Ron Schiller is wrong: People who want small government are not racist

Last week Republicans and Tea Party members received a reminder — as if any were needed — of the contempt with which they are regarded by some in the information elite. When Ron Schiller, then a fundraiser for National Public Radio, attacked Tea Party adherents (and less directly Republicans) as “seriously racist, racist people” and claimed that the Republican Party had been hijacked before the 2008 election, he thought he was among friends.

My purpose here is not to parse and fact-check Schiller’s actual words and phrases, but rather to provide some empirical background on the political orientation of education and racism in America.

The one issue that unites Tea Party members and sympathizers is a belief in smaller government — that the government should be doing less, rather than more. Fortunately, the best of the social science surveys, the General Social Survey (GSS) conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, has been asking a representative sample of Americans about this issue since the late 1970s. It is therefore possible to get a sense of whether those who want to shrink the government in Washington are more or less likely to express racist views.

This is not an analysis of the views of Tea Party members, but rather of the views of those in the general public who favor smaller government or consider themselves Republicans. After all, one wouldn’t try to get a sense of the beliefs of supporters of public sector unions by surveying the protesters in Madison last week.

Typical opinion polls reported in the news average a response rate of under 20%, and some observers speculate that the real response rates for some prominent surveys may be as low as 1% of the people they contact. The General Social Survey, on the other hand, usually averages about a 70% response rate, the highest in the industry for a large-scale survey of the general U.S. public.

The most recent survey for which results were available when I began this project a few weeks ago was the 2008 survey. (For an updated analysis that includes more recent data, see the Author’s Update on the last page of this editorial.) It asked the question:

Some people think that the government in Washington is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and private businesses. Others disagree and think that the government should do even more to solve our country’s problems. Still others have opinions somewhere in between.

Where would you place yourself on this scale . . . ?

1— I strongly agree the government should do more
3— I agree with both
5— I strongly agree the government is doing too much

Thus, those who agree that “the government is doing too much” would choose 4 or 5.

* * * *

Who are these people who want to shrink government and are they really less educated and more racist than the general public?

Looking back over eighteen General Social Surveys since 1975, in every one those who wanted smaller government had significantly more education than the rest of the public, measured both by mean years of education (Figure 1) and by mean highest final educational degree.

Typically, the well educated are less racist than the general public. Thus, the revelation that those who hold the quintessential Tea Party view (believing that the government in Washington is doing too much) are better educated on average than the general public should raise problems for the idea that they are racist as well. Indeed, the data show that small-government advocates are less racist on average than the general public.

Social scientists usually measure traditional racism against African Americans by looking at the survey responses of white Americans only. Among whites in the latest General Social Survey (2008), only 4.5% of small-government advocates express the view that “most Blacks/African-Americans have less in-born ability to learn,” compared to 12.3% of those who favor bigger government or take a middle position expressing this racist view (Figure 2). We social scientists sometimes like to express things in relative odds, especially for small percentages. Here the odds of small government whites not expressing racist views (21-to-1 odds) is three times higher than the odds of big-government whites not being racist (7-to-1 odds).