Ethnocentrism and Small Government Hypocrisy

When Jon Chait and I were BHTVing about the merits of calling people racists, he agreed that it’s valid to discuss racism as, in a statistical aggregate sense, a driver of opinion dynamics. So without making any accusations about what motivates any particular individuals, I thought it would be useful to discuss two anecdotes in the news in light of some statistical findings. Here Chait flags a beneficiary of socialized medicine complaining about handouts:

“Yes, we need health-care reform, but why couldn’t we have taken it step by step?” asked Kitty Rehberg, a 71-year-old farmer from nearby Rowley, who held a colonial-era American flag as she protested near Mr. Obama’s speech. She said the president’s policies would cost her “a lot from my pocket book” to help people who “just want freebies.”

And Josh Marshall flags the irony of former militiaman and current Tea Party activist Mike Vanderberg being a self-described “Christian libertarian” who gets buy thanks to his $1,300 a month government disability check.

In a general sense, this sort of hypocrisy is well-known, but I think a much deeper understanding of it can be achieved by reading the relevant section of Donald Kinder and Cindy Kam’s excellent recent book Us Against Them: Ethnocentric Foundations of American Opinion. Kinder creates an index of “ethnocentric” attitudes and is able to do statistical studies showing the degree of relationship between ethnocentric attitudes and views on other matters. In particular, among white voters being ethnocentric is associated — independent of self-described ideology and other factors — with decreased support for means-tested welfare:

As expected, ethnocentric whites are more likely to push for cuts in food stamps, to favor reductions in spending on welfare, to oppose increasing benefits to women on welfare if they have additional children, and to favor strict time limits on public assistance. Partisanship, egalitarianism, and limited government also contribute to opinion on welfare, and in the expected way. But with controls on partisanship and principles (and on benefits and all the rest), the effects of ethnocentrism are statistically significant and sizable in every case.

What’s more, not only is this effect not observable when it comes to social insurance programs, but you actually see the reverse. Ethnocentrism increases support:

We are convinced that the positive effects of ethnocentrism on support for social insurance are real. We uncovered the same result — that ethnocentrism helps to build support for social insurance programs among white Americans — wherever we looked, and we looked in quite a few places. […] When it comes to providing pensions and health care to the retired and elderly, ethnocentrism appears to be a force for liberalism, for a more generous welfare state.

Which is just to say that we should expect to see this kind of doublethink about social welfare programs especially concentrated among ethnocentric white Americans.


The whole book, I should say, is very interesting. And other sections detail the impact of ethnocentric attitudes on the part of non-whites on various matters, though interestingly this particular dissonance between means-tested programs and social insurance programs appears to be an exclusive peculiarity of white public opinion. Among non-whites, attitudes toward both kinds of programs are determined by partisanship and ideological variables.