[Overview] Brexit: Nation and Alienation

by David Severa

I. Introduction

In January 2013, David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, looking ahead to elections in 2015 and trying to manage a Conservative Party internally divided over Britain’s relationship with the European Union, promised to hold a referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EU – a referendum he didn’t want to pass and didn’t think could pass. It was just a sop to Eurosceptics or at most a negotiating ploy to wring some concessions from Europe.

Now, in 2016, the world faces the fallout of that meaningless campaign promise.

Faced with the stark choice of remaining in or leaving the European Union, 52% of voters opted to leave, shocking markets, experts, and the entire British political class. Cameron resigned, the main opposition party is in disarray, and no one on either side of the Channel has any idea what the final settlement will be, or even if the (technically non-binding) referendum will actually lead to exit at all given an establishment that might grasp at any reason to avoid Brexit. Or is this the first step in the crackup of both the UK and EU?

Being unable to see the future, we can at least look at the past and see what led Britain to this crisis, with an eye towards comparison with Donald Trump and American populism. Was the vote to Leave also built on twin pillars of ethnonationalism and long-term decline? I want to look particularly closely at the intersection of discontent and national identity. That is, if people become dissatisfied with the current order, against whom do they turn their ire? Who is Us and who is Them? Because the UK contains within it distinct nations and is nestled within the EU, unlike in the US its populist anger is directed in more directions than just towards national elites. I’ll also look at how stable the Leave coalition is likely to be going forward. Was Brexit caused by just one sort of populism or many sorts coming together to answer a single question?

A. The UK and the EU


The UK within the EU (Source)

The United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community, the EU’s predecessor organization, in 1972, under Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath after France had previously vetoed British accession. In 1975 the UK held its first referendum on whether or not to stay in Europe. Over two-thirds of voters chose to remain in the EEC, and support was higher in England than anywhere else.

The EEC at the time was a considerably different organization than the EU is today. It was in large part just a customs union, without a common currency, totally open internal borders, or an elected parliament. These functions would slowly accrete with the adoption of various treaties over the coming decades, though Britain managed to opt out of joining both the Eurozone and the Schengen Agreement, which abolished intra-EU border controls.

Both the Eurozone and Schengen have been tremendously weakened the last few years. The fallout from the 2008 financial crisis, mixed with the Euro’s expansion into hugely different economies without the necessary fiscal centralization led to slow growth at best and new great depressions at worst. The recent refugee crisis caused many nations to police their borders again. In short, some of the EU’s signature features haven’t worked as promised. The UK has been relatively insulated from this (though its economy is also not great), but in no part of the UK (even those that voted to remain) do a majority of people have trust in the EU.

Plus most of the EU’s decision-making happens at a level several steps removed from any democratic oversight.

Of course, just because there has been a good deal of mismanagement within the EU doesn’t necessarily mean that the UK is better off outside. After all, Britain will continue to be in Europe geographically and continue to trade mainly with the rest of the EU. So the UK on the outside might find that its biggest trading partner is still in crisis and that trade is much more difficult. Not to mention the costs of uncertainty, the possible exit of much of its financial sector, and so on. All of which is to say that problems in the EU don’t straightforwardly imply that Brexit is a good idea, especially with Britain’s opt outs.

B. Immigration

The UK was able to opt out of Schengen but not the EU’s freedom of movement, which means that any EU citizen is free to live and work in any other EU nation without restrictions (at least after a phase-in for new member states). This did not become a big issue until much poorer post-Communist states started to join the EU in the 2000s. Now free to do so, huge numbers of Eastern Europeans flocked to Britain’s high wages and flexible labor market. 90% of this migration has been to England, concentrated in London and a few cities, leaving much of the rest of Britain relatively untouched:


Percentage of population not UK-born (Source)

While not directly related to the EU, but undoubtedly linked in the minds of Britons, there has also been in recent decades a substantial (and substantially non-white) influx of immigrants from outside Europe, most especially from former British colonies like India, Pakistan and those in the Caribbean.

In 2011, 7.5 million people in the UK were born abroad, about 12% of the population. Neither the percentage of migrants from within or outside the EU are too different from other countries in Western Europe, but it is unique in English history: “Britain today receives more immigrants in a single year than it did in the entire period from 1066 to 1950.” (I strongly recommend that article. It presents a strong anti-British immigration case and illustrates where some Leave voters were coming from.)


Percentage of non-UK born residents in England and Wales (Source)

The UK is quite hostile to immigration. Just ahead of the referendum, a majority of Conservative voters (61%) and a plurality of Labour voters (41%) named immigration as their biggest or second biggest concern. In 2013, 56% of Britons favored reducing immigration a lot, and a further 21% favored reducing immigration a little. Concern about EU and non-EU migration is about equal. Over 60% view immigration as “a problem not opportunity”, higher than in other Western countries. (Though note that hostility to immigration long predates this period of mass immigration.)

Of course the long-term impact of immigration is debatable, but when “36.7% of London’s population [is] foreign born (including 24.5% born outside of Europe)” things undoubtedly feel like they have changed hugely, even for those who don’t live in the capital. And although the UK has only taken in a few thousand Syrian refugees, the image of the Calais Jungle, an encampment of migrants in France attempting to enter the UK illegally, is no doubt equally striking.

And it is just as easy to see how worries about immigration are intimately tied up with the EU and its commitment to open borders. Though how much control over migration Britain will retake if it wants to keep access to the EU’s market is very much an open question. As Tyler Cowen says (also a recommended piece):

Cities such as Bradford, while still predominantly white, no longer feel as English (and German!) as they once did.  And if you are thinking that voting “Leave” does not at all limit Pakistani immigration, you are truly missing the point; this vote was the one lever the English were given for sending a message to their politicians.

I’ve focused on the reasons why Britons might view all of these changes negatively, but of course you could flip it all around and argue that immigration has enhanced the UK’s economic and cultural vitality.

To summarize, one can make both economic and cultural arguments for and against the EU. The EU has tremendous economic problems, but the UK has been shielded from the worst of it and it isn’t clear that Brexit will improve things. The EU has been one factor increasing migration to the UK, but that might not be a bad thing, and again it isn’t clear how much Brexit would decrease immigration. Now we can start to figure out who in the UK was moved by which arguments and why.

II. Geography

The biggest divides were regional. The United Kingdom is composed of four countries: England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. 84% of the population lives in England, 5% in Wales, 8% in Scotland, and 3% in Northern Ireland. While England is very obviously the dominant partner, in recent decades Parliament has devolved some aspects of government to the countries and created Welsh, Scottish, and Northern Irish assemblies. (The UK is still a unitary state – all of these assemblies could be dissolved by Parliament.)

These four countries diverged hugely in the referendum and were divided internally along different lines. Benjamin Wallace-Wells says in the New Yorker:

The map showing the results of the United Kingdom’s vote to exit the European Union was stark. There was a bright bulb of support for Remain in and around London, where sixty per cent of voters supported the status quo. Across the rest of England, the vote was to leave. In the northwest and the West Midlands, analysts suggested that the arrival of migrants had antagonized voters; in the northeast, the decline of mining and manufacturing was said to be the cause; in Wales, no one was really sure. Scotland and Northern Ireland, where voters were less moved by nationalist appeals, preferred to remain, and now the question is whether Scottish politicians will renew last year’s effort to sever their own ties with the U.K. But in England, the dividing line seemed clear: there was London, and then there was everywhere else.


I think that we can understand England much more precisely than a simple London/everywhere else dichotomy, but first I want to cover the non-England parts of the UK, as they are smaller and generally more straightforward.

A. Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland is, broadly speaking, divided between Protestants/unionists (who want to remain part of Britain) and Catholics/nationalists (many of whom want to join the Republic of Ireland), who face each other across a gulf widened by centuries of violence (to vastly, vastly oversimplify). Politics in Northern Ireland is structured around an ethnoreligious divide that doesn’t exist anywhere else. The concerns are different and the main parties are different. With its deep cultural ties to, and land border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, Northern Irish politics and trade could be vastly disrupted by Brexit, so it’s not surprising voters there supported Remain.

While Northern Ireland did vote to Remain by a considerable margin, there was also a noticeable geographic split. The areas that voted Leave pretty closely match the areas where Protestants form a majority:

(Sources: left, right)

Though note that even in those areas, Leave’s support wasn’t that high, at least relative to parts of England. It’s obvious why nationalists would support Remain, but I’m less sure why unionists would support Leave if there’s a chance that exit could upset the balance in NI against them. But I won’t linger on Northern Ireland, since its population is so small. It’s not unimportant, but not the biggest part of the story.

B. Scotland

Scottish politics have been gradually diverging from the rest of Britain over the last several decades, catalyzed by hostility to Margaret Thatcher’s right wing reforms. First the Conservatives then Labour have been displaced by the Scottish National Party, which instigated the unsuccessful 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. Scotland has become very pro-Europe and the SNP has been open in its desire to imitate Scandinavian welfare states. Scotland voted strongly to Remain and the SNP has threatened to try to either block Brexit or call for another independence referendum should they fail. After the UK voted to leave the EU, 59% of Scots said that they’d now vote for independence.

This pro-EU stance is a reversal from the first referendum on Europe. “Back in 1975 the UK voted to stay in by a clear margin. In the 1970s Scotland was one of the areas that voted most strongly against the Common Market, a total reversal as compared with 2016.” Back then Scotland supported staying in the EEC, but less strongly than England did:



I can’t really make out a visible relationship with the results of the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, but a more detailed analysis might come up with something.

So why have Scottish politics diverged so sharply from those in England? After all, there are regions in England, particularly in the north, that were similarly hostile to Thatcherism, and as we’ll see those areas often supported Leave by great margins. Northern England and Scotland are quite similar in their economic conditions.

One possibility is that it’s due to Scotland not having experienced the same influx of immigrants as England. I’m not sure that’s sophisticated enough. Many of the most pro-Leave parts of England are those that have seen the least immigration. Again, similar conditions but a different outcome.

Perhaps the truth is simple:

And the claim that their vote to stay in the EU — all districts of Scotland voted Remain in the referendum, and 62 per cent of the nation’s voters as a whole voted to stay in the EU — is the product of a broad-minded outlook not seen south of the border also misses a crucial point.

The reality is that the discontent with established politics that erupted in the Leave vote elsewhere in the country has found expression in other ways. As one student of Scottish politics, explaining the UK Independence party’s lack of traction north of the border, put it to me two years ago: “People in Scotland who are disgruntled and suspicious of foreigners [the English] already have a party they can vote for.”

That the difference between Scotland and similar regions of England comes down to a national sensibility – who is Us and who is Them – seems plausible to me. After all, the two nations have only been joined for a few centuries and cultural memories have lingered. The EU is seen as the outside threat in England, but in part as a guarantor against English dominance in Scotland. Or something along those lines. But this is no doubt an oversimplification. Someone who knows Scotland better than me could add much more detail. Still, the central point is that this is a clear instance of culture mattering more than basic economic and demographic conditions. Britons on both sides of the border may be disaffected, but their identities matter a great deal in how that disaffection is understood.

C. Wales

Wales is the closest country to England culturally and their political systems are similar as well. (Wales was conquered in the 1200s and they’ve been governed as one for almost half a millennium.) Other than Plaid Cymru, which advocates Welsh independence, the main parties are the same as in England, including UKIP, which holds 7 seats in the National Assembly for Wales. Wales supported Leave almost as strongly as England.

I think that Wales is perhaps best understood as being similar to the Labour heartlands in the north of England. So much of what I say about northern England applies to Wales as well. Both areas voted Leave to an unexpected degree. Given the lack of success of Plaid Cymru relative to the SNP, perhaps the difference between Wales and in Scotland is that in Wales nationalism is too weak to become a focus of identity in opposition to England. Or perhaps the right circumstances just haven’t yet reinvigorated Welsh nationalism yet. Hence, when people want to direct their anger outwards, they look to Brussels and not London. (To speculate well beyond what the data clearly says.)

D. England

It’s overly simplistic to describe the vote in England as London and a few cities vs. everywhere else. The geographic divide is just the most visible manifestation of a new polarization in English society, one that bears little resemblance to the divisions of past decades but was presaged by the unusual coalition backing the United Kingdom Independence Party. It’s a coalition of the older and the less educated, of those who feel, rightly or wrongly, that the country is moving in a direction hostile to them.

1. Current party system

In England the two largest parties have long been the Conservatives on the right and Labour on the left (with the Liberal Democrats a left wing also-ran third party). Conservatives, under Cameron, have been in power since 2010. While the Labour Party’s leadership pretty uniformly opposed the referendum (though the party’s leader Jeremy Corbyn didn’t vigorously campaign for Remain), Conservatives were more split. Cameron supported Remain, but former London mayor Boris Johnson and a number of other important figures supported Leave.

The parties in England have become geographically polarized. The Economist said in 2013:

Over the years the Conservative Party has been expelled from most of the north of England (and almost all of Scotland). Labour has been virtually driven from the south. Margaret Thatcher once told a newspaper interviewer that economic change has the potential to alter “the heart and the soul” of a people; the double-edged sword of Thatcherism changed the hearts and souls of north and south in strikingly different ways, and with long lasting effects. The differences between them now go beyond economic circumstance—their cultural and political identities are ever more distinct. This represents a daunting but inescapable political challenge.

On ordinary electoral maps the north-south divide is not as plain as it might be. Rural British constituencies are both big and nearly always represented by a Conservative or a Liberal Democrat. Thus swathes of the country will appear blue and yellow come what may. And Northern Ireland is represented by parties not seen elsewhere. If you look just at the mainland, though, and equalise the size of the constituencies, the binary reality becomes obvious (see map). Save for a belt of Tory hills and dales across North Yorkshire and the Lake District, the north is red—as are, barring nationalists, Wales and Scotland. The south is deep blue, strikingly so in the surrounds of London (it gets more Liberal Democrat to the west). Only in London and the Midlands do the parties seem to be in real competition.

…The return of the split reflects the diverging economic experiences of the two halves of the country. Beginning in the 1960s changing industrial fortunes drove a wedge between the manufacturing-oriented north and the services-heavy south. In the 1980s wealth generated by London’s booming financial-services industry turned neighbouring regions a deeper shade of blue. Mrs Thatcher’s monetarist reforms were accompanied by high unemployment, particularly in northern cities. She defeated the National Union of Mineworkers, accelerating the industry’s decline—many former mining towns in Yorkshire and Lancashire struggle to attract new jobs to this day. The privatisation of the steel industry had a similar effect in places like Teesside. In Wales and Scotland Conservatism was widely viewed not just as malign but as a foreign imposition.

So in recent decades England has become divided into three different regions: the north, the South, and London. Even against heavy opposition from outside of England, this has been enough to make the Tories into the generally dominant party in the UK.

However, even as the political system was settling into this post-Thatcher equilibrium, the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party, an anti-immigration right wing populist party currently led by Nigel Farage, cut across these divisions. Its main aim has been the withdrawal of the UK from the EU. It went from 3.1% support in the 2010 election to 12.6% in 2015, though that only won them a single seat in Parliament. 96% of UKIP voters voted to leave the EU and 25% of Leave voters support UKIP. They aren’t the majority of Leave voters, but they’re the core.

The UKIP draws its support from lower class, less educated, elderly/retired people. Remarkably, 59% of its voters are over 65:


(As it’s measured in Britain, A means upper middle class, B means middle class, C1 means lower middle class, C2 means skilled working class, D means working class, and E means not working [including pensioners and those on welfare].)

A 2014 poll reported by the Financial Times found:

that Nigel Farage’s anti-Brussels and anti-immigration insurgency has reached out to manual, unskilled and unemployed voters, some of whom do not normally vote, many of them living in the Midlands – one of the 2015 election battlegrounds….

Ukip voters are much more likely than supporters of other parties and than Britain overall to have finished education at secondary school level [and not gone further]; the proportion of Ukip voters with higher degrees is half the national average.

On the question of ethnicity, Lib Dem supporters are about the most representative of the country; Labour supporters are nearly twice as likely to be non-white as the national average. Ukip supporters are more than 98 per cent white.

(In 2011 the UK was 87% white.)

Workers in the public sector are less likely to vote UKIP than those in the private sector.

UKIP support varies geographically, and that variation much more closely resembles the Brexit vote than past elections. Check out this map of where UKIP came in second in the 2015 elections, beating one of the two main parties:


Support is scattered across the country (though weaker in the North) but almost absent from London, except for an eastern fringe which also supported Brexit.

The UKIP is a clear and unsurprising predecessor to Brexit – it shows that the referendum was not a fluke but rather the result of a previously politically minor division that has become important.

3. Referendum results

The Guardian describes the divisions within England:

At first blush, London looks like a capital in the midst of a foreign state – an island of Euro-enthusiasm amid a south-east that was mostly resolved to quit. The majorities for remain in some inner-London boroughs werecrushing: fully 75% of the ballot in Camden and 78% in Hackney. But further out, parts of the metropolis began to merge into the countryside beyond. To the south, Sutton went 54% for leave, as did Barking and Dagenham, where 63% wanted out.

Right across the rest of the south-east, East Anglia, Wales and the Midlands, leave was the rule and remain the exception. The exceptions sometimes came in pockets of particular prosperity – Tunbridge Wells, for instance – and then also cities where universities loomed large: Norwich, Bristol and especially Oxford and Cambridge, where remain notched up 70%-plus.

Leave’s overall lead owed much to a strong performance around the coast, and particularly in the east of England….

Further north, the picture was less uniform, several big cities – including Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool – swinging for remain, while old socialist bastions of the second order – Wigan, St Helens, Doncaster and Barnsley – were overwhelmingly for leave.

Like the geographical divide between London and the home counties, the gulf between the northern towns on the one hand and northern cities on the other is a product of sociological schisms. The polls were – once again – materially out in predicting the final result in a close race. But every survey, irrespective of methodology, was quite clear about two cast-iron links: rising age is associated with rising support for leave, while higher social class encourages support for remain.

Or “It was little England, the suburbs, countryside, and decayed industrial towns that wanted to leave.” This is already a more complicated picture than London vs. everywhere else.

On the left, the results of the 2015 election, by constituency. Conservatives are red, Labour is blue, and the SNP is yellow. On the right, the results of the referendum, by voting area, adjusted for population. There are some similarities. Northern Ireland, Scotland, and London all jump out on both maps. But in the rest of England and Wales, things aren’t nearly so identical. Leave clearly won large amounts of support from both Tory territory in the south and Labour regions in the north. And in fact, a substantial minority of Labour voters went along with a majority of Conservatives in backing leave:

A majority of those who backed the Conservative in 2015 voted to leave the EU (58%), as did more than 19 out of 20 UKIP supporters. Nearly two thirds of Labour and SNP voters (63% and 64%), seven in ten Liberal Democrats and three quarters of Greens, voted to remain.

Conservative voters constituted just over three out of every ten remainers, and four in ten leavers. Labour voters made up four in every ten remainers, and two in ten leavers.

UKIP voters accounted for a full quarter of Leave’s support.

So if this political shift is along new lines, what exactly are those lines?

III. Demographics

Now that we’ve gone through the vote by region, we can zoom in on more specific demographic factors. The polling I’ll be citing is mostly about Britain as a whole, but I’ll be using it to talk about England and Wales. Since together they make up close to 90% of the population it shouldn’t be too big of a deal, but remember that Scotland and Northern Ireland are considerably different and included in some of these numbers.

Because the referendum was a single event, rather than, say, a series of primaries as in the US recently, there isn’t as much data out there, but there’s plenty enough to be informative. Also note that one survey I’ll be citing, the Lord Ashcroft Poll occurred the day of the referendum, but wasn’t strictly an exit poll.

A. Disaffection


The age gap is immediately apparent and many pundits have jumped on this as evidence that the referendum was a clash between young and old, either the backwards and bitter elderly screwing over the next generation, or the nostalgic but distressed elderly who are the only ones to remember England as she once was voting to stop further decline, depending on your perspective.

Attitudes towards the past seem to factor into the age gap. “Nearly three quarters (73%) of remainers think life in Britain is better today than it was 30 years ago; a majority (58%) of those who voted to leave say it is worse.” 68% of UKIP supporters “would prefer to turn the clock back 20-30 years rather than continue to live in Britain as it is today”. Compare to America, where 66% of Republicans and 75% of Trump voters think that life was better 50 years ago for people like them. And Trump voters skew comparably old.

This nostalgia is paired with pessimism:

A small majority of those who voted to remain think that for most children growing up today, life will be better than it was for their parents; leavers think the opposite by 61% to 39%. Leavers see more threats than opportunities to their standard of living from the way the economy and society are changing, by 71% to 29% – more than twice the margin among remainers.

Unlike Trump in the United States, gender didn’t matter, indicating that Trump’s weaker support among women may be more due to his personality than to the appeal of populism (to the extent that Trump and Brexit draw from the same well of support).

The Guardian looked at voting districts to see which characteristics predicted support for what:



Age somewhat matters here, but it’s the extremely strong relationship between education and Leave support that really stands out. And the relationship becomes even stronger if you note that many of those less educated areas that nevertheless voted Remain are Scottish:


If you take out Scotland, you see as tight a correlation as you’re ever likely to see in something like this. Clearly education matters tremendously, or is at least representative of some factor that matters tremendously.

This also implies that London supported Remain for different reasons than Scotland did. There was some separate Scottish factor that made them more likely to support Remain, while London is at the extreme end of traits that predict Remain support within England, like education. London is an English outlier, while Scotland is its own thing. Perhaps this is a sense of nationhood mattering.

You can also see, in both the above poll and above regional breakdown, that class matters. Both lower class voters and lower class regions were more likely to support Leave. The relationship is the same for income and the Financial Times also finds a strong correlation between regions where few people have passports and support for Leave.

Also, “Those who said they paid little or no attention to politics voted to leave the EU by 58% to 42%” while everyone else was evenly divided.

Less education, lower incomes, lower class, less of a connection to the world outside the UK, aging and pessimistic about the future. The world of Leave voters, much like that of Trump voters, is one where the cosmopolitan future doesn’t seem to shine as brightly.

Also as with Trump, how well the economy has done recently is less of a predictor than long term factors:


Unfortunately, there isn’t enough data to really work out the extent to which the people in these worse-off areas who voted to leave the EU were themselves badly off, though they were likely to be lower class. It’s at least possible that, as with Trump support, the Leave vote came in part from people in more destitute regions who were themselves doing relatively well, rather than being on the lowest rungs of society. But that’s just a possibility. In any case, the correlation with social and economic conditions is clear, though those aren’t enough to make Brexit the obvious solution.

B. Immigration

Quite simply, the English want England to stay relatively English, and voting Leave was the instrument they were given.  That specific cultural attachment is not for Irish-American me, no, I feel no sentiment, other than perhaps good humor, when someone offers me “a lovely biscuit,” or when a small book shop devotes an entire section to gardening, but yes I do get it at some level.  And some parts of the older England I do truly love and I am talking the Beatles and Monty Python and James Bond here, not just the ancients like Trollope or Edmund Spenser.

Much has been made of the supposed paradox that opposition to immigration is highest where the number of immigrants is lowest.  Yes, some of that is the racism and xenophobia of less cosmopolitan areas, but it would be a big mistake to dismiss it as such or even to mainly frame it as such.  Most of all it is an endowment effect.  Those are the regions which best remember — and indeed still live — some earlier notion of what England was like.  And they wish to hold on to that, albeit with the possibility of continuing evolution along mostly English lines.


That’s a very positive way of framing opposition to immigration, but as this 2015 poll shows, opposition to immigration is indeed widespread. However one side was much more opposed than the other. A supermajority of those planning to vote Leave wanted to cut immigration and a majority of those planning to vote Remain did:


And in general, people worried about immigration, globalization, multiculturalism and other modern concerns supported Leave:


But a word of caution on interpreting this graph. As Freddie deBoer notes:

Here is what this graphic says: 81% of those who think multiculturalism is a force for evil voted Leave, to pick one example. Which doesn’t say great things for Leave, I grant you. But here’s what I keep seeing people say on Facebook and Twitter, including a distressing number of professional journalists: that 81% of Leave voters think multiculturalism is a force for evil. That isn’t correct! And it makes a huge difference. If you actually bother to look at the actual data set, as Shashank Joshi has, you’ll see that 14% of Leave voters think multiculturalism is “very much a force for ill.”  And that goes for other basic questions of social progress as well.

That is, a core of (lowercase c) conservatives were very strongly pro-Leave, but they didn’t make up the majority of Leave’s coalition.

Areas like London with lots of immigrants were more likely to vote Remain. (This isn’t just because the immigrants themselves voted to stay in the EU.) This is a common thing outside of the UK as well. Areas with immigrants are more friendly to immigration. But there’s a less reported correlation too. The Economist found that:

Where foreign-born populations increased by more than 200% between 2001 and 2014, a Leave vote followed in 94% of cases. The proportion of migrants may be relatively low in Leave strongholds such as Boston, in Lincolnshire (where 15.4% of the population are foreign-born). But it has grown precipitously in a short period of time (by 479%, in Boston’s case).

20160716_woc890 (Source)

Areas where immigrants have recently started arriving in larger numbers from typically small bases were more likely to vote Leave. This perhaps supports Tyler Cowen’s argument above that “the regions which best remember — and indeed still live — some earlier notion of what England was like” supported Leave, although there isn’t nearly enough data to rule out other possibilities. For instance, these areas getting new immigrants may be different in character than London or other previous immigration hubs.

C. Race


This poll from 2015 shows a surprising level of support among non-White British citizens for Leave. (And since Leave gained support, these numbers are probably too low, though it’s possible that support only increased among White Britons.) In general, immigrant groups doing better seem more likely to support leave, which seems the opposite of White Britons. “White Others” are probably less likely because unlike non-white immigrants most of them came from other EU countries.

These results are surprising, but since it’s just one poll with small sample sizes from a year before the actual referendum, I’d be cautious about drawing too many conclusions from it.

D. Identity

Further evidence that one’s sense of nationhood matters:


This is partly due to age. Younger people are more likely to lean towards a British identity than older people. (Though among all age groups, a plurality of over 40% identify as equally English and British.) It’s a shame this question wasn’t broken down so that we could compare, say, “English” elderly and “English” youths. But I’d still guess that this question is getting at something real, a psychological divide of some sort.

(As a side note, I’ll be very curious to see what happens to English nationalism if and when the UK leaves the EU, and/or if Scotland leaves the UK. Against whom will this energy be directed next? Or will it fizzle as the aging core gets replaced by younger voters?)

E. Split rationales

Leave and Remain voters were split in their attitudes:

Nearly half (49%) of leave voters said the biggest single reason for wanting to leave the EU was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”. One third (33%) said the main reason was that leaving “offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders.”…

For remain voters, the single most important reason for their decision was that “the risks of voting to leave the EU looked too great when it came to things like the economy, jobs and prices” (43%). Just over three in ten (31%) reasoned that remaining would mean the UK having “the best of both worlds”, having access to the EU single market without Schengen or the euro.

There is a clear divide between the pro-EU side, citing economic issues, and the anti-EU side, citing issues of sovereignty and culture. Of course, that’s what the debate comes down to, so it’s hardly surprising. The two sides often seemed to be talking past each other, arguing from two incompatible moral worldviews. And apparently the economic imperative has not quite yet come to predominate over cultural imperatives among a large enough share of the population.

Interestingly and perhaps bafflingly, areas more dependent on exports to the European Union were more likely to vote Leave:


One interpretation:

While it may be one thing for an investment banker to understand that they ‘benefit from the EU’ in regulatory terms, it is quite another to encourage poor and culturally marginalised people to feel grateful towards the elites that sustain them through handouts, month by month. Resentment develops not in spite of this generosity, but arguably because of it. This isn’t to discredit what the EU does in terms of redistribution, but pointing to handouts is a psychologically and politically naïve basis on which to justify remaining in the EU….

This taps into a much broader cultural and political malaise, that also appears to be driving the rise of Donald Trump in the US. Amongst people who have utterly given up on the future, political movements don’t need to promise any desirable and realistic change. If anything, they are more comforting and trustworthy if predicated on the notion that the future is beyond rescue, for that chimes more closely with people’s private experiences.

Again, the thought process of the typical Leave voter does not seem to have been one that can be easily reduced to costs and benefits. Deeper cultural and national sentiments were unavoidably at play.

IV. Conclusion


Discussing the Leave-backing regions in England, Will Davies argues that “The geography reflects the economic crisis of the 1970s, not the 2010s”:

It became clear early on in the night that Leave had extraordinary levels of support in the North East, taking 70% of the votes in Hartlepool and 61% in Sunderland. It subsequently emerged that Wales had voted for Leave overall, especially strongly in the South around areas such as Newport. It is easy to focus on the recent history of Tory-led austerity when analysing this, as if anger towards elites and immigrants was simply an effect of public spending cuts of the past 6 years or (more structurally) the collapse of Britain’s pre-2007 debt-driven model of growth.

But consider the longer history of these regions as well. They are well-recognised as Labour’s historic heartlands, sitting on coalfields and/or around ship-building cities. Indeed, outside of London and Scotland, they were amongst the only blobs of Labour red on the 2015 electoral map. There is no reason to think that they would not stay red if an election were held in the autumn. But in the language of Marxist geographers, they have had no successful ‘spatial fix’ since the stagflation crisis of the 1970s. Thatcherism gutted them with pit-closures and monetarism, but generated no private sector jobs to fill the space. The entrepreneurial investment that neoliberals always believe is just around the corner never materialised.

Labour’s solution was to spread wealth in their direction using fiscal policy: public sector back-office jobs were strategically relocated to South Wales and the North East to alleviate deindustrialisation, while tax credits made low productivity service work more socially viable. This effectively created a shadow welfare state that was never publicly spoken of, and co-existed with a political culture which heaped scorn on dependency. Peter Mandelson’s infamous comment, that the Labour heartlands could be depended on to vote Labour no matter what, “because they’ve got nowhere else to go” spoke of a dominant attitude. In Nancy Fraser’s terms, New Labour offered ‘redistribution’ but no ‘recognition’.

This cultural contradiction wasn’t sustainable and nor was the geographic one. Not only was the ‘spatial fix’ a relatively short-term one, seeing as it depended on rising tax receipts from the South East and a centre left government willing to spread money quite lavishly (albeit, discretely), it also failed to deliver what many Brexit-voters perhaps crave the most: the dignity of being self-sufficient, not necessarily in a neoliberal sense, but certainly in a communal, familial and fraternal sense.

I’ve included Davies’s suggestion as to the underlying reason for this political shift, but you don’t have to agree with it to agree that a sense of alienation was at the heart of much of the Leave vote. Much as in the US, economic concerns and ethnonationalist anxiety were combined:

As I moved south, I thought that the economic picture might change, but in Rugby, Bedford, Luton the high streets all had the by now familiar composition: betting shops, fast-food outlets, tattoo parlours. And the answer to the question “in” or “out” never changed either. “We’ve been left behind,” a white, middle-aged man told me at a bus stop as I rested in Hemel Hempstead. “Those politicians don’t care about us. Immigration has ruined this country.”

Something like this attitude predominated in both England and Wales in the referendum. Despite Scotland turning its anxieties against the UK rather than the EU, despite the opposition of young, cosmopolitan England, the vote was clear.

To summarize, much of the UK feels anxious about the future, whether for cultural reasons or because of long-term economic decline. While those who are doing well (the young, the educated, the cosmopolitan) aren’t so inclined to change things, those who feel themselves to be on the wrong side of the future have reacted in different ways based on nationality, despite facing similar problems. In Scotland, voters turned against the UK’s fiscal conservatism and towards social democracy and Europeanism. In culturally more similar England and Wales, voters turned against the EU. Parliament was a less tempting target because they, being so predominant numerically, controlled it.

Still, the vote for Leave was thus not just one thing. Much of it was nativist, but that wasn’t enough to get to 50%. Many different sentiments, generally tied to similar sorts of anxieties, were all funneled into a single yes-or-no vote. Leave was a one-time coalition, rather than an ongoing concern. This has important implications going forward:

Thus, the Leave side represents something of an unholy coalition. The referendum was sparked by demands from segments of the Conservative political elite for relief from the regulations of the E.U. in the name of national sovereignty. But focus groups organized for the vote revealed that most ordinary people had no idea what sovereignty actually means.

Of course, one of the many questions facing the country is how that contradictory coalition — one side of which wants deregulation, while the other wants jobs and better public services — will find representation in the British Parliament. British opinion is evidently polarized, not only over E.U. membership but about the economic way forward; and its current party system is not well-configured to represent these divisions in the electorate.

(Source for header image)

[Overview] Immigration Appendix – Africa

[Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V; Appendix; Single page]

by David Severa

And finally, a quick bonus dialogue in response to this question from Tumblr user Wirehead Wannabe:

Highly recommend this series regardless of your position on the issue.

To Restrictes and Openo: you’ve talked a bit about fertility rates, but only those of people currently living in developed nations. How does open immigration affect total population growth rates? Do countries tend to have a “carrying capacity?”

The scenario I’m worried about is one in which an unpleasant to live in yet fecund nations keeps churning out babies that are doomed to a life of suffering if we don’t let them into our walled gardens, and in which any people who are removed from that situation are replaced by more suffering people that would not have been born if the original people had stayed. So letting people in never actually results in decreased suffering in the donor countries. (I hope that was written clearly enough.)

  • RESTRICTES: This is similar to my worry that emigration might worsen conditions in poor countries, which might turn an initial wave of emigration into an unending one.
  • OPENO: Yes, but I think I showed that there was no strong evidence of that sort of negative effect. In fact, emigration likely raised wages in at least some poor countries, which presumably could lead to better education, etc. and thus lower fertility. And in fact essentially every country on Earth has seen a significant drop in fertility over the last few decades:


  • OPENO: Look at Mexico. About 12% of the population has emigrated, and yet the fertility rate has dropped from 6.8 in the 1960s to 2.2 today. And it’s still dropping, albeit at a slower rate. Similar drops have happened in most poorer countries, whether or not they’ve seen significant emigration. Obviously Africa is the region that still stands out (and Afghanistan and Timor-Leste), but that seems to be entirely a function of poverty rather than emigration. Africa is developing, however haltingly, and I would expect fertility to match the rest of the world sometime within the coming decades. If that happens, there really won’t be anywhere left for the fear of unending, ever-growing hordes to be realized.
  • RESTRICTES: A drop from 6 children per woman a few decades from now is cold comfort. That could still lead to massive population growth. The UN projects that Africa’s population could quadruple by 2100.
  • OPENO: True, but letting immigrants in won’t worsen the problem, which was the original question. (And I would take the under on those projections.) And if immigrants acculturate at all to their new country, then we would expect immigration to lower worldwide population growth, as young people keep moving to low fertility regions. I’ve already mentioned that Hispanic fertility has been converging to the American average. Also, for instance, Pakistani fertility is lower in the UK than in Pakistan, and both are dropping.
  • RESTRICTES: But isn’t that massive growth in Africa reason enough to be concerned, even if overall fertility is in fact dropping? Maybe population growth will resolve itself in the 2100s, but that’s a long time from now. And given how connected the world is now, surely it’s just going to become easier for Africans to leave in the 10s or even 100s of millions. Four billion people would surely precipitate an environmental catastrophe worth fleeing.
  • OPENO: Maybe, but I’m not sure. Remember that Africa’s population density is actually very low, even excluding the Sahara. (There are fewer people in all of Africa than in India.) A quadrupling of population would mean that Africa’s population density would equal China’s today, which is high but manageable. And African countries are often using cheaper, lower-yield agriculture today because population density is so low that they can afford to. What that means is that Africa has, even ignoring future improvements in agriculture, a large untapped capacity for higher productivity. Migration may increase because it becomes easier, but probably not due to a crisis in Africa.
  • RESTRICTES: Surely there could be, say, water crises in parts of Africa, or crises due to climate change. You don’t need all of Africa to be a mess for significant emigration. Climate change may cause lower rainfall, more water loss, and worse droughts in Africa.
  • OPENO: That is possible, and perhaps it’s the biggest potential problem facing Africa. But these problems intersect with social and technological changes in hard to predict ways. How much of Africa’s population will be farming decades from now? Will we develop new, more drought-resistant crops? If African agriculture becomes less productive, will Africans be able to make other exports to buy food from abroad? If they do, then there won’t necessarily be such a huge problem. You can’t consider this in isolation. It doesn’t make much sense to consider the carrying capacity of a single country. What is the carrying capacity of Singapore? There are limits – for instance there simply might not be enough water in the American Southwest for everybody to drink if the population keeps growing, and it isn’t feasible to haul water all the way from the Great Lakes to Phoenix. But other than water, most goods are easy to transport in sufficient quantities, as long as you can produce something worth trading. So a richer, more diversified Africa could withstand climate change, but it’s not guaranteed.
  • RESTRICTES: It does, however, make sense to speak of a global carrying capacity.
  • OPENO: With the caveat that there’s no one number of people the Earth can support, it depends on their lifestyle and how efficient their technology is.
  • RESTRICTES: Yes, but I’m still thinking about climate change. Immigrants to the US produce four times the carbon emissions than they would have in their home countries. It’s true that poor countries are polluting more as they develop, but immigration to rich countries is accelerating that process considerably. Per capita carbon emissions in the developed world have plateaued or even dropped, but population growth counterbalances that. And of course, in general, richer people will use more resources of all types. Immigration is functionally equivalent to development and we haven’t figured out how to do that sustainably.
  • OPENO: True, but is a higher carbon footprint a cost worth paying, considering all the benefits of modernity? I’m inclined to think so, but it’s a difficult question. In any case, even with more immigration, the problem of how to reduce carbon emissions remains the same.
  • RESTRICTES: Even if the solution to the problem is the same regardless of immigration, immigration can still be worsening the problem.

Next: The demographics of Brexit and then the dialogue on moral realism

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[Overview] Immigration V – Demographics

[Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V; Appendix; Single page]

by David Severa

  • RESTRICTES: Well, I’d like to look at intermarriage in Europe, and this massive demographic shift as a whole. Europe has a long history of accepting and assimilating intra-European migrants in a multi-generational process that resembles the assimilation of Europeans in America. As I’ve mentioned, groups like Jews and Roma have stood outside this process. From the post-war period to the present, there has been lots of movement within what is now mostly covered by the EU. Though there is variation, by the second generation, basically all European immigrants have intermarriage rates at least as high as Hispanics in America, often breaking 50%. Interestingly, some non-white groups also have very high intermarriage rates – 47% for Black Caribbean men and 61% for Chinese men in the UK. Those are strong signals of successful integration. For the Pakistani second generation in the UK, the numbers are 9% for men (and 2% for women!). The male numbers for Bangladeshi and Indian men are comparably low. And the rates for women are all lower.
  • OPENO: Indian immigrants aren’t generally Muslim.
  • RESTRICTES: True. But apparently religion is an effective barrier to intermarriage in both cases – a bigger factor than race. The rates for Turks in Germany are similar (13% for men). Surprisingly, the rate for Algerian men in France may be as high as 50%, perhaps due to France’s closer colonial links with Algeria. Unfortunately, we don’t have numbers for third generation immigrants (mostly because that generation is still young), so we can’t see if there is a further increase in intermarriage. But it’s obviously an overall worse track record than in America, and don’t forget that the Muslim population in Europe is smaller fraction of the population than Latinos in the US, so the numbers are even more worrisome.
  • OPENO: Those numbers aren’t good, but as you said, we don’t know how things will play out in the future.
  • RESTRICTES: I’d also like to bring up a related concern: cousin marriage. At least half of Pakistanis in the UK marry their first cousin, compared to one in two hundred in the rest of the country. While occasional cousin marriages aren’t especially harmful – the risks are equivalent to having a child in your 40s – when it keeps happening over generations the genetic risks grow very quickly. “British Pakistanis were 13 times more likely to have children with recessive disorders than the general population.” And there is likely at least some lowering of IQ. Plus clannish closely related families may weaken the state. I don’t want to dwell on this; there’s really not enough research on the topic but I’d keep it in mind.
  • OPENO: Well, again, I’d expect assimilation to surrounding norms to occur, even if it takes longer than among other groups. I agree that intermarriage and assimilation are surprisingly understudied considering their importance. But let’s turn to demographic changes. We’ve talked about how well immigrants are going to do, but we’ve neglected the magnitude of what’s happening. Immigration from Latin America to the US has slowed considerably due to lower population growth, better economic prospects and better border control, and has now been overtaken by Asian immigration. Most growth in the Hispanic population now comes from natural growth, rather than immigration. So honestly, there’s not too much to be done policy-wise; most of the growth in the Latino population is locked in. Hispanics are projected to go from 17% of the US today to 29% in 2060, due both to higher birthrates and a younger population structure. (There’s some uncertainty* about how people with only partly-Hispanic ancestry will identify going forward.) Obviously the population structure is going to change as immigration flows drop. And Hispanic birth rates are dropping faster than among other Americans. Given that fertility rates in Mexico and the rest of Latin America have been dropping as well, we are likely to see convergence or near-convergence in the fertility of Hispanic and non-Hispanic Americans. The percentage of Latinos will likely reach equilibrium somewhere above 30% and stay there, again depending on how people identify. Of course that’s a big population to absorb, but basically in line with past waves of immigrants.

* I unfortunately forgot to mention it when I was talking about economic assimilation, but there’s a possibility that if richer, more assimilated immigrants are less likely to identify as Latino, then the third generation stagnation might be nothing but some people dropping out of a Hispanic identity. If so, then the 80% economic convergence Restrictes mentioned could be considerably too pessimistic.

  • RESTRICTES: Still a very large number if there’s even a chance that assimilation isn’t going to work as well this time.
  • OPENO: And what do you say about Europe?
  • RESTRICTES: Europe still faces a choice about who to let in. Currently Europe (including Russia and other non-EU countries) is 5.9% Muslim, which will rise to 10.2% in 2050. This is due to the non-Muslim population shrinking, and increases among Muslims due to both natural growth and immigration. Muslims are the only European group to have replacement-level fertility, and that’s lumping recent immigrants and lower-fertility Muslims from Eastern Europe and the Balkans together. Without immigration, the Muslim population would only rise to 8.4%. Of course, if the North Africa-to-Pakistan region remains destabilized for a protracted period, then refugees could come in much greater numbers.
  • OPENO: That’s considerably lower than I would’ve guessed, really.
  • RESTRICTES: Yes, but consider that there might not be the same convergence you project for Latinos the US, particularly if migrants keep coming. Also, you said that the proper time scale for considering immigration is at least a century, and this is only 35 years in the future. There aren’t good predictions for 2100, because immigration flows are unpredictable, but once could easily imagine the Muslim population exceeding, say 20%? That’s clearly enough to pose major problems if assimilation fails. And remember, this won’t be an evenly distributed population. Some countries like France will have bigger populations/problems than others.
  • OPENO: Hmm, I’m less worried about a long term refugee influx to Europe than you. I guess one’s attitude towards these numbers depends mostly on how optimistic you are about immigration in general. It does seem notable that American immigrants are doing better, even though they’re a much larger group.
  • RESTRICTES: Agreed. I think there’s just one last topic to wrap things up, the effects of emigration on poor countries.
  • OPENO: That’s not something I’ve really considered. It isn’t immediately obvious whether the net effect would be positive or negative. Emigrants make more money they can send back as remittances – equal to 2% of Mexico’s GDP (and 17% of El Salvador’s!). I assume that has a positive impact. Perhaps it depends on who is leaving, those with graduate degrees, average people, the upwardly mobile, the poorest… There could be a brain drain; “there are currently more African scientists and engineers working in the U.S. than there are in all of Africa”. Or maybe higher remittances pay for better education or other things in the home country? Even if world GDP is sure to go up, the distribution of those gains aren’t clear to me. If you’re mainly concerned with the impact of immigration on the developed world, why are you asking?
  • RESTRICTES: If emigration sufficiently weakened a poor country and lowered its per capita growth rate, that could keep the income gap wide and encourage more and more immigration in the future. Think about Puerto Ricans being allowed to freely move to the US, or Spaniards able to move anywhere in the EU. There hasn’t been convergence in either case, but rather a massive outflow of people that has weakened the poorer region. With free exit there’s less of a reason to fix your homeland. As population drops, debt-to-GDP rises, taxes go up, and more people leave. With open borders local governance becomes much harder. (We aren’t really talking about open borders here, but as a side note, the actual open borders that already exist don’t seem that great to me.) Of course, the US doesn’t have open borders with Latin America, nor the EU with the Middle East, and things haven’t reached that sort of crisis. But partially open borders may reproduce at least some of these problems.
  • OPENO: I’m not convinced. Spain’s problems seem much more due to the Eurozone than to Schengen. Poland is in the EU but not the Eurozone. Two million Poles have emigrated in the last ten years, yet Poland has done pretty well economically. In fact emigration likely raised wages. And while Puerto Rico isn’t doing well, it isn’t like the rest of the Caribbean has experienced catch-up growth with the US. These areas have problems beyond open borders, and to the best of my knowledge there’s no good evidence that open borders are a primary culprit in anything. And there’s another open borders region you aren’t considering: the US itself. GDP per capita in Mississippi is half what it is in Connecticut, and yet there hasn’t been some mass destabilization. People move to where wages are higher (or cost of living is lower) and it all pretty much works.
  • RESTRICTES: Moving has costs, and perhaps the relatively small gaps within the US aren’t enough to encourage that much migration. The gap between Mexican and American wages clearly is. And in fact, given the distribution of federal spending, rich states are paying for the privilege of being in the same nation as poor states. So it isn’t actually clear to me that rich states benefit from having open borders with poor states, as opposed to perhaps just a free trade agreement. I know that’s controversial, and I can’t really back it up with the evidence I’d like. In general, I’m not sure economists look hard enough at unexpected side-effects of free trade and open borders.
  • OPENO: Sounds to me like you’re grasping at straws. In any case, emigration is complex and we shouldn’t be too quick to lump in intra-EU migration or intra-US migration or migration from the third to the first world. This is another understudied area, but negative impacts of emigration are hard to find. For instance, African countries that send more doctors abroad have better health outcomes. Emigration probably also raises wages in Mexico. Emigration encourages future foreign investment by creating business ties across borders. Perhaps inequality in the home country can go up? The evidence on emigration is ambiguous-to-positive. I’ll grant that there could be unforeseen costs, but given the huge welfare gains to emigrants, I can’t at all see justifying restrictions on movement given the evidence we have.
  • RESTRICTES: I would agree that the evidence isn’t currently strong enough to prove anything on its own.
  • OPENO: And with that I think we’ve finally covered the main topics we set out to!
  • RESTRICTES: And the time has just flown by.
  • OPENO: Let’s summarize and talk about how our views have changed, if they have. I’m still pro-immigration, but I’ve come to a more nuanced view, hopefully. The clear and significant difference between low skilled immigration to America and to Europe on essentially every measure was a big surprise and I wouldn’t have predicted it. I don’t know what the cause is, but things are definitely going better in the US. Still, even in Europe the economic impact seems pretty unambiguously positive assuming you include the immigrants’ welfare. On both sides of the Atlantic the per capita gains to natives from immigration are smaller than I would’ve expected, but even if it’s break-even, it still makes sense to let people in at no cost to ourselves. That’s true even if there’s less convergence in income than I expect. After all, someone in the US making more money than they would’ve in Mexico but less than me doesn’t necessarily negatively impact me. As for culture, Hispanics commit crime at the average national rate. Assimilation, including language and values, is occurring rapidly. Intermarriage means that ethnic tensions will naturally dissolve over time. I see no good reason to fret about immigration to America. As to Europe, I’m now less certain. I still think that “everything basically works out” is the likeliest outcome, but I’d now assign some non-negligible probability to a serious impossible-to-undo fiasco. I can’t quantify it, but there is a serious worry if things don’t improve. But also remember that many refugees to Europe are coming from very dire circumstances and the welfare gains for them are almost immeasurable. Your closing thoughts?
  • RESTRICTES: America is doing better than expected, Europe just as badly. I think we agree on most of the facts, but our expectations of how future trends will change – whether intermarriage in Europe will significantly increase, for instance – are quite different. Short of waiting, it’s hard to see how we could resolve these disagreements. But I would like to make a plea to people considering immigration in the future. There is no simple dichotomy between a closed border and letting whoever wants to come into your country. You can and should pick and choose. Even if unskilled immigrants to America do okay in the end, by letting in more skilled immigrants instead you could have done much better. Rather than groups that keep the crime rate the same, you could have lowered it. You could have had more people raising average income and investing more, starting more high tech businesses. No electorate would ever allow truly open borders, so unless you want to run roughshod over democracy there’s going to be a limit on how many immigrants per year you let in. Why not maximize the fraction of those immigrants who are high skilled? I’m not saying discriminate by country of origin, of course. Just set requirements like having a college education or having started a successful business, etc. We already do this to an extent, and countries like Canada follow this model with success. If you want immigrants, there are so many high skilled people from the third world who would choose to work in a developed country. Why not them first, if there are going to be limits? Whether you think low skilled immigration will be good or bad, it seems almost impossible to deny that high skilled immigration would be better, both in the short and long term.
  • OPENO: I’m not sure there’s such an obvious trade-off between amounts of high and low-skilled immigration, but that sort of political question seems outside our remit. I’ll close with this: immigration is easy to demagogue but hard to understand. Yet given its importance, understanding, foresight and compassion are all vital. Immigration will shape the future in ways we can’t yet understand.
  • RESTRICTES: On that we both agree.

Next: A bonus dialogue on immigration from Africa

(Source for header image)

[Overview] Immigration IV – Cultural Assimilation

[Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V; Appendix; Single page]

by David Severa

  • OPENO: Well, let’s see what we do know about cultural assimilation.
  • RESTRICTES: Let me start out by pointing out that assimilation is not guaranteed. Jews and Roma both lived in Europe for well over a millennium without fully assimilating. Of course, this was in no small part due to the hostility and bigotry of the surrounding populations, but Europe certainly hasn’t eliminated xenophobia from the human character. We live in a relatively tolerant moment, but there’s no guarantee that this will continue. If it doesn’t then today’s Muslim immigrants could easily become a permanently separate and lower status group, almost necessarily at odds with the rest of Europe. Even if there is little hostility, groups can religiously separate themselves from the rest of a nation, as with the Amish and Haredim in the United States. Of course Muslims are religiously distinct and distinctly more pious than native Europeans. Proximity does not guarantee assimilation. And giving the growing interconnectedness of the Islamic world, Muslims everywhere are now tuned in to violent, illiberal streams of thought.
  • OPENO: Over 90% of Muslims in France, Germany, and Britain completely reject violence against civilians.
  • RESTRICTES: Alarmingly low!
  • OPENO: If that’s how little support there is for terrorism even when the Middle East is in such a crisis, I can only imagine that it will drop further. Islam is going to modernize sooner or later.
  • RESTRICTES: I agree! But later could mean centuries, and until then Europe is opening itself to quite hostile streams of thought it has no control over. And as the Islamic world is tearing itself apart, in some ways European assimilation is going into reverse. In Britain in 2007 36% of 16-24 year olds believed that apostasy should be punishable by death, compared to (still alarmingly high!) 19% of 55+ year olds. For wearing the veil support goes from 28%  of 55+ year olds to 74% of youths. On other measures, like support for al Qaeda and preference for Islamic schools, the numbers go in the same direction.
  • OPENO: Even so, you’re mostly talking about a minority of a minority.
  • RESTRICTES: True for now. A few percent of the population believing something terrible is normal, but my worry is autocatalyzing ethnic polarization. Some fraction of Muslims use terrorism, or gangs to enforce conformity on other Muslims for instance, which provokes an indiscriminate reaction from white Europe, which pushes Muslims to band together, likely under an Islamist ideology. (Chechnya is an extreme, perhaps not perfectly relevant example. Chechens had always been Muslim, but the wars with Russia have pushed things in a more extremist direction tied to a broader jihadist ideology.) That won’t necessarily happen, but in this climate it’s a serious risk. So far most Europeans have been mostly tolerant. (Favorable views of Muslims in France went up after the Charlie Hebdo massacre.) Yet Front National and the BNP forever lurk in the background. If some crisis pushes Europe over that edge, it may be very hard to come back from.
  • OPENO: I’m confused. Is your argument that we shouldn’t let immigrants or refugees in because it might worsen our moral character and make us less tolerant? That seems odd.
  • RESTRICTES: Persistent ethnic tensions can fuel illiberalism. I mean, think back all the way to the Spartans and Helots. Or, more recently, the violence used in the American South to keep blacks down, which was also directed at abolitionist or pro-integration whites.* Or the post-9/11 erosion of civil liberties. Or the worries about the solidity of Israeli democracy. Liberal democracy doesn’t work always and everywhere. It has preconditions. At a minimum, most groups in a country must accept liberal democracy. It can’t be forced. If even just a substantial minority utterly rejects it (or uses it solely as a tool to be cynically manipulated), suddenly the whole system starts to seem quite rickety. A fearful majority can take frightful measures. Bans on speech supporting terrorism become bans on speech supporting Islamism become bans on… All of a sudden the West has lost much of what made it worth defending in the first place. That’s what I’m worried about, more than fanciful scenarios of demographic takeover. Muslims are over 10% of the population in some parts of Europe and if they turn more hostile to modern ideas, that would certainly provoke a crisis.

* To be clear, Restrictes isn’t saying that violence against one group counts more or less, just that illiberalism can turn on anyone and any idea.

  • OPENO: So your concern is not diversity per se, but the beliefs of the minority?
  • RESTRICTES: Diversity can be a concern (remember that the Belgians can barely hold a state together), but it isn’t a death sentence. America has always been diverse both ethnically and ideologically, but it’s held together since the Civil War.
  • OPENO: Even if I grant that that’s a possible scenario, how likely is it in reality? Just before you were lambasting me for using historical examples to analyze the present.
  • RESTRICTES: I can’t think of any precedent for an illiberal minority living among a liberal majority, so I don’t think my analysis is historically based so much as trying to analyze the underlying situation and work out ways things could play out. That’s an uncertain approach, but there aren’t any certainties with any approach. Regardless, even if the risks aren’t exactly known, the possible costs seem high enough to warrant extreme caution in allowing future immigration. The Muslim population is already growing faster than the rest of Europe, and greater size means a greater risk if these trends toward illiberalism accelerate.
  • OPENO: The fact that there hasn’t been any example of that sort of illiberal minority seems telling. Democracy and liberalism corrode traditionalist modes of thought. People will have more to gain than lose by generally cooperating. Democracy rewards that sort of thing.
  • RESTRICTES: But remember that religious groups in America can keep themselves separate even against all of democracy’s promises. Obviously European Muslims aren’t the Amish, but I don’t see any reason why it would be impossible to set up some sort of self-reinforcing separate system with promises of power and rewards in opposition to the mainstream. British Muslims already have separate courts to enforce the will of the community. Social pressure can be as powerful as the government. If the majority becomes biased against the minority and the minority can no longer achieve power through normal channels, then something like that seems almost inevitable.
  • OPENO: I have to bring this back out of the speculative realm. While in France Muslims are less trustful of government than the broader populace, in Germany and the UK that’s reversed. Muslims have more confidence in elections, courts, and the national government in general. Nothing you worry about is theoretically impossible, but I can’t see it as anything more than spinning tales that seem plausible.
  • RESTRICTES: That’s an unfair way to put it, and I think that could be applied to almost all speculation, not just to what I’ve laid out.
  • OPENO: Speculation must be adequately backed by facts. In any case, obviously whatever problems Latino immigrants have in assimilation are quite different, so let’s turn there.
  • RESTRICTES: As before, I’ll note that even linguistic assimilation isn’t guaranteed. German Americans kept speaking German until World War I and Cajuns kept speaking French until World War II, both changes that required considerable outside pressure.
  • OPENO: German Americans tried to keep their children in German-language schools, but most kids were growing up English-dominant decades before World War I. There are no comparable institutions to keep immigrants speaking Spanish. Cajuns were geographically and culturally isolated in a way that is impossible today. And in fact, Latino immigrants seem to be following the standard pattern where the second generation is bilingual and the third primarily speaks English. Only 1% of third generation immigrants aren’t at least bilingual and a majority don’t speak Spanish at all. That seems pretty overwhelming and completely unsurprising compared to past waves of immigration.
  • RESTRICTES: I’ll accept that.
  • OPENO: And as far as political values? Native born Hispanics are… 6% less likely to be conservative than the rest of America. Third generation Hispanics are more likely to support bigger government, but there’s a huge convergence with the rest of America over generations. The third generation’s attitudes towards homosexuality and abortion are indistinguishable from the rest of America. I’m not saying that immigrants are adopting good or bad norms, just that they’re adopting extremely boring generic American norms. There isn’t some wave that’s going to completely reshape the US. (Remember how the grandkids of European immigrants became Reagan Democrats.) It’s a big population, so even small shifts from the norm can make a difference in politics, true, but the change is moderate overall. Also note that a plurality of Latinos see the US as having better moral values than their home countries.
  • RESTRICTES: That’s somewhat comforting, but I’m not sure it cuts to the heart of my concerns. Remember at the beginning of this conversation, when we discussed how white Americans with different ancestries can still be distinguished centuries later? I’m more worried about these less-easily measured deeper folkways persisting.
  • OPENO: Then what is your worst case scenario? Here’s one plausible outcome. The American Southwest becomes sort of a second Appalachia. Culturally distinct but still recognizably American, poorer than average, but not overwhelmingly so, maybe with somewhat more social problems as well. Perhaps that’s suboptimal in some way (though it’s great for the immigrants – something we keep losing sight of) but I simply don’t understand the general caterwauling. What is so awful about this picture? You can’t realistically say that this is some fifth column bent on Reconquista. People are assimilating! American culture is extraordinarily attractive to people! Immigrants are coming to work and to raise families, not to bring to life nativist fever dreams! And it’s not like Mexico or Latin America are so wildly alien; it’s not like we border the tribal regions of Pakistan. Mexico seems to me like Spain, but poorer and a few decades of development behind. You’ve convinced me that immigration can be difficult yes, but what are you really so worried about?
  • RESTRICTES: Well… I’m not so sure that our society encourages assimilation anymore. “Hispanic” is basically an arbitrary census category designed to create a unified ethnic bloc. Affirmative action and multiculturalism reward separatism, rather than assimilation. So maybe the US will become truly ethnically balkanized, like the white/black split but with a larger number of groups.
  • OPENO: Do you really think that the government has that sort of power?
  • RESTRICTES: No, but it reflects the values that the broader society chooses to implement.
  • OPENO: I can blow up your concerns easily by looking at intermarriage. One in four Hispanic newlyweds is married to someone non-Hispanic. For native born Hispanics, it’s 36% and rising. The percentage of marriages that are from separate races/ethnicities has grown from 11% to 15% from 2000 to 2010, part of a much larger trend. This is true for every group in America. How can these groups possibly maintain hostile separatism in the face of that? These categories have never been perfectly discreet, and that’s just going to become more obvious with time. If there’s been one important fact in this entire discussion, it’s that intermarriage rate, which to me obviates so many potential long term problems. Future generations will shed their ethnic identities as being a core part of their identity, just as past immigrant groups did.
  • RESTRICTES: (How’s that multiracial future working out for Brazil?) It will take a long time for that potential future to come. In the meantime, who knows how identities will solidify? Also, note that the intermarriage rate overstates how many children will be born to mixed couples, as poor people are likelier both to stay within their own ethnicity and to have children out of wedlock. (Over half of Hispanic children are born to unwed mothers.) So even those numbers you give, which I’m not sure deserved that optimistic spin, are overstating things.
  • OPENO: It’s not just intermarriage, it’s that society is accepting of intermarriage and all it represents…

Next: The long term demographic impact of immigration

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[Overview] Immigration III – Crime

[Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V; Appendix; Single page]

by David Severa

  • OPENO: Let’s move from welfare to crime then.
  • RESTRICTES: So far this discussion has been quite bloodless, focused on statistics and not emotion. That’s appropriate for abstract economics questions, but crime has an ineradicable emotional component that you have to understand, just like terrorism can’t be understood merely by measuring lives lost. Ultimately we have to decide public policy rationally, but that includes rationally understanding people’s emotional, sometimes irrational reactions. So let me open with one example, Rotherham, to show why ordinary people are so worried. In Rotherham, England, over a period of 16 years gangs of ethnic Pakistani men sexually abused over 1,400 children. Girls were “doused in petrol and threatened with being set alight, threatened with guns, made to witness brutally violent rapes and threatened they would be next if they told anyone.” All of this was covered up for years by officials for fear of offending immigrant communities. This wasn’t some paranoid conservative fiction, it happened. And I’m not even getting into the horrific details, I just want you to understand in some way the visceral reaction people have. People read about this and they think of their own kids. Crime isn’t just statistics to people, it’s locked doors and empty playgrounds and an inescapable miasma of mistrust. It’s quite difficult to quantify these additional costs, but as we discuss numbers, please remember that the penumbra of crime covers all of society, not just individual victims.
  • OPENO: I agree that not everything can be fruitfully reduced to mere numbers, but-
  • RESTRICTES: Here’s a number for you: 10,000 soldiers in France guarding Jewish sites earlier this year. Imagine having to send your children to a school in that environment.
  • OPENO: -But numbers can relieve unfounded worries. Both of your examples were from Europe, which isn’t surprising. In fact, research in America has mostly found that immigrants have a lower crime rate than natives. In Europe and elsewhere, the opposite is true.
  • RESTRICTES: I think that “However America is doing, Europe is doing worse” is becoming a theme. But doesn’t a lower crime seem implausible? After all, Latin America is one of the most violent regions in the world. I could accept similar or slightly higher…
  • OPENO: It depends in part on how you control for demographics.
  • RESTRICTES: I hope you don’t mean controlling for education, income, or employment. You can’t treat those as some exogenous variables! If we want to look at how much crime is actually going to be committed, you can’t just assume away that immigrants differ from the rest of the population.
  • OPENO: True, though that does have its uses in answering other questions. But in this case I meant that immigrants are disproportionately young men, the most criminal group. 1.6% of immigrant men age 18-39 are imprisoned, vs. 3.3% of natives, but there are more immigrants in that group. Since their children will not have similarly skewed demographics, it does make sense to adjust in that way, depending on the question you’re answering. And our discussion is about long-term immigration effects, not short-term ones. (Though even without making those adjustments, it isn’t clear that immigration increases crime. Remember that the immigrant population has surged while crime rates have dropped by half since the early 1990s.)
  • RESTRICTES: And does this demographically adjusted low crime rate carry over to future generations?
  • OPENO: Not exactly. Second generation immigrants have higher crime rates than their parents, but not hugely so. Apparently they acculturate to the surrounding environment and commit crimes at about the same rate as natives. It isn’t clear to me whether they’re adjusting for socioeconomic factors. I don’t think so, but I think they are lumping high and low skilled immigrants together which is effectively the same thing. So if a group of immigrants is poorer/less educated and the poor/less educated are more criminal, then the group will be more criminal, but not relative to other comparable groups. In that case the long term prospects for the crime rate are tied to future economic assimilation.
  • RESTRICTES: So it depends on whether that 80% convergence holds.
  • OPENO: Correct. Hispanics, most of whom are descended from relatively recent immigrants, are incarcerated at 1.8 times the rate of non-Hispanic whites, but less than a third the rate of blacks. That puts them very near the overall national average. Even if economic convergence doesn’t improve then the crime rate will not be much affected by immigration.
  • RESTRICTES: It still seems very implausible to me, given how crime-ridden Latin America is. I mean, tens of thousands of people have been killed in Mexico’s drug war.
  • OPENO: Well, the drug war is an aberration, I think, due to the proximity of a big rich country and a big middle income country. It’s exacerbating what was an already high murder rate, but isn’t itself some deep part of Mexican culture. I mean, it used to be Colombia, now it’s Mexico… Also immigrants aren’t a representative sample of their home country, so we shouldn’t be surprised that there are differences.
  • RESTRICTES: Perhaps. I will say again, even if this is all true America could be doing better by only taking in educated high skilled immigrants. We don’t have to settle for keeping the crime rate steady when we could be lowering it. That immigrants aren’t always as harmful as I’d expect doesn’t mean our current policies are optimal. Let’s avoid false dichotomies. And I’m not going to let you get out of talking about Europe.
  • OPENO: I wouldn’t dream of trying to escape.
  • RESTRICTES: Like you said, most studies in Europe have found a link between immigration in crime. Unfortunately, much of this research is out of date or it lumps all immigrants (sometimes including intra-EU migrants!) together. So let’s look at incarceration rates to get a better idea of how things are actually going. In France, Muslims make up 12% of the population, but between 60 and 70% of all prisoners. In Britain it’s 3% vs. 11% in prison. And so on, throughout European countries with significant Muslim immigration. (Note that there aren’t good official statistics, unlike in the US. Hmm…) By comparison, in America blacks are 13% of the population, but 38% of all state prisoners. Hispanics are 17% vs. 21%. Europe has rapidly recreated – exceeded even – America’s huge racial disparity in crime. (And don’t forget that prisons are a breeding ground for extremism.)
  • OPENO: That’s disturbing, but remember that America locks up way more people, so those numbers aren’t necessarily directly comparable. For instance, France’s incarceration rate is less than a seventh than that of America’s, so even if the disparity is real, the levels are still much lower.
  • RESTRICTES: Here we run into problems with the data. I’d like to give you varying homicide rates (generally the best for cross-country comparisons) for different groups, but France and Germany willfully don’t collect those sorts of statistics, and the UK uselessly lumps all Asians together. (It’s easy enough to find information on xenophobic hate crimes though!) In Germany, what data there is suggests that more recent refugees have higher crime rates than earlier migrants. It’s possible that what’s happening is that, as in the US, first generation immigrants have lower crime rates than their kids. However, the first generation has a similar crime rate to natives, rather than lower, so their children are dragging the crime rate up.
  • OPENO: But from a lower base rate than in America.
  • RESTRICTES: Right. It isn’t clear what’s going to happen to crime rates, or how high they might go if the immigrant-descended population continues to grow. I wouldn’t guarantee that rates will stay below America, but the data just isn’t there to make confident predictions. Though the mere fact that the data is so sparse is to me very suggestive that there is a serious problem being covered up. Not to suggest a conspiracy or anything like that, but the difference relative to the US is quite striking. However, the prison population is proof enough that immigration has increased crime significantly. And even if a high crime rate like America’s isn’t high enough to tear apart society, why should Europe give up the peaceful societies it has taken centuries to create? Remember all the secondary effects of higher crime I mentioned.
  • OPENO: Perhaps…
  • RESTRICTES: I’d also like to point out that while immigration in general doesn’t increase corruption, immigration from corrupt countries does. And, of course, Middle Eastern and Latin American countries are much more corrupt than those in the West.  Government corruption is a more important sort of crime than is generally recognized, since government can work its tendrils into practically every aspect of life. Anecdotally, think of the Bell, California scandal (a city that’s 93% Hispanic). I think this just confirms people’s intuitions.
  • OPENO: Well, one study found no correlation between officials convicted of corruption and the Hispanic population*, but I’d like to make a broader point. Everyone knows that successive waves of immigration from Europe in the late 19th/early 20th centuries fueled the rise of corrupt machine politics in America. The machines have gone, but the corruption often lingers. (Illinois governors are literally more likely to go to jail than Illinois murderers.) Gangs and organized crime were obviously concentrated among immigrant groups. Catholics and Eastern Europeans were never going to be able to adapt to democracy, or to learn English. The poor would depress native wages. Etc., etc., etc. For a long time, many of these concerns seemed well-founded. And yet, almost nobody regrets these past waves of immigration. Eventually something changed. Assimilation happened. As we’ve discussed, it’s never been absolutely total, but it’s definitely been enough. When you look at past waves of immigration on a large enough time scale, you see success. (And a century or more is the appropriate length.) So we can look at all the numbers we have, and try to peer into the dim future, but trends change and the past is an equally important – if only intermittently quantifiable – guide. Maybe this time is different, but maybe not.

* It did find that increasing ethnic diversity led to greater corruption, but I saw other studies that found no effect.

  • RESTRICTES: The fact that there are such differences in outcomes between high and low skilled immigrants, and between low skilled immigrants to the US and Europe suggests that we have no guarantee that past examples of migration will map well onto current ones. And most past large migrations have been mass folk wanderings defined by violence and displacement. The experience of Europeans migrating to European colonies may be very much an exception. There aren’t enough examples to confidently analyze the causes of successful immigration and assimilation. It’s only theorizing and speculating. Even high skilled immigration probably has risks; there’s just so much we don’t know.

Next: Cultural assimilation

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[Overview] Immigration II – Costs to Natives

[Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V; Appendix; Single page]

by David Severa

  • OPENO: In any case, there’s one huge unexamined assumption we’re making: that having more poor people in my country has a negative impact on my well-being. That isn’t at all obvious! Why should someone moving to a rich country and thereby becoming much richer themselves negatively impact me in any way? The impact may be positive if anything! Of course the economy is complex and the truth is rarely obvious.
  • RESTRICTES: Please explain.
  • OPENO: If there’s one thing that economics has taught us, it’s that letting people voluntarily trade with one another typically increases overall well-being in a society. There are exceptions, of course, but this isn’t one of them. Right now there are millions of people toiling away in poverty, using out of date and inefficient technology, or dealing with unforgiving bureaucracies, etc. You yourself said that the incomes of Mexican-Americans – a relatively poor group of immigrants – rise to 80% of the American average. That’s almost four times what they’d make in Mexico! That’s like printing money! And that money will be spent on goods and services in the US from people like us. World GDP goes up, American GDP goes up. We all win. And of course the same is true in Europe.
  • RESTRICTES: I’m not disputing that you can raise GDP by importing more people, but does this come at the expense of Americans or American-held jobs? That’s the question.
  • OPENO: Restrictes, I hope you aren’t succumbing to the lump of labor fallacy. There is no fixed amount of work to be done in an economy. As a population grows, so does demand for labor. Immigrants both work and consume. Of course, this makes perfect sense when you notice that America’s population has grown over a hundredfold since independence, yet we haven’t seen an ever-growing unemployment problem. Not only that, but after centuries of off-and-on mass immigration the US is richer than almost every country on Earth. But again, even if Latino immigrants permanently drag down America’s stated GDP per capita, that may be nothing but a statistical artifact*. Americans who aren’t recent immigrants may still be richer than they otherwise would have been. Everybody would be better off, it just might not be obvious if you look at the numbers naively.

* Is this an example of Simpson’s paradox? I’m not quite sure.

  • RESTRICTES: Your analysis is right insofar as it goes. It’s very hard to deny that letting people migrate to higher efficiency regions will increase overall output. (Though if those immigrants aren’t there to work but to freeload on welfare…) But looking at the aggregate like that obscures the more important question: the distribution of wealth in this new society. GDP tells us nothing about who gets what. Even if mean income for Americans goes up, median income could even decline! And, given the declining marginal utility of wealth, most Americans could be progressively worse off even as GDP grows.
  • OPENO: Ignoring the well-being of much better off immigrants?
  • RESTRICTES: I don’t think that governments should particularly consider the well-being of non-citizens (within reason, of course), but let’s leave ethics to the side and focus on actual outcomes as best we can for now.
  • OPENO: Agreed. Can you provide an account of how the median American might be harmed by immigrants?
  • RESTRICTES: Look at trade with China, which very likely has decreased wages for workers in sectors now exposed to international competition. That shouldn’t be surprising – protectionism can raise income for the sectors that are being protected. Normally we associate protectionism with giveaways to industries with lobbyist clout, but what if immigration restrictions are really protectionism for the lower and middle classes? Does it seem so bad now? We can’t undo the fact that workers in tradable industries are worse off than before. But there are many jobs that aren’t tradable but necessarily local, like giving haircuts or construction. Jobs that would have been performed by lower or lower-middle class people. Without immigration their wages were driven up, but now even they aren’t secure from foreign competition. Nobody is. The benefits accrue to wealthier Americans who need money less.
  • OPENO: So your argument is that, even though it lowers overall output, immigration restrictions can improve overall well-being for Americans (and analogously Europeans) because this is a case where GDP doesn’t track utility well?
  • RESTRICTES: Correct.
  • OPENO: That’s a neat story, but is it true? It seems equally likely to me that immigrants are mostly filling niches that otherwise would have gone unoccupied – making farms profitable that otherwise wouldn’t have been, or offering maid services that simply never would have been bought. The proverbial jobs that American’s won’t take.
  • RESTRICTES: Much of which is due to illegal immigrants undercutting the minimum wage…
  • OPENO: Perhaps, but that’s neither here nor there with respect to overall welfare concerns. And the evidence doesn’t support your concerns. One study found that in the short term, wages for those without high school diplomas were depressed a paltry .7%. In the long term they rose .3%, so there’s no great problem to be addressed. You’ll find most studies on both sides of the Atlantic – like this one from Denmark – support mild benefits to immigration, even for less skilled natives. New immigrants can have a negative impact on recent immigrants, which makes sense, but it doesn’t make much sense to stop immigration for that, since immigrants will still be better off for having migrated in the first place.
  • RESTRICTES: Unless you have a huge new population you’re desperately trying to assimilate and want to stop undermining economically… Regardless, note that a decade and a half of mass immigration – often over a million a year – raised American incomes barely half a percent. That’s essentially nothing, considering the problems brought by immigrants. It’s not a permanent increase in growth rates either, it’s a one time bump.
  • OPENO: But you do concede that even permanently poorer immigrants and their children won’t hurt native wages?
  • RESTRICTES: Yes, but again please note that the benefits for natives are really quite small, almost a rounding error. Not nearly enough to justify the social costs we’ll soon be turning to. For instance, you can hardly contribute to the labor market if you’re not working and on welfare.
  • OPENO: We haven’t established those social costs, so let’s not just assume them. An alternate, equally plausible framing is that we can massively benefit millions of people by letting them into our countries and benefit a bit ourselves. We’ve been focusing on the effects on rich countries, but surely you agree that the migrants themselves unquestionably benefit. Otherwise why would they come?
  • RESTRICTES: They’re better off, of course. That isn’t in question. Enough immigration could undermine the institutions that make the risk worthwhile, but we’re obviously not at that point yet since they keep coming. (Side note: second and third generation Latino immigrants in the US have lower life expectancies than their parents because they adopt less healthy lifestyles.) But let’s establish those costs for natives. If immigrants are living on the dole rather than working (or if they are working but still net drains on the government) then that money is being redistributed directly away from citizens. And immigrants do go to where welfare is more generous. That’s hardly surprising. Obviously there are other factors, like work opportunities, family networks, and so on. And given that Europe generally provides more generous welfare than the US, it will both draw more people looking to mooch, and spend more per immigrant. “Immigrants received over 18% of social benefits in Denmark in 1999, even though their population share was less than 3%.”*

* Section 5 of this paper is quite interesting and I did an inadequate job summarizing it.

  • OPENO: Okay, that’s higher than I would’ve expected.
  • RESTRICTES: Male immigrants to Denmark from less developed countries start out at 80% welfare dependency and then over time that stabilizes to 40%, five times higher than for native Danes. Is that enough convergence for you?
  • OPENO: Denmark is Denmark, what about other countries?
    RESTRICTES: Not as bad in the rest of Europe, but there is still a big gap between natives everywhere. Different countries get quite different results in terms of dependency. America is better still which makes sense given that employment is higher. But immigrants are still 5-7% more likely to receive benefits.
  • OPENO: What causes the differences?
  • RESTRICTES: Government policy, mainly. How easy it is to collect benefits, how generous the benefits are. Apparently little to do with either native or immigrant culture, except insofar as they affect welfare policies.
  • OPENO: Okay, but this all still doesn’t prove that low skilled immigrants are a net fiscal negative. After all, even in Denmark most immigrants are working. That could still be enough to cover the costs of those who are on welfare.
  • RESTRICTES: Unfortunately the studies on that question are all over the map, varying by country, and by the assumptions made. But there are clear generalizations. Some immigrant groups are bigger fiscal drags than others. Older immigrants are net negatives – meaning family based migration is costlier to the government. In Europe costs are higher due to more underemployed immigrants and more generous benefits. In America the lifetime net effect on the government of an immigrant can go from a loss of $36,000 to a gain of $96,000 based on their education. (And remember the negligible economic benefits.)
  • OPENO: I can accept that some immigrants cost the government money. I’m not sure it matters that much in the big picture.
  • RESTRICTES: It isn’t just that they cost the government money. It’s that the same groups drawing on welfare are also working less, are more criminal, and are less culturally assimilated. Just like how poor countries are more corrupt, have lower literacy, and higher infant mortality, etc. For whatever reason these bad things are clustered. So if we move beyond a simplistic “Are immigrants good or bad?” framework, we see that low skilled immigrants are being essentially subsidized by high skilled immigrants, which can make the whole thing seem like a fiscal wash. But we can separate the two! Restrict immigration to the skilled and it will be a clear positive!
  • OPENO: Isn’t restricting benefits another option? America has a smaller welfare state and immigrants get less than in Europe. That’s a less restrictive solution. Even I’ll agree that governments aren’t obligated to give people money just for showing up on the border. If people can support themselves, they’ll come and if not they won’t. That would stop most people who weren’t likely to find work, and maybe lower native opposition to immigration too?
  • RESTRICTES: Policy makes a difference, clearly. But there will still be millions of poor people living in rich countries. Do you think that bleeding heart liberals will be able to resist offering handouts? No, poor immigrants imply welfare.
  • OPENO: You don’t think you can stop welfare, but you do think you can stop these same bleeding hearts from letting immigrants in in the first place.
  • RESTRICTES: Looking at all of human history, out of sight is in fact out of mind.
  • OPENO: You have yet to convince me that welfare is a big enough cost to justify immigration restrictions, particularly if policy changes can ameliorate the problem.
  • RESTRICTES: Welfare is only one of the social costs, and I think you’ll find that they start adding up…

Next: Immigration and crime

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[Overview] Immigration I – Economic Convergence

[Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V; Appendix; Single page]

by David Severa

Up next we’ll be republishing a dialogue comparing immigration to the United States and to Europe originally posted to my Tumblr in September of last year. Even though it’s a dialogue, it’s more data driven than our Dialogue format here, so it’s being classified as an Overview.

  • OPENO: Hello, friend! Something seems to be on your mind.
  • RESTRICTES: Yes, Openo, I am troubled. This migrant crisis in Europe has reawakened my concerns about immigration to the West in general. While I’m sympathetic to the plight of those fleeing civil war (though not to economic migrants), I think that Westerners on both sides of the Atlantic are being extremely foolish and letting sentiment and blank slate ideology blind them to the long term, irreversible consequences of their decisions.
  • OPENO: Then we have very different attitudes. My “sentiment” leads me to believe that the migration from poorer to richer countries will – despite the difficulties associated with any large change – be in the end a great benefit not only to the immigrants and their descendants, but to the host nations as well.  Perhaps we can use reason and evidence to bridge this gulf between us. Can you elaborate on your position more?
  • RESTRICTES: Both the United States and Europe are making the same mistake: they continue to import large numbers of people who are poorer and more criminal than the native population. In America, that means Latinos, mostly from Mexico. In Europe that means mainly Muslims, with the dominant ethnicity of immigrants varying by country. Despite what optimists like you think, these groups aren’t going to assimilate over time. They’re going to remain alien and even hostile to their host countries. (And I’m not even going to bother to address the obvious problems of Multikulti-style permanent multiculturalism.) We aren’t uplifting people, we’re just moving problems from far away to down the block. If this continues, we’re going to destroy what made Western countries the drivers of progress in the first place and make everyone much worse off. The first world is becoming more like the third, not the reverse.
  • OPENO: So your concern is not high-skilled immigration?
  • RESTRICTES: Correct, with a few caveats. Enough high-skilled immigration can lead to ethnic tensions, as we’ve seen in Southeast Asia’s frequent, sometimes genocidal, outbursts of anti-Chinese animus. Also similarly with antisemitism in Europe. Additionally, high-skilled Muslim immigrants may also be more likely to bring terrorism with them. But these are small issues relative to the huge numbers of low-skilled immigrants we’re dealing with.
  • OPENO: Very well. Then can I put your concerns into four related categories: economic, criminal, cultural, and demographic? And let’s focus on Latino immigrants to the US and leave others to the side, since they are the largest immigrant population by far.
  • RESTRICTES: That’s fair.
  • OPENO: Then let’s take them in that order, being careful to distinguish between America and Europe, because I think they have considerably different concerns. It’s cliche but true that America is a nation of immigrants. Millions and millions of people came from poor European countries to America, and they seem to have done quite well economically in the end. I will grant that there was a century of (mostly mild) ethnic tension, but few seem to regret it now or think that it was a mistake. Nobody is defined by being Italian-American anymore.
  • RESTRICTES: Is that true though? Appalachia was settled by poor Scots-Irish and Appalachian whites are poorer than whites elsewhere to this very day. Read Albion’s Seed or American Nations! These differences persist down to the modern day, and we’re only talking about different groups of British settlers. Different white ethnic groups still have considerably different incomes*. Scots-Irish households make $56,658, versus $72,179 for Russian-American households for instance. The past matters, even when it’s less visible because all these groups get lumped together as “white”.

* Wikipedia cites the Census Bureau for these, but I couldn’t get the dumb Census website working to double check, so perhaps discount the exactness of the numbers a bit.

  • OPENO: I’ll grant that economic assimilation isn’t complete anywhere. That’s obvious from looking at different economic regions of the US. But given time, intermarriage and internal migration I bet these differences will recede over time. In any case, relatively poor groups (but still quite rich!) are hardly a threat to the republic, just another normal issue to deal with.
  • RESTRICTES: But I was only presenting the best case scenario, of groups that become fully accepted as Americans over time. Native Americans and African Americans both have household incomes well under $40,000. And Mexican Americans are only at $40,588. That’s a big deal.
  • OPENO: Due to discrimination! That’s a problem that can be fixed!
  • RESTRICTES: Maybe, but “can” and “will” are two different things. We, as a society, have tried very hard to eliminate racism over the last half century, yet the disparity remains. There are two options: racism is subtle and very hard to eliminate, or we’ve eliminated most racism and the problem still persists. Could be cultural issues due to centuries of oppression. It doesn’t matter why. All that matters is that we don’t know how to get rid of it. Neither of those options make more immigration from a poor, visibly distinguishable minority a good idea. There’s already a lot we can’t undo, let’s not dig a deeper hole.
  • OPENO: Half a century is not actually a long time. (And will Latinos still be “visibly distinguishable” after generations of intermarriage, or just one end of a spectrum?)
  • RESTRICTES: Maybe, but are you willing to stake the country on us figuring out an apparently intractable problem?
  • OPENO: That’s over the top. It doesn’t need to be perfect. Some convergence would be enough.
  • RESTRICTES: Is 80% convergence enough? Because that’s all you’re likely to get. Third-generation Hispanic immigrants do no better than their parents in income or education. (And while we’ve just been talking about income, most other measures of well-being show the same gap.) Much like other minority groups, their income seems to grow at the same rate as whites, but from a permanently lower base. Puerto Ricans are still a very poor group overall.
  • OPENO: 80% doesn’t actually sound that bad? Much less than you’d want of course, but still manageable. Not as dire a picture as you’re trying to paint. Plus I’m not sure how much weight to put on those studies, given that the immigrant population is only now settling in after a period of rapid growth. But the worst case scenario doesn’t seem that bad.
  • RESTRICTES: For a group that will make up almost a third of Americans by 2050? That’s very sanguine.
  • OPENO: Perhaps, but I would bet money on Latinos doing better than that over the coming decades. Our expectations still differ, but not our facts I think. Let’s move on to Europe, where I do have concerns.
  • RESTRICTES: You’re right to be worried. In Europe the outlook is even worse. Let’s take France, Germany, and the UK, the three largest EU countries. Each has, over the last half century taken in a large Muslim population. France from Algeria, Germany from Turkey, and Britain from Pakistan and Bangladesh to generalize. Each has taken a different attitude towards immigrants. In France the goal was assimilation; citizens were citizens and public displays of religion were at best frowned upon. The Germans thought they were just importing temporary workers who would go away when asked. Children of immigrants weren’t given citizenship until fairly recently. In the UK the goal was harmonious multiculturalism. Yet despite these differences all these immigrant groups are doing poorly, and in some cases the second generation is not only not converging, it’s regressing. That suggests to me that government policy is simply not a very effective lever, that what’s happening is pretty much inevitable (once you allow this sort of mass low-skilled immigration).
  • OPENO: Regressing?
  • RESTRICTES: This sort of research is rather hard to find (I wonder why?), but in Germany, second generation Turkish immigrants have a bigger earnings gap relative to natives than their parents, adjusting for education. (Granted, they are somewhat more educated than their parents, which attenuates the gap somewhat.) In France, first generation Turkish men are 70.6% likely to be employed. Second generation? 41.2%. Pakistanis in the UK see an almost 14% drop in employement.
  • OPENO: That seems implausibly extreme.
  • RESTRICTES: A few caveats then. Part of the gap may be explained by differences in average age. Also I’ve cherry-picked some notable but still representative examples. But in general, this is the pattern for Muslim second generation immigrants: educational outcomes are improved, while actual economic performance mostly stagnates, with outlying groups in either direction. That’s true both for income and even more so for employment rates.
  • OPENO: Is this a result of discrimination?
  • RESTRICTES: Maybe in part, but I don’t think primarily. In Sweden, the wage gap is entirely skill-driven, with no evidence for discrimination by employers. However, there may be some discrimination in deciding who is hired in the first place. I don’t doubt that racism plays a part.
  • OPENO: What about non-Muslim immigrants? How do they compare?
  • RESTRICTES: Intra-EU migrants don’t fully converge with the natives (just like whites in the US), but they don’t generally have the same issues. But other non-white groups do much better than Muslim immigrants. Indians in Britain do much better than other South Asian groups, which seems difficult to attribute to discrimination. Given how often Sikhs are attacked as Muslims, I don’t think bigots are very good at distinguishing between minority groups. No, I think the difference is mainly in whether groups are skilled when they first arrive. There may also be concerns with Muslim communities being more culturally isolated from the broader nation, which could also have economic effects, but we can deal with that when we talk about culture.
  • OPENO: And this is worse than in America?
  • RESTRICTES: Unfortunately there just isn’t enough research to allow for a full point-by-point comparison, but I think so. For instance, there is a drop in employment among descendants of Mexican immigrants, but it’s much smaller, and basically brings them into line with non-Hispanic whites. (First generation immigrants to the US are more likely to be employed than natives, a point in your favor.) In America, there is a jump in outcomes, then just normal slow progress (but not convergence). In Europe there isn’t even really that jump.
  • OPENO: But if different low-skilled immigrant groups have different outcomes in different countries, surely we could study that and learn which policies work and which ones don’t? The differences imply that we aren’t just seeing the exact same process over and over, like you implied. The debate over the welfare state is another issue, but maybe European countries have created perverse incentives or something like that.
  • RESTRICTES: That would be worthwhile research, but consider this. If America is a positive outlier, then there might not be much room for improvement. We might already be close to the best possible outcome, even if Europe isn’t. Also, if much of the gap is due to the larger cultural gap between Europeans and Muslim immigrants than between Americans and Mexicans then there’s no reason to assume that a policy solution exists. Or maybe Americans are just more accepting of immigrants because of centuries of immigration. It’s not clear if we can fix that either. Though of course we should investigate. I don’t know the causes with any certainty.
  • OPENO: If I may summarize your argument so far. Low skilled immigrant groups to the US are likely to quickly converge to an educational/economic level higher than in their native countries, but considerably lower than other Americans. In Europe second generation Muslims are better educated than their parents, but are often actually worse off economically and less attached to the labor market. Whatever the best case scenario is, it isn’t an indistinguishable melting pot in either case. There are going to be problems and economic gaps for the foreseeable future.
  • RESTRICTES: Exactly. And while much of this can’t be undone, as I certainly don’t advocate expelling citizens from any country on ethnic grounds, this isn’t a mistake we need to keep making. We can stop letting in low-skilled immigrants at any time. Even if there’s some illegal immigration, the numbers will be much lower.
  • OPENO: Well, you’ve convinced me that I was naive to expect some sort of perfect economic melding between immigrants and natives. But the degree of difference matters too. After all, America holds together even if some whites make less than others. Poorer ethnic groups create problems, but ones we have a long history of dealing with. And you still haven’t shown what the actual best case scenario is, just what we’re currently on track to achieve. Maybe that’s all we can do, maybe not. Yet there are greater difficulties than I first allowed.
  • RESTRICTES: Progress!

Next: The economic impact on natives

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[Overview] Trump Voters VIII – Populism

[Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V; Part VI; Part VII; Part VIII; Single page]

by David Severa

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, along with Emily Ekins, researched how the supporters of different candidates fit in with his moral foundations theory, the idea that people use a number of distinct mental axes to think about ethics, and that people vary by how important each axis is. Haidt has identified six foundations: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. So, when judging an action, one person may care whether or not authority is respected but not much care whether the action is particularly fair, while another person may do the reverse.

They polled voters to measure their moral foundations. (Only one of the authority questions is about child rearing, and they combined authority with some other foundations, so that measure may not be directly comparable to the other research on authoritarianism. Proportionality is equivalent to the fairness/cheating axis – whether you think “The world would be a better place if we let unsuccessful people fail and suffer the consequences” for instance.)


Trump voters don’t particularly stand out relative to the average American. They care less about care/harm (“morality requires caring for and protecting the vulnerable”) and more about proportionality (people getting what they deserve, “highly predictive of a preference for small government and a dislike of activist government and the welfare state”) and a combined measure of authority, loyalty, and sanctity, which the authors finger as the foundations of social conservatism. Their scores on those social conservative foundations are similar to those of other Republicans, and they place less weight on proportionality than some other Republicans, but more on care.

In further comments, Ekins says that:

Because Trump has a larger share of the vote, his supporters’ standardized scores for each moral foundation are more likely to be closer to average. Since 0 indicates the median voter, candidates with larger vote shares will appear closer to average.

They also tested “to see if adding the moral foundations improved prediction above and beyond the demographic factors that are usually used.” They did:

Among Republicans, four moral patterns stand out. First: Voters who still score high on authority/loyalty/sanctity and low on care — even after accounting for all the demographic variables — are significantly more likely to vote for Donald Trump. These are the true authoritarians — they value obedience while scoring low on compassion. They are different from Huckabee supporters, who appeared to score even higher than Trump supporters on authority/loyalty/sanctity, but also scored high on care, as we saw in Figure 1.

Authoritarianism is often assessed in social science research by asking people two or three questions about the relative importance of teaching their children obedience and respect, but our data shows a limitation of this approach: Not everyone who wants their kids to be obedient is an authoritarian. Some past research has been too quick to lump in social conservatives with authoritarians.

A further reason to doubt any simple interpretation of the “authoritarianism” measure.


We have done some preliminary tests finding roughly 2-3 groups [of Trump supporters]. One group scores particularly high on Loyalty-Authority-Sanctity, while another group appears to be less engaged and scores lower on all the foundations. When these different groups are averaged together, the average Trump supporter is closer to the average.

This research on morality and authoritarianism is interesting, but still preliminary I think. It’s perfectly plausible that Trump voters have a different psychological profile on average, but I’d like to see more work disentangling the effects of regional culture, and so on.


Populism isn’t any one thing, so there isn’t any simple test for populism. After all, Trump and Sanders have both been labeled populists and we’ve seen that their supporters have often radically different attitudes and beliefs. Populism is, perhaps, a style of thought that encompasses many different schools of thought. The Washington Post compares populism to authoritarianism:

Populism, on the other hand, is a type of political rhetoric that casts a virtuous “people” against nefarious elites and strident outsiders. Scholars measure populism in a variety of ways, but we focus on three central elements:

  • Belief that a few elites have absconded with the rightful sovereignty of the people;
  • Deep mistrust of any group that claims expertise;
  • Strong nationalist identity

Of course, authoritarians and populists can overlap and share dark tendencies toward nativism, racism and conspiracism. But they do have profoundly different perceptions of authority. Populists see themselves in opposition to elites of all kinds. Authoritarians see themselves as aligned with those in charge.

The authors polled voters to see if populist proved a better descriptor of Trump supporters than authoritarian. (I’ve already discussed this paper a few times, including in the section on authoritarianism.) They found that, while Trump voters were more authoritarian than average, populism mattered more:


“Trump voters are the only ones to score consistently high on all three populist dimensions.” I’d be interested in seeing more research on this question, but based on everything else I’ve discussed, I think that populism is a better lens to understand Trump than authoritarianism. There may well be authoritarian elements, but there’s more than that going on.

“Populist” is a useful, but vague, shorthand that captures a good deal about Trump’s appeal. I haven’t had time to discuss the history of right-wing populism in the United States (let me know if you’d like a series on that!), but I think that there’s a strong case to be made that Trump is best understood as part of that tradition. Remember that support for segregationist George Wallace in 1968 was a strong predictor for a county’s support for Trump in 2016. And they’ve drawn from similar wells of support: “overwhelmingly white, not college educated, racially intolerant, hostile toward immigrants, dismissive of social progress, and facing bleak economic prospects.” Analogies have even been made to Andrew Jackson’s candidacy almost two centuries ago, each being “a wealthy celebrity always ready for a fight, a superpatriot who says he will make America great again. He vows to attack government corruption and defend the common man.” And all three men with particular appeal to Appalachia. (Which isn’t to say that Trump supporters hold all the same views as their antecedents, but that they occupy a similar political position.)

I don’t know of a specific term to capture this tendency, but “Appalachian Populism” wouldn’t be too far off the mark, if perhaps too narrow. But a label is less useful than knowing everything to which the label refers.

Trump voters in review

After all these words, all these graphs, all these polls, all these numbers, it’s time to bring things to a close and review everything we’ve covered. What can we say about Trump supporters?

  • Certain basic demographic factors matter somewhat. Women, the young, those with college educations, and those with high incomes are all less likely to support Trump, though not always by much, and even so Trump received more of his support from likelier-to-vote high income Republicans. It’s important to remember that Trump was still often winning pluralities of the groups he did worse with.
  • He didn’t bring in many Democrats or independents, but he did energize weakly attached Republicans.
  • Racially, Trump voters closely resemble other Republican primary voters: both are over 90% white. But among white ethnicities, his supporters stand out, drawing especially heavily from those regions in and around Appalachia that claim “American” ancestry, and in regions, like in the Northeast, with ancestry from Catholic countries like Italy.
  • Those Trumpist regions share other characteristics, many of them related to atomization and social and economic decay. These are areas that have lost manufacturing jobs, areas with low work force participation, areas with weak religious ties, areas that are poorly educated, areas with high mortality. The parts of white America that are doing worst, that have been left behind. But, and I can’t emphasize this enough, with exceptions like Utah, Trump did pretty well most everywhere. (That is, pulling in at least a quarter of the votes.)
  • Additionally, although Trump did disproportionately well with poorer voters, they did not vote in large enough numbers to make up the bulk of his support. The average Trump supporter (like the average supporter of every other candidate) had an above average income. Trump voters do report more financial problems, and it’s possible that, being older, their incomes overstate their real socioeconomic position. But still, it seems more plausible to describe the typical Trump supporter as someone doing alright for themselves in a region that is decidedly not.
  • Trump voters have what I’ve chosen to call ethnocentric attitudes, above and beyond those of the typical Republican (who are more ethnocentric than non-Republicans). They are more likely than other Republicans to say that most blacks are violent and lazy. A majority think that Muslims should be subject to increased scrutiny solely because of their religion and that all Muslims should be temporarily banned from entering the United States. They have the most hostile attitudes towards immigration on every measure. This ethnocentrism doesn’t only matter for attitudes towards outgroups. There is also a sense of white ethnic solidarity. Voters who think their identity as whites is extremely important are more likely to vote Trump. Voters who perceive a great deal of discrimination against whites are more likely to vote Trump. These factors simply cannot be wholly reduced to economic concerns. Attitudes towards race matter. Again, not all Trump supporters share ethnocentric attitudes and not all those with strong ethnocentric attitudes voted for Trump. But it is predictive.
  • Republicans are angry, but Trump voters are angrier. Only 1% said that they were content with the federal government. 75% said that life had been better for people like them 50 years ago.
  • Despite this anger at the government, they have more favorable opinions of individual government programs than other Republicans. They are more likely to want to increase spending and raise taxes on the rich. They are the most opposed to free trade. They are not particularly economically conservative, though they are more conservative than Democrats.
  • They are socially conservative, but less so than many other Republicans. They are fairly evenly split on abortion, for instance. Trump voters are probably more socially conservative than the establishment Republicans who backed Bush or Rubio, but less so than those who backed Cruz. Certainly this is not an area where Trump supporters stand out and, unsurprisingly, Trump voters are mostly not inspired by these kinds of social issues.
  • Trump voters are the most opposed to American engagement with the rest of the world with the sole exception of using military force. They are, if anything, more militaristic than anyone else while also being the most hostile to trade, to foreign aid, and even to NATO. I called it “nationalism that believes we live in a zero-sum world”. It somewhat closely matches what Walter Russell Mead called Jacksonian foreign policy.
  • There is evidence that Trump voters are more authoritarian than the average American, but the evidence that they are more authoritarian than other Republicans is more uncertain. I’m not sure how useful the attempts to psychologically pigeonhole Trump supporters are at this point. Still, Trump voters are likeliest to want a strong leader, who will “say or do anything to solve America’s problems”.
  • They are the most likely to support expanding the use of torture.
  • Probably the best way to encapsulate the world and worldview of the typical Trump voter is what I called Appalachian Populism, though it isn’t confined to Appalachia. White ethnocentrism, an openness to some kinds of government largesse, a militaristic foreign policy, and a distrust of experts, all in regions that are socially and economically struggling. That is the core of Donald Trump’s support.

Thanks for reading! Up next, a dialogue on objective morality.

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[Overview] Trump Voters VII – Authoritarianism

[Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V; Part VI; Part VII; Part VIII; Single page]

by David Severa


Now that we’ve seen what Trump voters believe in, and seen that they aren’t much motivated by conservatism, I’ll close by looking at some overarching theories that attempt to tie everything together. Judging by Facebook shares, one of the more popular theories out there is that Trump voters are authoritarians in some sense, that they crave strongman leadership. The first major article on this was a January piece by Matthew MacWilliams in Politico, who found that having an authoritarian personality predicted Trump support:

My finding is the result of a national poll I conducted in the last five days of December under the auspices of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, sampling 1,800 registered voters across the country and the political spectrum. Running a standard statistical analysis, I found that education, income, gender, age, ideology and religiosity had no significant bearing on a Republican voter’s preferred candidate. Only two of the variables I looked at were statistically significant: authoritarianism, followed by fear of terrorism, though the former was far more significant than the latter.

A second study from Vox found similar results:

Trump has 42 percent support among Republicans but, according to our survey, a full 52 percent support among very high authoritarians.

Authoritarianism was the best single predictor of support for Trump, although having a high school education also came close. And as Hetherington noted after reviewing our results, the relationship between authoritarianism and Trump support remained robust, even after controlling for education level and gender.

Trump support was much lower among Republicans who scored low on authoritarianism: only 38 percent.

Vox also found that non-authoritarians who nevertheless felt afraid of foreign threats were also more likely to vote for Trump. I’m not sure why the relationship reverses for authoritarians:


Striking findings, especially considering all of the ways that we’ve seen Trump supporters stand out from other Republicans. Are all of those other factors incidental? Is authoritarianism the only thing that really matters? First, here’s what researchers mean by authoritarianism and how they measure it. MacWilliams says:

Authoritarians obey. They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened. From pledging to “make America great again” by building a wall on the border to promising to close mosques and ban Muslims from visiting the United States, Trump is playing directly to authoritarian inclinations.

This personality trait comes to the fore when people feel “threatened by social changes such as evolving social norms or increasing diversity, or any other change that they believe will profoundly alter the social order they want to protect.” Authoritarianism only becomes obvious when people feel frightened, otherwise it’s “latent”.

How is this measured? Obviously you can’t straightforwardly ask people “Are you an authoritarian?” and expect to get an honest answer. Political scientists have a standard set of indirect questions they ask to measure authoritarianism, based on attitudes towards child rearing:

  • Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders?
  • Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: obedience or self-reliance?
  • Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: to be considerate or to be well-behaved?
  • Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: curiosity or good manners?

Giving the second answer marks you as more authoritarian. The theory behind this being that people who value order and hierarchy in one domain will value it in others. These questions have been standard for over two decades now. lot of people are authoritarian according to this measure:

Our results found that 44 percent of white respondents nationwide scored as “high” or “very high” authoritarians, with 19 percent as “very high.” That’s actually not unusual, and lines up with previous national surveys that found that the authoritarian disposition is far from rare….

Today, according to our survey, authoritarians skew heavily Republican. More than 65 percent of people who scored highest on the authoritarianism questions were GOP voters. More than 55 percent of surveyed Republicans scored as “high” or “very high” authoritarians.

These people aren’t all salivating for a dictator, but (so the theory goes) they are likelier to desire authoritarian leadership when they feel threatened. (So it makes sense that non-authoritarians who are also worried about foreign threats are also more likely to support Trump.)

Now, I think it’s important here to distinguish between authoritarianism the supposed personality trait they’re trying to measure and authoritarianism the attitude towards child rearing that is hopefully correlated with the personality trait. So what else is this measure correlated with, beyond support for Trump? A lot of things, many of them similar to characteristics of Trump voters we’ve already discussed:


This all sounds, to be honest, suspicious. How much can a few questions about child rearing tell us? How much use is a test that finds 44% of people to be authoritarian? There are, I think, good reasons for skepticism. For instance, this test of authoritarianism may only work in whites:

Using a scale of child rearing preferences, scholars find that African Americans are far more authoritarian than Whites. We argue that this racial gap in authoritarianism is largely a measurement artifact. The child rearing scale now used to measure authoritarianism is cross-racially invalid because it draws heavily on a metaphor about hierarchy. Akin to someone who favors enforcing conformity in a child, the authoritarian is thought to be inclined toward enforcing conformity in social subordinates. In both cases, one’s perspective is drawn from a position of relative power. We believe this metaphor is effective among members of a majority racial group because individual dominance at home meshes with group dominance in society. For members of a racial minority, we believe this metaphor breaks down. Using multi-group confirmatory factor analysis, we establish that Blacks and Whites construe the child rearing items differently. Consequently, authoritarianism correlates highly with the things it should for Whites, but rarely so for Blacks.

I believe that in both polls only whites were queried, so this isn’t a direct mark against them. The problem is that the test’s validity is culturally contingent, and the test could be invalid for reasons other than race:

After all, the new index measures approval for some old-fashioned ideas about raising children. These ideas were once widespread, but have become more characteristic of the working class, especially in the South. To be “authoritarian”, in other other words, means little more than endorsing the folk wisdom of a class and place that many academics find alien.

You might also ask how “real” these values are. People often respond to surveys by giving what they regard as the appropriate answer, rather than the one that most accurately reflects their behavior. This “social desirability bias” helps explain why people report voting and going to church more often than they actually do them.

So people who express authoritarian attitudes may not be more authoritarian in practice than anyone else (they may even endorse authoritarian values precisely because their lives are disordered).

Might these tests be picking up cultural variation instead of psychological differences? Maybe at least in part. In fact, researchers writing at the Washington Post polled the same questions and found that, while Trump voters were more authoritarian than the average American, they weren’t even the most authoritarian-scoring group, more religious Cruz voters were:

In fact, they score slightly lower on these scales than Cruz’s voters. Why? Partly, this is because scales measuring child-rearing correlate very highly with fundamentalist Christian beliefs. By these measures, most Republicans look like “authoritarians” because so many are conservative Christians who advocate strict child-rearing practices. This is also why Bernie Sanders’s supporters are so much less authoritarian than Hillary Clinton’s — “Berners” are much less religious than other Democrats….

Granted, we don’t have a lot of other measures of authoritarianism, such as an attraction to strong leaders or intolerance of ambiguity. It may be that Trump’s supporters are more swayed by these traits than other Republicans.


According to Quinnipiac:

Agreement with the statement, “What we need is a leader who is willing to say or do anything to solve America’s problems” is 53 percent among all voters, 68 percent among all Republicans and 39 percent among Democrats. Trump backers agreement is highest with 84 percent….

There is a lower level of agreement, 64 percent, with the statement, “The old way of doing things no longer works and we need radical change.” Agreement is 71 percent among all Republicans and 58 percent among Democrats. Agreement is highest among Trump supporters with 83 percent.

Among all American voters, 56 percent agree with the statement, “Leaders don’t worry about what other people say; they follow their own path.” Agreement is 65 percent among all Republicans, 46 percent among Democrats and 74 percent of Trump voters agree, the highest of any candidate.

Additionally, 96% of Trump voters believe that “America needs a powerful political leader that will save us from the problems we face”, versus 80% of Republicans and 74% of Democrats. Of course, that might be partly due to Trump voters being the most dissatisfied.

Forty-three percent of registered voters blame both sides, while 29 percent of voters think it’s the protesters who are mostly to blame for these incidents and 23 percent mostly blame Donald Trump’s supporters.

Fifty percent of Republican primary voters, and eight in 10 Trump supporters, approve of how Trump is handling the violence. By contrast, among voters overall two in three disapprove of how Donald Trump is handling these incidents.

Independent voters are more similar to Democrats. 81% of Democrats and 68% of independents disapprove of his handling of the violence. So there’s not much evidence that the incidents had a major negative impact among those who weren’t already opposed to Trump. Some of this is just a barometer for whether you approved of him already. However, hearing Trump’s actual words on the violence makes him much less popular:

Take the following statement Trump made in Iowa on the day of the caucuses: “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of ’em, would you? Seriously. Okay? Just knock the hell — I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.”

Just 16 percent of voters viewed Trump more favorably after reading that statement. But a whopping 61 percent said it made them view him less favorably, including 45 percent of Republicans.

That pattern held across a range of similar statements, including:

  • “See, in the good old days this didn’t use to happen, because they used to treat them very rough. We’ve become very weak.”
  • “It was really amazing to watch,” in reference to seeing his supporters “taking out” a protester.


FiveThirtyEight took a interesting approach to test how tolerant supporters of a given candidate are towards groups they dislike. First they asked supporters of each candidate which group they liked least:

lewis-tolerance-3 (Source)

They then asked respondents if members of their least-liked group “should be banned from running for the U.S. Congress; should not be allowed to teach in public schools; should be outlawed; should be allowed to make a speech in this city; should have their phones tapped by the government; [or] should be allowed to hold public rallies here”. They found that “Trump supporters would grant about 40 percent of the rights asked about to the groups they dislike.” However, supporters of other candidates were statistically indistinguishable from those of Trump, including the Democrats, except for those of Kasich, who were a bit more tolerant. According to this at least, Trump voters are as likely to wish to curtail rights as anyone else.

There isn’t much polling on how Trump supporters view torture, but “82 percent of Republicans said torture is “often” or “sometimes” justified, compared with 53 percent of Democrats.”

Quinnipiac University released a poll testing the impact of associating a policy with Trump. One of the topics was torture. Some people were asked if they agreed with a plan “To broaden laws regarding the use of torture in interrogations of suspected terrorists.” 71% of Trump supporters somewhat agreed or strongly agreed, compared to 24% of non-Trump supporters (including Democrats). Another group was asked “Trump would like to broaden laws regarding the use of torture in interrogations of suspected terrorists. Is this something with which you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree?” When the policy was linked to Trump, 76% of Trump supporters agreed, versus 19% of non-Trump supporters.


The evidence that Trump voters have authoritarian personalities is weak, in my estimation. I’m not a statistician and I haven’t gone deep into the numbers, so please take my analysis with a grain of salt. But there are too many competing hypotheses and possibilities out there to endorse any of them with much certainty. But even limiting the analysis to more typical polling questions, one can find that Trump voters are more likely to support torture, more likely to approve of how Trump has handled violence at his rallies, and more likely to desire a strong leader. Whether these things do or do not indicate authoritarianism I leave to the reader.

Next: Are Trump voters best thought of as populists? And conclusions.

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[Overview] Trump Voters VI – Conservatism and Policy

[Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V; Part VI; Part VII; Part VIII; Single page]

by David Severa


Well before Trump, and well before Obama, Republicans had been getting more conservative – certainly rhetorically. “[S]elf-described conservatives [made] up a greater share of Republicans in 2012 (68%) than they did in 2000 (59%)”. Until roughly yesterday Tea Party intransigence was the order of the day, including a two-week shut down of the federal government. So why has Trump, who 45% of Republicans consider a moderate rather than a conservative, won?

At least in part, it’s because there exists a large bloc of “conservative” voters who aren’t in practice that conservative:

[A]fter analyzing survey data from the 1950s, Converse found that the public was largely “innocent of ideology.” When asked their likes and dislikes about the political parties and presidential candidates, relatively few used ideological concepts or terminology. The majority could not define terms like “liberal” and “conservative” or could define them in only in vague terms.

Moreover, people’s views on various political issues didn’t “go together” the way that liberalism or conservatism would predict. Knowing people’s view on one issue didn’t really help predict their view on another issue. This was particularly true among voters with less formal education — exactly the group that has been most attracted to Trump….

Similarly, recent work by James Stimson and Christopher Ellis (discussed here) as well as Sunshine Hillygus and Todd Shields has found that it is common for voters to have political views out of step with the mainstream of their party.

In particular, Ellis and Stimson show that it is self-identified conservatives who are particularly prone to this because so many of them take liberal positions on key questions like the size of government. They find that this group — “symbolically conservative” but “operationally” liberal — actually comprises a larger share of the electorate (nearly 25 percent) as of 2008 than it did in 1974.

In fact, when it comes to “whether the government should do more, less, or the same in lots of different policy areas”:

[A]lmost 30 percent of Americans are “consistent liberals” — people who call themselves liberals and have liberal politics.  Only 15 percent are “consistent conservatives” — people who call themselves conservative and have conservative politics.  Nearly 30 percent are people who identify as conservative but actually express liberal views.  The United States appears to be a center-right nation in name only.

These “conflicted conservatives” are of course conservative for other reasons, whether social conservatism or cultural affiliation with the right. But, given that the Republican party has been led by its business and libertarian wings toward a more economically conservative policy than its base would naturally support, there was an opening for someone who could operate outside the normal party apparatus (and thus avoid the need to prove ideological loyalty) to exploit.

There’s evidence for this. Plenty of polls found that Trump did well among moderates and exit polling bore that out. What’s striking is that he often did as well or better among self-described “somewhat conservative” voters. It was only with very conservative voters that he lagged, though not always by much:


(Data from here; graph created by me; not all states exit polled)

In most elections somewhat conservatives were the largest bloc (40+% of voters), and outside of the Northeast moderates were always the smallest bloc, so a large plurality of Trump supporters were somewhat conservative:


(Data from here; graph created by me; not all states exit polled)

Economic conservatism

So if neither Trump nor his supporters are consistently conservative, what policies do they support? Given that Trump has switched his positions on a whole bunch of issues, I’m not sure that polling is a very good guide to what policies he will actually pursue. Nevertheless, polling may tell us something more about what animates his base. Let’s look at polling from the 2012 election to start. “Majorities of GOP primary voters were willing to cut only four things: unemployment benefits, spending on housing, spending on the environment, and foreign aid.” And other than for foreign aid those majorities were hardly overwhelming:


Clearly even before Trump there was a large Republican constituency to preserve government programs. And according to the Washington Post, he has disproportionate appeal to those who want to increase federal spending (on a number of specific programs rather than in general):


The authors say:

There are two important takeaways. First, Trump does significantly better (15 points) among those who want spending increased rather than decreased.  Second, the numbers at the bottom show there are far more Republicans who want spending increased on these issues than decreased.

RAND’s long-term survey of select voters also found that voters who favored raising taxes on high incomes were far more supportive of Trump. He is tapping into a large group. “51 percent of Republican primary voters strongly or somewhat favor increasing taxes on individuals who make more than $200,000 a year”.


Although Trump has called Obamacare a disaster, he’s (vaguely) signaled support for some sort of universal coverage even last year. His supporters haven’t followed his lead, though. 84% don’t believe that the federal government has the responsibility to make sure everyone has health care, very similar to other Republicans. (The numbers for Democrats are almost exactly reversed.) On the other hand, 73% of Trump supporters don’t want Social Security benefits reduced, not too different from any other group of voters. So there’s no real divide between Trump voters and Republicans, just between Republicans and Democrats.

This broad support of current government programs and government spending needs to be reconciled with the fact that a mere 1% of Trump voters said they were “basically content” with the federal government. Let’s bring back this chart:

Section1_13png (Source)

The chart is for all voters, not just Trump supporters, but it makes sense that Trump supporters would be angry at politics and politicians, rather than government per se. Trump voters may not be angry about what government does (at least spending-wise) so much as angry at how it does it.

There is another possible reason for the disconnect between anger at “government” and support of government I’d like to propose: people have hugely distorted views of federal spending, so they might have favorable attitudes towards the programs that actually make up most of the government, but unfavorable attitudes towards a small number of programs that they think are eating up a huge amount of money, like foreign aid and welfare. Some amount of voters’ anger may simply be due to bad information. A 2011 CNN poll (in line with many other such surveys), found a great deal of ignorance as to how the government spends tax dollars:

According to the poll, on average, Americans estimate that foreign aid takes up 10 percent of the federal budget, and one in five think it represents about 30 percent of the money the government spends. But the actual figure is closer to one percent…. According to our poll the public estimates that the government spent five percent of its budget last year on public television and radio…. On average, Americans think the federal government spent 10 percent of its 2010 budget on pensions and retiree benefits; the OMB figures indicate the real number is about 3.5 percent.

A sizeable minority would like to see food and housing assistance for the poor on the chopping block, but Americans’ estimates of how much the government spends on those programs are three to four times higher than the actual price tag….

But the public, once again, overestimates the amount of military spending. They told us 30 percent in our poll. In reality only 19 percent of the 2010 budget went towards military spending, according to 2010 OMB figures.

(When people are told how much is actually spent on foreign aid, support for cuts drops by half.)

If voters understood government better, perhaps they would be less angered by it, though complaints about process and politicking would remain.

Notably, Trump voters are also more likely to feel positively about unions:


This fits with the general pattern of Trump voters not being doctrinaire economic conservatives.

Social conservatism

Trump voters are socially conservative relative to the country as a whole, but not relative to other Republicans. Ted Cruz was the candidate who captured the social conservative vote:


Salon looked yet again at the attitudes of Trump voters towards various groups, this time looking beyond race/ethnicity/religion. They asked “respondents to place various groups and political figures on a scale from 100 (very warm or favorable feeling) to 0 (very cold or unfavorable feeling).” (The graph’s title is unfair. A majority of Trump supporters report positive feelings toward blacks and Hispanics, for instance.) Relative to other Republicans, Trump voters had statistically significant colder feelings toward feminists, gays and lesbians, and transgender people:


Can we reconcile this hostility with Trump voters caring less about same sex marriage (assuming the discrepancy doesn’t just come from comparing to different sorts of surveys)? Perhaps this lack of warm feelings doesn’t translate into policy concerns. Social issues like this might just be less of a concern.

73% of Trump voters are strong supporters of gun rights, versus 66% of Cruz/Carson voters and 42% of Rubio/Kasich voters. I’m not sure what accounts for this, but people who think (incorrectly) that crime is rising are a bit more likely to oppose gun control, so perhaps part of the reason is that Trump voters are more likely to think that crime is rising, which would fit their sense that life is getting worse.

I couldn’t find any information on how Trump supporters in particular feel about “political correctness” (though they want a leader who speaks his mind), but I did find this amusing poll result:

In an October poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University, 68 percent agreed with the proposition that “a big problem this country has is being politically correct.”

It was a sentiment felt strongly across the political spectrum, by 62 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of independents and 81 percent of Republicans. Among whites, 72 percent said they felt that way, but so did 61 percent of nonwhites….

The PC backlash does not necessarily mean that people support the kinds of things that Trump is saying, or the way he says them.

When the Fairleigh Dickinson pollsters added his name to the same question — prefacing it with “Donald Trump said recently . . . ” — the numbers dropped sharply. Only 53 percent said they agree that political correctness is a major problem.

Foreign policy

Trump voters aren’t isolationists, but they are skeptical of engagement with the rest of the world. The Wall Street Journal found that 37% of Trump supporters said that the US should focus on problems at home rather than abroad, the highest among Republicans. Still, not a majority. The best data out there on foreign policy attitudes comes from this Pew study, which I’ll be drawing on. Again, Trump supporters take the hardest lines against the outside world.

54% say that the US does to much to solve the world’s problems, compared to 40% of other Republicans. Even so, a majority of Trump supporters (57%) also say that problems would be worse without American involvement, so some of the opposition must come from a sense of “Not our problem” than of feeling that involvement is counterproductive.

We’ve already seen that Trump supporters are more likely to support a complete halt to Muslims entering the US. Refugees are a major concern:

For those who back Trump in the primary campaign, the large number of refugees leaving Iraq and Syria is especially worrisome. More than eight-in-ten GOP voters who support Trump (85%) say the refugees are a major threat to the U.S., compared with 74% of those who prefer Cruz and 59% who prefer Kasich. Among Trump supporters, only the threat from ISIS (93% major threat) ranks higher than refugees, among the eight issues included. Among Democratic voters, just 40% of Clinton supporters and 34% of Sanders supporters view the refugee migration as a major threat.

Although Trump supporters say we’re doing too much to solve the world’s problems, that does not extend to further reducing America’s military footprint in the Middle East. In fact, they are as or more supportive of intervention than anyone else:


However, Trump supporters are by far the most skeptical of NATO membership. For supporters of every other candidate, Democrat and Republican, 80+% support NATO membership, with only 10+% opposed. Trump voters are the only ones who differ. 64% support membership, but 30% do not. This at least suggests a greater inclination towards a foreign policy based around unilateral use of force. If even NATO is a bit suspect, I can only imagine that the support for cooperation with other nations is even weaker.

Given that Trump supporters favor ground forces against ISIS two-to-one, they can’t rightly be called isolationists. This stance might appear to contradict their belief that the US does too much to fix the world’s problems, but as 93% of Trump supporters also see ISIS as a major threat, no doubt further military action in Mesopotamia is supported for the sake of America rather than the world. I think that there’s another reason though. The opposition to helping solve the world’s problems is mainly opposition to non-military aid. We’ve already discussed opposition to foreign aid, but Trump supporters are also the most opposed to increasing economic ties to the third world:


Somewhat inexplicably, there’s a lot of opposition from all corners to American businesses investing in developing countries. The exact wording, “Would you support or oppose increasing U.S. companies’ investment in developing countries”, seems innocuous. Maybe this is veiled opposition to offshoring? I don’t know. Lots of voters also think that American involvement in the global economy is harmful, but investing abroad would seem to increase national economic power.

Above you can see that Trump supporters are the most opposed to trade too, and free trade agreements in particular. Look at how many feel personally harmed by free trade agreements! That is a dramatic difference with everyone else.

Other than using force against ISIS (and presumably other terrorist groups), they seem to desire withdrawal from the world on all fronts. I think it’s fair to say that a typical Trump voter’s preferred foreign policy is one of economic autarky, minimal engagement with multilateral institutions, and major willingness to use force. This isn’t isolationism exactly, and it isn’t nation building. I would call it nationalism that believes we live in a zero-sum world.


Trump voters are conservative, but only by the standards of America as a whole, not by the standards of the Republican party. He draws much support from people who aren’t actually opposed to lots of government programs, or to abortion or same sex marriage. There’s no evidence that Trump supporters want cuts in spending or tax cuts for the wealthy. Social conservative issues don’t seem to be a motivator. There’s no one “conservative” foreign policy, but their opposition to trade and international engagement is at odds with Republican practice, though not their support of using military force.

Next: Trump supporters: authoritarians?

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