A recent editorial by SUNY professor Ian Reifowitz suggests that the upcoming midterm election is a referendum on different versions of American national identity. One side, he says, is “Obama’s America”: multicultural and inclusive. Presumably, he is implying that those who advocate this version of American identity will vote Democrat next Tuesday. However, “another American nationalism is out there, one that is ethnic rather than civic,” he writes. Those on this side of the debate, he argues, believe that Sarah Palin’s “real America” really means white Anglo-Protestant. He goes on to strongly hint that those who advocate this more exclusionary conceptualization of America are simply racists who reveal their true intention to varying degrees through conspiracy theories of President Obama’s birthplace to racial campaign ads to questioning the president’s religion.
I wrote my dissertation on “nativism” – the opinion that a uniquely American culture and way of life needs to be protected against foreign influence. Nativism is certainly a factor, among many, in driving support for groups like the Tea Party. Most scholars who have studied nativism, however, tend to agree that nativism and racism are related, but not identical concepts or attitudes. While there is evidence to support the argument that nativism and racism are moderately correlated (r=0.32 among non-Hispanic whites in a 2006 Pew survey), I also spent much time in my dissertation arguing that the two are conceptually and empirically distinct attitudes and that they shouldn’t be combined or confused. For example, a recent study found that the majority of Tea Party rally signs are not racially charged, although there are certainly a few.
To double-check, I ran a logistic regression analysis on this same 2006 Pew survey data, predicting Republican party identification using a variety of independent variables, including nativism, racism, and several demographic control variables. The results? Yes, Republicans tend to be more nativist. That’s simply part of their classical liberal understanding of American culture. But the racism variable was not a factor in explaining Republican party identification.
While there has been some research suggesting that anti-black bias had an effect on voting in the 2008 presidential election, I think that Professor Reifowitz’s argument is a bit of a stretch. I disagree that veiled racism will be the predominant factor in most people’s vote choices in the upcoming midterm election. I do believe, however, that nativism will play a small role in driving people’s vote choices, but to an extent MUCH smaller than attitudes about the state of the economy and simple partisan identification. In fact, most political science research shows that the overall state of the economy is one of the single largest factors that explains results on most national American elections.
In sum, I think that the results of the upcoming midterm election will be more a statement about what Americans think about their financial fortunes, and less a referendum on the nature of American national identity, as Prof. Reifowitz is arguing.