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Ethnic Change and Polarization over Immigration

In the American Public


This article explores the interplay between ethnic change and individual psychology in shaping mass opinion on immigration. Recent research highlights a personality cleavage underlying the left-right divide in American politics. Extending this into the domain of immigration, we argue this cleavage should be an important factor shaping citizens reactions to ethnic change. Using national survey data and a national survey experiment, we demonstrate that uncertainty aversion moderates the effect of perceived and actual ethnic change on citizens immigration attitudes. Our analysis reveals that ethnic change polarizes citizens by personality as those averse to uncertainty feel heightened cultural threat from ethnic change, while those open to uncertainty and novelty feel less threatened. As such traits are associated with left-right identifications, our results suggest that polarization of the American public over immigration, rather than being a mere product of top-down elite influence, is significantly driven by the interaction of citizen and context.

Word Count: 8,460

Keywords: immigration, public opinion, ethnic change, polarization, personality, ideology


The United States is growing more ethnically diverse each year, with steady immigration and a rapidly growing Hispanic population altering the sociocultural landscape surrounding many American citizens. What are the consequences of ethnic change for the politics of immigration in the United States? More specifically, what are the effects of ethnic change on citizens opinions on immigration? At present, the opinion literature on immigration comes up surprisingly short in providing a satisfactory answer to these questions. The lions share of studies in the opinion research analyzing Americans immigration policy preferences focus on the effects of the size of, rather than the change in, the immigrant populations surrounding citizens. Beyond the evident limitation of not directly addressing ethnic change, the results from studies addressing the effects of the size of immigrant populations are notoriously inconclusive. While lay intuition may suggest that immigration-driven ethnic change across the nation may explain observable patterns of nativist resentment and anti-immigrant sentiment among the American public, the empirical research has yet to establish a strong connection between growing immigrant populations and individual opposition to immigration.

In this article, we engage the question of the impact of ethnic change on mass opinion on immigration and offer two key innovations over the standard approach taken in past research. First, we explore the effect of over-time growth in, rather than the size of, immigrant populations as the key feature of these populations responsible for driving public opinion. Second, in contrast to previous research which largely assumes that the effects of ethnic context are uniform across all citizens, we offer a novel framework that explores heterogeneity in the effects of ethnic change on citizens attitudes toward immigration. Recent research demonstrates that a significant portion of the variance in ideological orientations in the contemporary American public can be explained by differences on a small set of core personality traits (e.g. Hetherington and Weiler 2009; Jost et al. 2003; Mondak 2010). Extending this perspective to immigration, we argue that this personality cleavage should be highly influential in shaping how citizens respond to ethnic change with important consequences for polarization of opinion across the left-right divide in American politics.

This article develops the differential adaptation hypothesis, which argues that substantial ethnic change should serve as an environmental determinant of opinion on immigration, but that citizens should react differently to ethnic change conditional on their relative aversion or attraction to epistemic uncertainty and novelty. The rapid influx of members of racial and ethnic out-groups can be viewed as threatening to existing cultural institutions, and implies uncertainty in ones environment and ones interaction with fellow citizens. As Jost and Hunyady (2005) note, There is a good match between needs to reduce uncertainty and the experience of institutional change as threatening, because preserving the status quo allows one to maintain what is familiar while rejecting the uncertain prospect of social change (p. 262). Such change could, however, also be viewed in a positive light, as diversity and opportunity enhancing. As Gerber et al. (2010) argue with respect to institutional change generally, It follows that this attraction to novelty and tolerance for complexity encourage not only overall liberalism, but also support for liberal social and economic policies, which typically involve new programs or interventions that overturn existing practices (p. 116). According to the differential adaptation hypothesis, there should be differential responsiveness to rapid demographic change across personality types, such that the uncertainty averse should see ethnic change as threatening, while those comfortable with uncertainty and attracted to novelty should find such changes desirable.

We test the differential adaptation hypothesis in two steps. In Study 1, using the 2005 CID national survey and data from the U.S. Census Bureau, we demonstrate that traits related to uncertainty aversion moderate the effect of local ethnic change on the perception that immigrants pose a cultural threat. In Study 2, we report the results of an internet-based national survey experiment that manipulated perceptions of ethnic change. The data from this study strongly reinforce the cross-sectional findings from Study 1namely, that citizens with a strong aversion to uncertainty are significantly more culturally threatened than their uncertainty-tolerant counterparts by induced perceptions of ethnic change. In addition to this core finding, we also demonstrate the political relevance of the interplay between personality and ethnic change through the estimation of a structural equation model linking perceptions of cultural threat to support for restrictive immigration policies. The results from our analyses demonstrate that the differential experience of cultural threat, across personality, in response to perceived or actual local ethnic change ultimately results in a substantial deepening of polarization on immigration policy within the American public.

In total, this article makes several important contributions. First, it contributes to the opinion literature on immigration. We move beyond group-size-based measures of ethnic context that tend to dominate the contextual research and instead focus on ethnic change as the principle feature of citizens ethnic context driving their opinions on immigration. Further, we reconcile tension between intergroup threat and contact theories by demonstrating heterogeneity in the effects of ethnic change, with change showing opposite effects across citizen types. And last, we demonstrate that the effects of ethnic change on citizens policy preferences are mediated by cultural threat perceptions, thus offering the opinion literature a mediated-moderated effects model of opinion formation on immigration. Beyond these specific contributions, we believe our paper also makes a more general contribution to the study of public opinion and political behavior. By assessing the interplay of large-scale, objective contextual processes and individual psychological factors, we fuse the macro with the micro into an integrated approach for understanding political behavior.


The ethnic composition of citizens residential environment has long stood as a primary factor hypothesized to account for public opinion on immigration. Underlying the research on the contextual sources of opinion on immigration rests the issue of identifying which aspect of immigrant populations is responsible for driving public opinion. A substantial body of opinion research exists that explores the effect of the size of the immigrant population surrounding citizens on their immigration policy preferences. The racial or power threat hypothesis (Blalock 1967; Key 1949), when translated from White-Black relations to the case of immigration, argues that anti-immigrant sentiment and policy support will be greater among citizens residing in more immigrant heavy areas (Hopkins 2010). This line of opinion research, however, has generated notoriously mixed results, with some studies finding limited evidence in support of the power threat hypothesis (Campbell, Wong, and Citrin 2006; Tolbert and Grummel 2003), other studies finding that residing near large immigrant populations reduces anti-immigrant sentiment and policy support (Fetzer 2000; Hood and Morris 1997), and the bulk of the research finding that the size of local immigrant populations exerts no significant effect on citizens immigration policy preferences (Cain, Citrin, and Wong 2000; Citrin et al. 1990; Citrin, Reingold, Walters, and Green 1990; Dixon and Rosenbaum 2004; Taylor 1998).

While several factors have been proposed to explain the inconsistency of results for group-size based measures of ethnic context, and the relative empirical weakness of the power threat hypothesis (e.g. degree of contact, Hood and Morris 2000; residential segregation, Rocha and Espino 2008), they ignore perhaps its most defining aspect, which is its focus on the size, rather than the growth, of immigrant populations. Hopkins (2010) argues that American citizens are surprisingly unaware of their demographic surroundings, and that occupational and residential segregation limit the visibility of im