Even after all of the victories over segregation and racial hatred, race and racism shape American politics in deeply fundamental ways. That’s true not only of slavery’s legacy, black-white racism, but also when it comes to other kinds of ethno-nationalist resentments.
Indeed, according to new research, one of those other forms of prejudice — nativism, or distrust of foreigners — is critical to understanding the vicious backlash we’ve seen to Obamacare. It’s a finding consistent with a wealth of research suggesting racism played a huge role in radically stunting the growth of America’s welfare state.
Benjamin Knoll, a political scientist at Centre College, used a Pew database to sort Americans by their degree of “nativist” sentiment. “Strong nativists,” for instance, agreed strongly with the claim that “our American way of life needs to be protected against foreign influence,” whereas “somewhat nativists” “somewhat agreed” and “strong non-nativists” disagreed. Knoll and his coauthor, Jordan Shewmaker, then plotted the results against reported levels of support for the Affordable Care Act.
After controlling for others factors we know are linked to opposition to Obamacare (age, Republican partisan affiliation, and the like), Knoll and Shewmaker found a clear relationship between nativism and anti-Obamacare sentiment. A huge one, in fact: “ nativism,” they write, “was shown to exert a stronger influence than every other variable in the model with the exception of partisanship.”
When they looked more closely at the interaction between nativism and partisanship, they found something else interesting. While there were nativists and non-nativsts across the political divide, nativism was a much stronger predictor of opposition to Obamacare among Republicans than among Democrats. “Individual nativist attitudes tended to decrease support for the ACA by a factor of about 35 percent” among Republicans, “while among Democrats, nativist attitudes decreased support for the ACA by about 12 percent.” Here’s what that looks like graphed:
They believe the partisan gap stems from the language Republican politicians and media types used to condemn Obamacare (“socialist, un-American”), as well as the coding of President Obama as a foreigner, entwining nativist sentiment with partisan Republican opposition to the law.
That’s certainly possible. It’s also possible that their methodology isn’t totally sound and their findings are flawed. But their results are consonant with a long-running vein of research that connects nativist panic with Republican partisanship for reasons that long precede Obamacare’s first draft.
The basic argument here is that the reason the United States doesn’t have a European-sized welfare state, including state-run health care, is our striking racial and ethnic antagonism. Because the United States is more diverse than Europe, the dominant white ethnic group is more likely to be suspicious of generous entitlements, seeing them as handouts to an undeserving other. Entitlements become a racially and ethnically coded issue.
The most famous paper making this case is titled, simply enough, “Why Doesn’t The U.S. Have A European-Style Welfare State?” Economists Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser and Bruce Sacerdote tested a number of hypotheses for explaining the U.S.-Europe gap against the empirical evidence, finding that it was impossible to account for the gap without taking into account America’s racial legacy. The “history of American redistribution makes it quite clear that hostility to welfare comes in part,” they conclude, “from the fact that welfare spending in the US goes disproportionately to minorities.”
A 2010 book by Donald Kinder and Cindy Kam deepened that argument. Kinder and Kam developed a metric of “ethnocentrism,” an inclusive concept designed to include all sorts of prejudice against outgroups rather than just pure racism, and tested its effects on support for welfare state programs. They found that ethnocentrism predicted opposition to means-tested programs like welfare that benefit the poor, but actually correlated with higher levels of support for insurance programs like Social Security that benefited everyone (including older whites).
Since Obamacare is at its heart a transfer program — taxing the rich to pay for health care for the poor and middle class — it makes sense that it would inflame passions of people who identify as being concerned with “foreign” threats to “the American way of life.” That goes double for Republican nativists, who are primed by virtue of their small government commitments to oppose any expansion of the welfare state.