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

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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
2—
3— I agree with both
4—
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).


But advocates of smaller government can be found among Democrats and Independents as well as Republicans. What happens if we compare Republicans who think Washington is doing too much with those who think that government should do more or take a middle position? The relationships I’ve just described only get stronger.

Figure 3 shows that, among whites, Republican advocates of smaller government are even less racist (1.3% believing that blacks have less in-born ability) than the rest of the general public (11.3% expressing racist views). Thus, in 2008 Republicans who believe that the government in Washington does too much have 10 times higher odds of not expressing racist views on the in-born ability question than the rest of the population (79-to-1 odds v. 7.9-to-1 odds).

What about conservative Republicans more generally, not just the ones who want a smaller government? Surely they must be more racist. Actually not. In 2008, only 5.4% of white conservative Republicans expressed racist views on the in-born ability question, compared to 10.3% of the rest of the white population.

As Figure 4 shows, this same pattern holds for white Democrats compared to white Republicans: in 2008 12.3% of white Democrats in the U.S. believed that African Americans were born with less ability, compared to only 6.6% of white Republicans.

And 2008 wasn’t an aberration. In sixteen surveys from 1977 through 2008 (Figure 4), overall white Republicans were significantly less racist on the in-born ability question than white Democrats (13.3% to 17.3%), and white conservative Republicans were significantly less racist than other white Americans (11.7% to 14.7%), though in most surveys the differences were too small to be significant taken individually — and in the 1993 survey, the relationship was reversed: conservative Republicans were significantly more racist on the racial inheritance question than the rest of the public.

Another traditional racism question — on segregated neighborhoods — was asked on fifteen General Social Surveys from 1972 through 1996. Though the percentage of white Democrats and white Republicans who slightly or strongly agreed that “White people have a right to keep Blacks out of their neighborhoods” did not differ significantly in any one survey, overall white Democrats were significantly more likely to support segregated neighborhoods than white Republicans (30.4% to 26.3%).

* * * *

I’ve also explored another aspect of big government: increased government efforts to redistribute income. Contrary to the prevailing view of political psychologists, those who oppose government income redistribution do not express traditionally racist or intolerant attitudes. Indeed, they tend to express views that are slightly less racist and intolerant than other Americans.

Since at least the days of Karl Marx, critics have argued that redistributionists are driven by envy for the property of others and a frustration with their lot in a capitalist system. If that were true, one would expect redistributionists to express more unhappiness, anger, and a desire for revenge — and they do.

In the General Social Surveys, redistributionists express significantly lower satisfaction with their financial situations and with their jobs or housework. Indeed, they report that they are less happy overall and have less happy marriages.

In the 1996 GSS, strong redistributionists tended to report that they were relatively sad, lonely, worried, angry, mad at something or someone, and outraged at something somebody had done. Those who opposed greater efforts by the government to equalize income, on the other hand, tended to be relatively happy, contented, and at ease.

Not only do redistributionists report more anger, but they report that their anger lasts longer. Further, strong redistributionists were more than twice as likely as strong opponents of leveling to admit that they responded to their anger by plotting revenge. Anyone who compares the tone and behavior of the Tea Party protesters over the last two years to the tone and behavior of the Wisconsin union protesters over the last two weeks won’t be surprised by this finding.

But do these attitudes have behavioral consequences? Data from self-reports in the General Social Survey appear to support the notion that those who oppose income redistribution are somewhat more altruistic in their behavior than redistributionists (e.g., donating money, looking after pets or plants while friends are away), a conclusion also reached by the economist Arthur Brooks.

The overwhelming support that African Americans give to the Democratic Party probably makes people think that white Republicans and their fellow travelers must be more likely to be racist than white Democrats and big-government types. But researchers and the general public tend to forget about the non-liberal wing of the Democratic Party: traditional, old-school Democrats, many of whom tend to be less educated and to express more racist views than Republicans or liberal Democrats.

It wasn’t until Hillary Clinton’s late primary wins among precisely that wing of the Democratic Party that the national press was forced to remember that they even existed. It was that segment of the Democratic Party, not the Republicans, that prompted Barack Obama’s comments about “bitter clingers” in Pennsylvania.

Though the Democratic Party has successfully shed its image as the party of slavery, the party of Jim Crow, and the party of filibusters against the civil rights bills of the 1950s and 1960s, the surveys suggest that the party is still haunted by vestiges of its past. Though the differences on measures of traditional racism between Republicans and Democrats, and between fans of smaller and bigger government, are mostly quite small, they tend to be in one direction: toward the finding that white Republicans and believers in shrinking the size of government in Washington are less racist than white Democrats and believers in big government.

The last question is why small-government advocates, conservative Republicans, and Republicans in general express less racist beliefs than their opponents. The answer is their higher education, the finding with which I began this editorial. It might come as a shock to those Americans who agree with Ron Schiller’s ignorant and bigoted comments, but the main reason that there are fewer traditional racists among those who share the Tea Party’s central belief — that the government in Washington is doing too much and should be downsized — is that these libertarian reformists are better educated than the general public. In this I agree with the hapless Mr. Schiller: education is the key. Where he and I differ is on where the evidence from over a dozen well-conducted studies leads me: those who want to shrink the federal government tend to express less traditional racism than those who think the government should do more to help.

* * * *

Author’s Update — 5:34 pm, 3/15/11: The 2008 General Social Survey was the most recent release when I began this project a few weeks ago. Since then, the 2010 data has been released, a fact that I discovered this morning while searching for URLs to link in a post I was writing. All the data analyses in the editorial above are correct through 2008. Further, all the statistically significant long-term conclusions described in the piece hold up when the 2010 data are added — and on each question the data in the 2010 survey, like that in the 2008 survey, tend to reject the prevalent idea that Republicans and believers in small government are more racist. Yet unlike in the 2008 survey, in most cases in the 2010 survey there are no significant differences one way or the other.

After reanalysis with the 2010 data added, here is an updated summary of significant results:

1. Those who favor smaller government are significantly better educated than those who favor bigger government or take a middle position: over the 1986-2010 period (13.6 yrs. of schooling v. 12.7 yrs.), in 2008 (13.9 v. 13.3), in 2010 (13.9 v. 13.2), and in 2008 & 2010 combined (13.9 v. 13.2).

2. Whites who favor smaller government are significantly less racist on the “in-born ability” question than whites who favor bigger government or take a middle position: over the 1986-2010 period (11.9% giving a racist response v. 14.2%), in 2008 (4.5% v. 12.3%), and in 2008 & 2010 combined (7.0% v. 11.5%), but not in 2010 (where the differences are insignificant).

3. White Republicans who favor smaller government are significantly less racist on the “in-born ability” question than other white Republicans and whites who favor bigger government or take a middle position: over the 1986-2010 period (10.6% giving a racist response v. 13.9%) and in 2008 (1.2% v. 11.3%), but not in 2010 or in 2008 & 2010 combined (where the differences are insignificant).

4. White conservative Republicans are significantly less racist on the “in-born ability” question than other whites over the 1977-2010 period (11.7% giving a racist response v. 14.4%) and in 2008 (5.4% v. 10.3%), but not in 2010 or in 2008 & 2010 combined (where the differences are insignificant).

5. White Republicans are significantly less racist on the “in-born ability” question than white Democrats over the 1977-2010 period (13.3% giving a racist response v. 16.8%) and in 2008 (6.6% v. 12.3%), but not in 2010 or in 2008 & 2010 combined (where the differences are insignificant).

The data are consistent with the overall thesis of the editorial: Believers in small government are not more traditionally racist, and while (as previously noted) the differences are mostly quite small, over longer periods the results are consistent with the thesis that white Republicans and believers in shrinking the size of government in Washington have been slightly less traditionally racist than white Democrats and people who agree that the government should do more.

One additional note: One reader asked why I contrasted (1) those who think that the government does too much with (2) those who think that the government should do more combined with those who agree with both statements. The theoretical reason is that “agreeing with both” is not a Tea Party-like position; I was contrasting those who wanted smaller government with the rest of the population. A practical reason is that it simplifies the analysis and the presentation, especially since the ambivalent seldom differ significantly from fans of bigger government, and if anything, slightly moderate the racism expressed by those who want the government to do more. In most analyses it wouldn’t make much difference anyway, because what is driving the higher racism scores are those who “strongly agree” that the government should do more (one endpoint of the 5-point scale). That subgroup gave the highest percentage of racist responses overall and in every individual survey since 1993. Thus the strongest believers in big government tend to give the most racist answers, not those who are ambivalent.

To break it down for the curious, among whites over the 1986-2010 surveys, racist answers were given to the in-born ability question by 15.2% of those who wanted the government to do more, by 11.9% of those who thought the government was doing too much, and by 13.7% of those who agreed with both statements. The corresponding numbers for 2008 were 11.8%, 4.5%, and 12.6% (for the ambivalent); the corresponding numbers for 2010 were 11.1%, 8.7%, and 10.0% (for the ambivalent).

I hope in a scholarly paper to lay this out in more detail.

James Lindgren, a law professor and empirical sociologist, teaches at Northwestern Law School. Some of his work on the demography of diversity can be downloaded at SSRN.

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