Thursday, August 22, 2019


In 1986, a CBS News/NY Times poll asked "Overall, would you say most recent immigrants to the United States contribute to this country or do most of them cause problems?"  The question has been repeated a number of times, most recently in 2015.  The percent who said "contribute" minus the percent who said "cause problems" (usually 5-10% volunteered "some of both" or "depends"): 

That suggests that opinions became somewhat less favorable from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, and have become pretty steadily more favorable since then.  The pattern resembles that for opinions on whether the number of immigrants should be increased or reduced (see this post)

It occurred to me that some opinions shift depending on the party that controls the presidency--usually against the policies associated with that party.  If you look at the figures that way:*

A model of a linear trend plus a party control effect provides a very good fit.  Even though the sample is tiny, the party contol estimate is statistically significant (t=7.4, P=.002).  In principle, I find it implausible that the party of the president makes a big difference for opinions on this issue, so I'm still inclined to favor the idea of a shift in opinion against immigrants until the 1990s and then a shift in favor.  Either way, it points to the paradox of Donald Trump's success coming at a time when public opinion about immigrants and immigration was more favorable than it had been before. 

*Times when a Democrat was president are in red and times when a Republican was president are in blue. That's the opposite of the way people usually do it now, but historically red is associated with the left and blue with the right.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research] 

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Something completely different

A few weeks ago, there was discussion of the latest of Donald Trump's dubiously qualified nominees for the Federal Reserve Board, who has advocated a return to the gold standard.  That led me to look for questions about public opinion on the gold standard.  I found one, from sometime around 1980, but while looking, I found a totally different question that seemed more interesting.

In 2012, a poll sponsored by 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair magazine asked "Which of the following awards would you most want on your mantle--an Oscar, a Tony, a Grammy, a Pulitzer, or an Olympic gold medal?"    The Oscar, Tony, and Grammy awards combined for 15%, 36% chose a Pulitzer, and 40% chose a gold medal.

There were some differences by age, with younger people more likely to choose an Oscar, Tony, or Grammy (which I'll call the "popular culture" awards) and older people a Pulitzer.  There were also educational differences, in the same direction.  For self-rated ideology:

                                    Popular                 Pulitzer       Gold
Liberal                           13%                      43%            37%
Moderate                       18%                      42%            33%
Conservative                 15%                      26%            50%

There are a lot of Pulitzer prizes, but I think that the ones for journalism are best known, so these differences could reflect conservative suspicion of the media.  It could also be a general orientation to "intellectualism" (see this post) or maybe a conservative attraction to the idea of representing the nation.  Conservative politicians and media figures also criticize popular culture and "Hollywood," but there are no clear ideological differences in preference for the popular culture awards.  My impression is that the criticism of popular culture is big among conservative elites, but hasn't really trickled down to the general public. 

There are also large racial differences, with blacks much more likely to choose a popular culture award.

                                 Popular           Pulitzer      Gold
Black                          39%                 27%          25%
White                          11%                 39%          41%

I expected that there would be some racial differences, but not such large ones. 

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Use that word!

There has been a lot of discussion of the conference on "national conservatism" that was held last month.  Many of the commentators have said that nationalism is something that has existed in other nations, but not in the United States.  Part of the idea behind this is that America has been open to immigration, so we don't have a common ethnic heritage, and most Americans don't have many generations of family attachment to a particular place ("blood and soil"). One of the strongest statements of this kind came from Bret Stephens.  Among other things, he said "conservatives used to believe in the overwhelming benefits of immigration. Most nationalists want to restrict even legal immigration."  Since 2004, the General Social Survey has had a question about "Do you think the number of immigrants to America nowadays should be increased a lot, increased a little, remain the same as it is, reduced a little, or reduced a lot."  It also has a question asking people to place their political views.   The figure shows the percent saying the number of immigrants should be increased minus the percent saying it should be reduced (I didn't distinguish between "a little" or "a lot") for liberals, moderates, and conservatives.

Conservative opinions stayed almost the same for the whole period:  overwhelmingly in favor of reducing the number of immigrants.  Liberal opinions moved in favor immigration:  in 2016 and 2018, more liberals thought that the number should be increased than reduced.  It seems like the rate of change in opinions increased after Trump (the vertical dotted line is 2015, when he began his campaign).  Up through 2016, moderates didn't change much, but in 2018 they moved in favor of immigration.  So on immigration, Trump did not change conservatives:  he gave them what they had been wanting to hear.

OK, maybe "used to" didn't mean immediately before Trump, but at some more distant point in the past.  In 1964, the Gallup Poll did a survey on "Hopes and Fears of the American People."  This was when the United States was operating under the restrictive immigration laws passed in the early 1920s (they were changed in 1965).  There was a question on immigration:  "Do you think the number of immigrants allowed to enter the U.S. each year should be increased somewhat,
decreased somewhat, or kept at about the present level?"  About 10% of people didn't have an opinion.  Of those who did, 7% said it should be increased, 51% stay the same, and 42% that it should be reduced.

I could have looked at differences between conservatives and liberals, but the survey also had some less common questions, so I decided to consider those instead.  One was how many of your grandparents were born in the United States. Views on immigration for people with different numbers:

gp born outside US      Increased            Same      Decreased
0                                       4%                 47%         49%
1                                       7%                 57%         36%
2                                       9%                 51%         40%
3                                       5%                 60%         36%
4                                      14%                58%         28%

People with more foreign-born grandparents were more likely to support immigration, but even among people whose grandparents were all born abroad, only 14% thought the number of immigrants should be increased and 28% thought it should be decreased.

The survey contained the usual questions on race and religion, and also asked people where their mother's and father's ancestors came from and classified the answers into different groups.  This makes it possible to compare opinions by ethnicity.  Opinions were just about the same among blacks and whites (there were too few people of other races to say much about them).  Jews were considerably more favorable to immigration:  44% said the number should be increased and only 8% that it should be reduced.

Turning to regional background, and limiting it to non-Jewish whites, here are the figures for some groups (they aren't mutually exclusive):

Ancestry            Increased       Same     Decreased

British                  6%          51%        43%
German                   6%          52%        42%
Irish (Protestant)       3%          41%        56%
Irish (Catholic)        12%          61%        27%
Scandinavian             8%          53%        39%
Polish                   8%          60%        32%
East & Central Eur.     10%          52%        38%
Italian                 11%          62%        27%
"Latin"*                 7%          68%        24%

*Spain and Portugal, Latin America, and Puerto Rico.

 There are some differences:  the "old" immigrant groups (Britain, Germany, Scandinavia) were more likely to say that immigration should be reduced than the "new" ones.  But "reduced" outnumbered "increased" by more than 2:1 in every group.

That is, it apparently didn't take long for people from diverse backgrounds to start thinking that they were part of something that needed to protect itself against "outsiders."  The larger question can't be settled by data alone, but in my view nationalism has been strong in the United States from the moment that the United States began. 

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Friday, July 26, 2019

Life is unfair

I have had a couple of posts about a question that asked people whether "other countries generally treat the United States about as fairly as we treat them" or "other countries often take unfair advantage of the United States."   When I wrote those, the last time that the question had been asked was in 1999.  Since then, it has been asked again (in September 2018).  There was a substantial change.  In 1995, 78% chose "unfair advantage"; in 1999 it was 70%, and in 2018 it was down to 51%.  Most of that change involved Democrats--about 80% of Republicans chose "unfair advantage" in all three years, but for Democrats it fell from 68% in 1999 to 28% in 2018.  Although a lot of things happened between 1999 and 2018, I would guess that the major cause of the change is Donald Trump--it's a view that Trump has expressed, so Democrats have turned away from it.  However, Republicans are more united than Democrats (82%-15% vs. 25%-67%), and independents favor the "unfair advantage" by 52%-32%.  As a result, public opinion still leans towards "unfair advantage" (51%-42%), even though Trump's overall approval rating is unfavorable (in this survey, 38% approved of the job he was doing and 55% disapproved).  That is, it seems like this issue is helping Trump, and presumably helped him in the past as well.

I think this sentiment--indignation that other countries don't appreciate our generosity--has been underestimated.  It's something that we haven't seen before in a president, or in anyone with significant influence on foreign policy, but it is a core principle of Trump's world-view.  For example, a couple of tweets from the past few days:

"Give A$AP Rocky his FREEDOM. We do so much for Sweden but it doesn’t seem to work the other way around."  [According to the figures in , the United States gave $0 in aid to Sweden in 2017, the last year for which statistics are available]

 "Guatemala, which has been forming Caravans and sending large numbers of people, some with criminal records, to the United States, has decided to break the deal they had with us on signing a necessary Safe Third Agreement. . . . Now we are looking at the 'BAN', Tariffs, Remittance Fees, or all of the above. Guatemala has not been good. Big U.S. taxpayer dollars going to them was cut off by me 9 months ago."

This is not a new theme--here's a tweet he sent in January 2014 and then repeated in slightly different words in June 2014:  "I hope we never find life on another planet because if we do there's no doubt that the United States will start sending them money!"

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Economic and social ideology

It is sometimes said that the left has a natural advantage on economic issues, while the right has a natural advantage on social issues.  Of course, this is not true for every individual issue.  However, the general image of the left is that it's interested in helping the poor and middle class, and the general image of the right is that it's interested in helping business, especially big business. People who are middle class and below are more numerous, plus even many affluent people regard inequality as undesirable.  For social issues, the image of the left is that it's interested in helping minorities and "outsiders," while the image of the right is that it's interested in defending traditional majority values.  So the left is with the majority on economics, and the right is with the majority on social issues. 

People have been distinguishing between economic and social ideology at least since the 1950s, but it wasn't until 1999 that Gallup thought to ask people about their ideology on economic and social issues separately ("thinking about economic issues" and then "thinking about social issues").  They asked these questions once or twice a year until 2015.  Here are the average responses, on a scale of 1 (very conservative) to 5 (very liberal).

Self-rated opinions on social issues moved to the left, while self-rated opinions on economic issues went up and down without any trend (this makes sense, given that opinions on some important social issues did move to the left).  Opinions on social issues started out slightly to the left of opinions on economic issues, and because of the different trends, the gap widened.  That is, in terms of self-rated ideology, the left does better on social issues, not economic issues.  Another striking thing is that ratings, especially on economic issues, moved to the right in 2009-10--that is, during the recession (the 2008 survey was taken in may, when the economic was slowing, but not in a serious recession). 

Why doesn't the left do better on economic issues than social issues?  The perception of liberals as more interested in the middle class and poor is found in other surveys.  However, another popular meaning of "liberal" is free-spending, and a popular meaning of "conservative" is cautious or careful.  I think that's what gives conservatives their relative advantage on economics--many people think "it might be nice, but we can't afford it now," especially during a recession.  Of course, a recession is the best time for spending according to Keynesian economics, but as Paul Krugman has noted, Keynesian economics doesn't seem to have had much impact on popular thinking. 

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Sunday, July 14, 2019


This post extends a few points from my previous post.  In that one, I quoted Ross Douthat:  "America’s major political parties generally tend to be more responsive to public opinion, and less constrained by elite sentiment, than their counterparts in Europe" and added "it's not just that America's major political parties are more responsive to public opinion, but that they are inclined to accentuate any potential division in public opinion."  Although I agree with Douthat's claim, I would change the terminology, because there are different kinds of elites, so there isn't necessarily a single "elite sentiment."  It would be better to say that in Europe, political elites are more influenced by "expert" sentiment, and less by public opinion. 

That's a secondary point.  My main one is to say what I meat by "accentuate any potential division in public opinion."  Take the immigration bill of 2013, which was in line with what the public seemed to want.  So why didn't it get support from enough Republicans to pass? If it had, most people would have approved, partly because they agreed with the content, and partly because people like it when politicians from different parties shake hands and talk about bipartisanship.  But people generally give most of the credit or blame to the president, so Obama and the Democrats would have benefited more than the Republicans.  On the other side, although the general idea of a path for citizenship for "deserving" immigrants coupled with stronger border security was popular, any legislation would have to be complicated and open to potential objections (e. g., the provisions for border security were inadequate).  So if Republicans held out against it, they could raise enough doubts to drive support down, so they wouldn't pay much of a penalty for opposing it.  The public might become frustrated with "gridlock," but the president would take more of the blame for that.  So a strategy of uniform opposition can prevent a president from accomplishing much, which prevents him or her from becoming too popular.  The Republicans perfected this approach under Obama, although it had the unanticipated effect of making the Republicans in congress unpopular (they got some of the blame for gridlock), providing an opening for Donald Trump. 

In the past, it might have been possible to get enough Republican votes to get the bill through.  That is harder now, partly because fewer members of congress have a personal base of support that would give them the freedom to go against their party.  Although I don't have direct evidence of this, I was able to find a number of questions, mostly from Gallup, that asked people if they could name their representative in Congress.  The percent who said that they could: 

There is a clear downward trend, despite the increase in average levels of education.  Most of the surveys just asked people if they knew, but a few also asked for the name and recorded whether it was correct.  In 1957, 5% gave the wrong name, in 1977-8 about 10%, and in 1994 about 15%.  That is, the figure might understate the decline in knowledge--not only do fewer people think they know the name, but more of those people are mistaken.    

So my idea is that as politics has become more nationalized, a strategy of across-the-board opposition has become more effective, and that means that the parties pull their supporters farther apart.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Monday, July 8, 2019

The elite dissensus

Ross Douthat had a column yesterday about why the parties are moving apart on immigration.  The key passage:  "the cycle started with a gap between the elite consensus on immigration — unabashedly in favor — and the public’s more conflicted attitudes, which differ depending on the day’s headlines and the wording of the polling questions. Across the first 15 years of the 21st century, too many Beltway attempts to simply impose the elite consensus set the stage for backlash, populism, Trump."  Then Trump implemented cruel and ineffective policies, and Democrats reacted against them.  The later part seems right--the Democratic presidential candidates are competing to show how strongly they oppose Trump.  But the part I quoted seems wrong in two ways. 

First, although the public's attitudes are "conflicted" in the sense that they are not straightforwardly pro-immigration or anti-immigration, they are pretty stable.  For example, here is a question from 2011:  "Which comes closest to your view about illegal immigrants who are currently working in the US (United States)?...They should be allowed to stay in their jobs and to eventually apply for US citizenship. They should be allowed to stay in their jobs only as temporary guest workers but not to apply for US citizenship. They should be required to leave their jobs and leave the US."  44% chose the first option, 26% the second, and 26% the third.  One from December 2014:  "Which of the following comes closest to your view about what government policy should be toward illegal immigrants currently in the United States? Should the government...send all illegal immigrants back to their home country, have a guest worker program that allows immigrants to remain in the United States to work, but only for a limited amount of time, or allow illegal immigrants to remain in the country and eventually qualify for US citizenship, but only if they meet certain requirements like paying back taxes, learning English, and passing a background check?"  17% chose the first, 16% the second, and 63% the third.  Here's one from September 2018 "Which statement comes closest to your view about how the immigration system should deal with immigrants who are currently living in the US illegally? The immigration system should allow them a way to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements, allow them to become permanent legal residents, but not citizens, or identify and deport them?"  On this, it was 62%, 16%, and 21%.  That is, about 20 % favor a hard-line policy, maybe a quarter favor letting them stay but not become citizens, and most favor a "path to citizenship."  I think most of the difference between the first question and the other two is that the first one just talks about having jobs, while the others mention other requirements.  That is, there is strong support for citizenship for "worthy" illegal immigrants, and the more "worthy" qualities you specify, the stronger it gets (as much as 89% for "for illegal immigrants who were brought to the US as children if they meet certain requirements such as going to college or joining the military, and not having a criminal record?")

Second, on the "elite consensus":  there was a bill in 2013 that provided a path to citizenship, which passed the Senate with a bipartisan majority of 68-32.  But it was never voted on in the House, because the Republican majority objected to it.  That's not because the bill was unpopular with the public--several surveys showed a majority in favor, or in favor if they added "tougher provisions for border security." I haven't found any that showed a majority, or anything close to a majority, in favor of just rejecting it.

There may be a pro-immigration consensus among academic elites, or journalistic elites, but they don't make the laws.  There was not, and is not, anything resembling a consensus among political elites: most Republican elites have taken a position well to the right of the public.  The "populist" revolt was not a response to efforts to impose an elite consensus, but to the division among political elites:  it seemed like there was an agreement, and then it fell apart, so people turned to someone who said that he could cut through the gridlock and make "deals."  Oddly, Douthat got the situation pretty much right in 2010 when, comparing the United States and Europe on climate change, he said "America’s major political parties generally tend to be more responsive to public opinion, and less constrained by elite sentiment, than their counterparts in Europe."  Although with the benefit of hindsight, I would say it's not just that America's major political parties are more responsive to public opinion, but that they are inclined to accentuate any potential division in public opinion.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]