Why Racist People Tend to Be Conservative


The following are excerpts from the new book Our Political Nature; The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us, by Avi Tuschman (Prometheus Books, 2013): 

In relation to the political spectrum, tribalism breaks down into three components: (1) ethnocentricity, (2) religiosity, and (3) sexual (in)tolerance. High measures of ethnocentricity, religiosity, and sexual intolerance are commonly associated with one another. Individuals with this cluster of traits tend to have political views on the right. On the other end of the spectrum, attraction to out-groups (xenophilia), secularism, and higher sexual tolerance are well correlated with one another and with political views on the left.

What, specifically, would be the objects of sexual intolerance? Any form of sexuality deemed less likely to contribute to normatively sanctioned reproduction, economic stability, and social harmony of a given in-group. Examples include nonreproductive sexuality (such as homosexuality), premarital sexual choices made by young people, and extramarital affairs.

What is the logic between these three components of tribalism? The more ethnocentric, religious, and sexually intolerant people are, the more likely they are to reproduce with a mate from their own in-group. Moreover, conservatives are more likely to emphasize group values, such as prioritizing the reproduction and defense of their ethnic group, over other possible competing interests (e.g., personal pleasure, and education or career choices made at the expense of family).

On the other hand, more xenophilic, secular, and sexually tolerant people are more likely to see equal (or even greater) value in out-groups, and to reproduce with them. Thus, liberals place relatively greater importance on individualism and less on in-group values.


EthnocentrIsm vs. XenophIlIa

Glenn Beck has been called a leader of the ultraconservative opposition to President Obama, and a voice of the far-right Tea Party movement. During the depth of the Great Recession, in 2009, Beck was quickly rising to a position of national prominence, despite—and because of—his extremely controversial statements. In July 2009, for example, Beck declared: “Everything that is getting pushed through Congress” is “driven by President Obama’s thinking on . . . reparations [for slavery],” and is conceived of as a way to “settle old racial scores.” Beck also asserted that a “deep-seated hatred for white people” drives President Obama.

Examining Beck’s political psyche is a fruitful exercise because his bigger-than-life personality magnifies the traits that interest us on his end of the spectrum. But do Beck’s statements characterize a typical position of the Tea Party or of the far right in general?

In 2009, 2.8 million viewers tuned in to Beck’s television program. Moreover, Beck’s live shows and merchandise business have earned $35 million in a single year. Considering that Beck is essentially selling political ideas, it’s fair to say that his ideological orientation carries substantial currency among a particular segment of the US spectrum.

As interesting and as popular as Beck’s personality may be, he is still only one person in one country. What we really want to know is whether his ideas on race are meaningful and typical. Is it possible to objectively determine how much people’s views about race affect their left-right orientation? And are ethnocentrism and xenophilia associated with the same segments of the political spectrum in all countries around the world?


Ethnocentrism and the Right

In every country, the right is more ethnocentric than the left. Conservatives have more positive feelings toward members of their in-group and higher levels of patriotism toward their country. In the United States they are more likely than liberals to have a flag in their bedroom. On the other side of the coin, the right is more xenophobic toward other countries and members of out-groups.

In America, the modern political era began when the Civil Rights Movement pushed the race issue squarely into the politics of the 1960s. During this decade, opposition to civil rights was a cornerstone of American conservatism. The Republican candidate in the 1964 presidential election, Barry Goldwater, made the fateful decision to fight against the Civil Rights Act. This historic piece of legislation sought to outlaw racial segregation, including—most prominently— in schools. In his 1960 book The Conscience of a Conservative, Goldwater wrote:

I am firmly convinced—not only that integrated schools are not required— but that the Constitution does not permit any interference whatsoever by the federal government in the field of education. It may be just or wise or expedient for Negro children to attend the same schools as white children, but they do not have a civil right to do so which is protected by the federal constitution, or which is enforceable by the federal government.

Although many Americans have been taught to see this debate in the frame of “states’ rights” versus “federal powers,” the universal issue underlying the political controversy revolves around interethnic relations—just as a substantial portion of politics do anywhere else in the world. The specific laws that states have disagreed on with the federal government have concerned racial issues, beginning with slavery. A more recent point of contention pertained to “anti-miscegenation laws.” Until the US Supreme Court banned these laws in 1967, some sixteen states in the American Southeast prohibited interracial marriages.

Forty-six years after the era of Goldwater, the Civil Rights controversy resurfaced again—during the racially charged midterm elections of the nation’s first black presidency. This time, however, politicians reframed the Civil Rights Act as a “free-market” issue (as opposed to a racial one). In 2010, the Tea Party–backed senatorial candidate from Kentucky was Rand Paul. When asked if he would have voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Paul responded:

I don’t like the idea of telling private business owners [what to do]. I abhor racism. I think it’s a bad business decision to ever exclude anyone from your restaurant—but at the same time I do believe in private ownership. And I do think there should be absolutely no discrimination in anything that gets public funding. And that’s mostly what the Civil Rights Act was about.

With this statement, Rand Paul asserted his belief that private interests have the right to racially discriminate.

In commenting on the controversy, reporter John Stossel explicitly said: “It’s time now to repeal that part of [the Civil Rights Act that concerns the private sector]. Because private businesses ought to get to discriminate . . . it should be their right to discriminate.” Rand Paul won his election in Kentucky.

Interethnic controversies seem to assume endless “nonracial” frames. Perhaps these frames serve as moral camouflage in partisan wars of ideas to capture swing voters, who tend to be more moderate and averse to conflict. Because of this camouflaging and the passionate politicization of racial political controversies, perhaps we still need stronger evidence to definitively determine whether ethnocentrism is truly a core component of conservatism.

Conservatism Predicts Ethnocentrism Best

Hard statistical studies repeatedly find that there is no better way to predict ethnocentrism than to measure political conservatism. Stanford University’s Paul Sniderman is a world expert on the political psychology of race. He once asked 659 nonblack individuals how many negative stereotypes of black people they would accept. Self-placed political conservatism predicted the acceptance of the negative stereotypes more than three and a half times better than family income did.

In another survey, Sniderman asked his respondents whether or not they supported government guarantees of equal opportunity for blacks. Their answers are quite revealing: 75 percent of college-educated liberals supported this legislation favoring African-Americans, compared with only 38 percent of college-educated conservatives.

With such a pronounced partisan contrast on race attitudes, it’s no wonder that the 113th US Congress (2013–2015) has forty black Democrats and only one black Republican.

Beyond the United States, is there such a strong relationship between ethnocentrism and the political spectrums of countries that have totally different minorities, histories, and cultures? In 1988, researchers asked four thousand Europeans their opinions about their local ethnic out-groups. In this 30th Eurobarometer Survey, the French expressed attitudes about North Africans, Vietnamese, and Cambodians; the Dutch about Surinamers and Turks; the British about West Indians and South Asians; and the West Germans about Turks. In addition to their views on ethnic minorities, the surveyors collected sixty possible indicators of ethnic prejudice, including every imaginable demographic variable—from income to education to region. Out of all these sixty potential factors, self-placed political conservatism was the major predictor of prejudice across the four thousand Europeans.


Beyond Conscious Attitudes

The measurements that we’ve considered so far have come from volunteered attitudes. But how do we know if other people are as ethnocentric or xenophilic as they consciously claim to be? Some people might argue that they oppose racially charged issues like the Civil Rights Act because of “states’ rights” and “free markets,” while claiming to completely oppose all kinds of racism. What is the skeptic to believe?

A group of psychologists from Harvard, the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington developed an ingenious way to bypass conscious inhibitions against expressing ethnocentric attitudes. They call it the “Implicit Associations Test” because it asks people to pair a word with a picture on a computer screen. The pictures include images of white faces and black faces, and the words have positive and negative meanings. The idea behind the test is that a more ethnocentric white person, for example, hesitates relatively longer in pairing a positive word, rather than a negative word, with a black face.

When researchers gave this implicit racism test to 130,000 white Americans, a substantial majority of them, including both liberals and conservatives, tested positive for some amount of antiblack prejudice. However, when the psychologists correlated these results with voting patterns in the 2004 presidential election, they discovered a significant difference: of the 435 congressional districts covered, those with higher levels of “implicit” ethnocentrism were more likely to vote for the conservative candidate, George W. Bush.


Racial Threat and Distorted Demographic Perceptions

Just as a majority of white Americans show implicit levels of antiblack ethnocentrism, over half of all Americans greatly overestimate the proportions of blacks in the population. They also have similarly distorted perceptions of other minority groups. In 1990, the average American believed that the country was 32 percent black, 21 percent Hispanic, and 18 percent Jewish (even though the actual figures then were 12 percent, 10 percent, and 2 percent).

White Americans who give even higher estimates for the proportion of black America also tend to (1) mistakenly believe that the average African American has an equally good or better income, job, housing, healthcare, and education than the average white American, and (2) take conservative positions against affirmative action and against food stamps for the poor in general. These right-wing perceptions and policy preferences reflect a view that minority groups constitute a demographic threat and a competitive drain on the in-group’s resources.

It’s not surprising, then, that conservatives who over-overestimate the proportion of minorities in their society also tend to oppose immigration more than liberals. In 1920s America, conservatives lobbied for lower immigration quotas for Irish, Italians, Jews, and Poles, whom they called “inferior races.” Ninety years later, the immigrants were different and the politicians shied away from overt prejudice, but conservatives were still the group most opposed to immigration. During the 2010 midterm elections, for example, Louisiana Republican senator David Vitter ran a campaign advertisement featuring a group of suspicious men of Mexican appearance sneaking across the border. On the American side, a large sign read “Charlie Melancon [Vitter’s Democratic opponent] welcomes you to the USA!” White Americans handed the immigrants a giant check payable to “illegals.” Vitter won the election.

Published with permission from Prometheus Books. 

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