The role of elections in anti-immigrant sentiment

Lausanne_cathedralCarolyn Keller, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Keene State College

In November 2015, I had the opportunity to walk two blocks to the high school down the road and watch Donald Trump stump for the New Hampshire primary.  It was during this event that Mr. Trump said, for the first time, that all Syrians are “on notice” and threatened to send them all back to Syria upon his election. In a roomful of predominately white New Hampshirites – a state whose biggest sending country for immigration is Canada – furious applause arose.

It is in this vain that I began my research project expanding the analysis of the role of elections on anti-immigrant sentiments in Europe. As an EU scholar, given the much more immediate and distinct impact the refugee crisis has had on EU countries, it seemed a logical analysis to undertake.

I am by no means the first scholar to study anti-immigrant sentiment and a great deal about how attitudes towards immigrants vary is already known. For example, we know that people view immigrants as both an economic and cultural threat. There is fear that arises from the worry that immigrants will take jobs away from natives. There is also fear that immigrants will change the cultural norms and values of a society. There is further evidence suggesting that these fears can be attenuated if individuals have more hands on experience with immigrants.

Regarding elections, research shows that politicians, the media and increasingly social media play an important role is shaping individual reactions to current events. Attitudes towards and about immigrants are changeable.

In my analysis, I utilize two waves of ESS data to determine what role elections have on 1) estimates of foreign born populations and 2) unwillingness to allow ethnic minorities or more specifically Muslims into EU countries as immigrants. The data I use come from 2002 and 2014. I argue that these are two very important and relevant years to study because they provide insight to two very interesting yet different contexts. 2002 is on the eve of EU expansion and 2014 is amidst the beginnings of the ongoing immigration crisis.

To measure the impact elections have on individual attitudes, I measure the distance between parliamentary elections and time of interview assuming that the closer the individual is surveyed to an election, the more likely the individual is to assume immigration is something to fear and limit.

My assumptions were largely proven incorrect. Elections do have a significant impact on my outcomes.  However, the impact is the opposite of my expectations. In fact, across 16 countries, elections play the role of decreasing estimated foreign born populations and make individuals less averse to minority or Muslim immigration. When probed further I find that the role elections is less impactful for those with higher levels of education. This means that public opinion is malleable on this issue but it seems to be more malleable for those with less education.

Next, I divide my sample in 2002 between EU members and EU member countries who joined in 2004. It seems that elections do not significantly impact attitudes in those newer EU member countries.

While these results may seem counterintuitive, I argue that because of the EU’s role in dictating immigration, national parliamentarians and political parties no longer need to focus primarily on immigration as much as other domestic policy issues such as the economy and foreign policy. Furthermore, party platforms have been shown to widen their net right around election time which could explain this moderating effect.

2014 is a fortuitous year to study because in addition to various national parliamentary elections it is also a year of an MEP election. Interestingly, the closer an individual is interviewed to the MEP election, the more likely the individual is to increase their estimate of the foreign born population and hold more exclusive views towards Muslims. Again, however, there is variation between established EU countries and newer EU countries. When modeled together, I find that 75% of individuals from Central and Eastern European countries are willing to allow only few to no Muslim immigrants whereas across the continent the total Muslim limiting population was only 53%.

Finally, when looking at the interaction between how educated a person is and the role elections play on these attitudes I find that those with more years of education in fact are more subjected to elections that those with fewer years of education. This means that those with more years of school are more likely to be influenced by the European-level elections than their lesser educated counterparts.

Again, my results find that indeed individuals are taking cues from politicians during election season.  However my results also show that individuals are impacted by national and European election differently. Furthermore, there continues to be variations between EU countries around immigrant sentiments.

Given the recent Brexit vote, we should not underestimate the role that politicians can play in framing public debates. Elections matter. While certain populations in specific contexts may be less influenced by these cues, all are vulnerable to shifting attitudes based on political rhetoric.

Carolyn Keller is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Keene State College in New Hampshire, USA.

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