New research provides evidence that ethnic antagonism has a substantial negative effect on Republicans’ commitment to democracy.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicates that perceptions that minorities have taken more than their fair share of political power and government resources are more strongly linked to anti-democratic sentiments than other factors, such as sociodemographic variables and support for President Donald Trump.
“All through the 2016 campaign, the folks at the New York Times seemed to think that if they just ran one more 5,000-word story calling out Donald Trump for violating some democratic norm, people would see the light and turn against him,” remarked study author Larry Bartels, the May Werthan Shayne Chair of Public Policy and Social Science at Vanderbilt University.
“To anyone familiar with decades of research documenting the public’s shallow attachment to democratic norms, that seemed very unlikely. But much of the recent research has involved asking people about the ‘importance’ of democracy, or of specific aspects of democracy, in the abstract.”
“I wanted to explore what people say when democratic norms are implicit rather than explicit, and when they are pitted against other deeply-held values like strong leadership, patriotism, and the traditional American way of life.”
Bartels analyzed responses from 1,151 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who participated in an online survey in January 2020. The survey gathered data on topics such as violence in pursuit of political ends, respect for the rule of law, and the legitimacy of elections.
The survey sought to mimic real-life political tradeoffs by pitting traditional democratic values against other cherished ideals such as patriotism, strong leadership and the so-called “traditional American way of life.”
“There are two key findings. First, there is a lot of anti-democratic sentiment out there. For example, half of Republicans agree that ‘The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.’ Almost three-fourths agree that ‘It is hard to trust the results of elections when so many people will vote for anyone who offers a handout,'” Bartels told PsyPost.
In addition, 41.3 percent agreed that “A time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.”
“Second, those attitudes are firmly grounded in what I call ‘ethnic antagonism’ — especially concerns that Blacks and immigrants and Latinos are too powerful and getting more than their fair share of government resources. Economic conservatism, cultural conservatism, partisanship, and even enthusiasm for President Trump are much less important in accounting for Republicans’ anti-democratic attitudes,” Bartels said.
The survey items with the strongest link to anti-democratic views were not measures of attitudes toward Trump. Instead, items assessing whether participants agreed with sentiments such as “discrimination against whites is as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities,” “things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country,” immigrants get more than their fair share of government resources, and that people on welfare often have it better than those who work showed the highest average correlations with anti-democratic attitudes.
The findings suggest that ethnic antagonism plays an important role in the erosion of support for democracy in the Republican Party. But it is unclear how many people who endorse taking the law into their own hands in theory would actually do so in practice.
“The most important open question is whether and how these anti-democratic sentiments will translate into anti-democratic behavior. Most ordinary people are not going to resort to violence or lawlessness on behalf of the traditional American way of life, even if they express support for doing so in an opinion survey,” Bartels explained.
“But it doesn’t take millions of agitators to create a lot of turmoil, especially in inflammatory political circumstances of the sort we face right now. There is also the possibility that anti-democratic sentiment in the Republican rank-and-file will encourage the president or other political elites to engage in anti-democratic behavior. Unfortunately, there is no way to know for sure — until it is too late.”
“Multi-ethnic democracy is a difficult thing to pull off, especially when the numbers, status, and power of the groups seem to be changing. The next few decades will pose significant challenges for the American political system, and for us as citizens. But if we pass the test, our reward will be a richer and truer democracy,” Bartels added.
The study, “Ethnic antagonism erodes Republicans’ commitment to democracy“, was published September 15, 2020.
(Photo credit: Anthony Crider)