Contemporary punditry suffers from many shortcomings, but among its most egregious errors is a widespread failure to examine how political ideology shapes public opinion among whites. Contrary to what you may have been told, there is really no such thing as “white” opinion anymore.
White liberals and white conservatives hold diametrically opposed views on many topics related to the economy and government — divisions that simply do not exist among other groups. Whites may be ideologically polarized, but African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians are not.
A recent CAP/PolicyLink study on attitudes about rising diversity provides clear evidence for this view. Respondents were asked to choose which of the following two statements they agree with more, presenting a clear ideological choice between a more individualistic or collective view of the economy and government. The options were either “In today’s economy, average Americans are on their own. Jobs and benefits are less secure and you can’t really count on anyone but yourself and your family to get ahead” and “In today’s economy, we all face common challenges. Jobs and benefits are less secure, so we all need to work together to make it easier for average Americans to get ahead.”
On the face of it, Americans seem divided on this essential framing of our society — 47 percent believe that people are basically on their own while 49 percent believe that we must work together on common challenges. Under the surface, however, some fascinating trends emerge. A huge divide between whites is one of the most important: while 58 percent of white liberals believe that we must work together on common challenges, 59 percent of white conservatives said that people are basically on their own (overall, 36 percent of white respondents self-identified as ‘liberal’ and 50 percent of whites as ‘conservative’).
By contrast, majorities of African-Americans and Latinos -– regardless of ideological self-identification -– hold a more collective understanding of the economy. 73 percent of African-American liberals and 60 percent of African-American conservatives believe that we must work together on common economic challenges (46 percent of African-Americas self-identify as ‘liberal’ and 38 percent as ‘conservative’). Fifty-six percent of Latino liberals and 53 percent of Latino conservatives believe similarly (45 percent of Latinos self-identify as ‘liberal’ and 43 percent as ‘conservative’). Asian responses on this particular question more closely resemble those of whites than other people of color.
These same ideological patterns emerge on beliefs about reducing racial and ethnic inequality. In a separate test, we asked respondents to choose between two competing ideas about the connection between inequality and growth: “Government policies and investments that reduce racial and ethnic inequality would help us grow faster” and “Government policies and investments to reduce racial and ethnic inequality would not work and would just interfere with economic growth.”
By a 50 to 43 percent margin, Americans overall agree that government policies to reduce racial and ethnic inequality would help with economic growth. Nearly 7 in 10 white liberals (69 percent) take the majority position, but more than 6 in 10 white conservatives (63 percent) disagree. By contrast, significant majorities of African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians believe that government investments to reduce racial and ethnic inequality would be beneficial to growth — again, regardless of whether they identify as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’. This pattern is repeated on other questions as well.
Although these new results should be replicated by additional studies, the conclusions are nonetheless striking. White liberals think far more like the bulk of African-Americans, Latinos and Asians than white conservatives on the country’s biggest ideological questions. That’s particularly true on diversity questions:
It seems that white conservatives, a significant if declining bloc of voters, are the real outliers. Keep this in mind the next time you hear some pundit proclaim that the Obama and the Democrats have a problem with “whites.”