Nativism and the 2012 campaign

I wrote my dissertation on nativism: the individual-level attitude that a uniquely American culture and way of life needs to be protected against foreign influence, broadly-speaking. As can be imagined, nativism plays an important role in shaping public opinion attitudes toward immigration, and my upcoming 2012 APSA paper (which Centre student Jordan Shewmaker is helping me out with) shows that it also shapes attitudes toward health care reform.

Now we see some inklings of nativism creeping into the 2012 election campaign discourse:

From Romney campaign surrogate and New Hampshire Governor John Sununu, earlier today:

He has no idea how the American system functions, and we shouldn’t be surprised about that, because he spent his early years in Hawaii smoking something, spent the next set of years in Indonesia, another set of years in Indonesia, and, frankly, when he came to the U.S. he worked as a community organizer, which is a socialized structure, and then got into politics in Chicago. … I wish this president would learn how to be an American.

Notice the key words “Hawaii” (not technically foreign, but still suggestive), “Indonesia”, “socialized” and then the explicit assertion that he is not an American.

Then from Governor Romney himself earlier today, talking about the president’s approach to economic matters:

“It is changing the nature of America, changing the nature of what Democrats have fought for and Republicans have fought for,” Romney said, adding: “celebrating success instead of attacking it and denigrating it makes America strong.”

“That’s the right course for this country,” Romney continued. “His course is extraordinarily foreign.”

Again, the key words the cue nativist attitudes: “nature of America” and “foreign”.

I’m not saying this to criticize. At any given time, somewhere between 40%-60% of the country responds in public opinion polls that they believe that “our American culture and way of life needs to be protected against foreign influence.” The interesting thing is that in addition to responding to Spanish-language TV and Muslim mosques, many with nativist attitudes also link “foreign” with President Obama. This is largely due to elite rhetoric like the kind we’re observing today. 

In an election where the winner will likely owe his victory largely to a faithful turnout from his partisan base, emphasizing pre-existing beliefs about the President Obama, for better or worse, is smart politics.

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