this election has become socially relevant.