Voters are upset about disarray at the US-Mexico border and the increase in illegal crossings under President Biden. But they also reacted negatively to former president Trump’s crackdowns. In both ways, immigration has become more important in our politics, making it more like Europe. Ernesto Tiburcio finds that flows of unauthorized migrants into the US have moved Americans and local governments in a conservative political direction. Areas that have seen more unauthorized flows start voting more Republican and redirect expenditures away from services and toward enforcement. But the backlash may run both ways. In Europe, Alexander Kustov finds that radical-right party success has softened views of immigrants and immigration. But his work also finds that anti-immigration voters prioritize the issue more than those who favor immigration.
Matt Grossmann: The two sides of the immigration backlash, this week on the Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. Voters are upset about the U.S.-Mexico border and the increase in illegal crossings under President Biden, but they also reacted negatively to former President Trump’s crackdowns. To what extent are voter reactions driven by actual on-the-ground circumstances where they live? And to what extent should we expect them to always move against the direction of policy? Immigration has become more important in our politics, making it more like Europe. This week we learned from new research on both sides about voter reaction to immigration itself and anti-immigration politics. This week I talked to Ernesto Tiburchio of Tufts University about his new paper with Karen Roscamarena, the Local Reaction to Unauthorized Mexican Migration to the U.S. He finds that flows of unauthorized migrants into the U.S. have moved Americans and local governments in a conservative political direction and areas that have seen more unauthorized immigration start voting more Republican and redirect expenditures away from services and toward enforcement.
But the backlash may run both ways. I also talked to Alexander Kustov from the University of North Carolina Charlotte about his public opinion quarterly article with James Dennison, Reverse Backlash. In Europe, he finds that radical right party success has softened views of immigrants and immigration, but his work also finds that anti-immigration voters everywhere prioritize the issue more than those who favor immigration. Voters seem to react to real immigration and real political threats to immigration with some key differences in the United States, but also some factors that fit the global pattern. To start, I asked Ernesto about the key findings from his new paper on the U.S. So what were the biggest findings and takeaways from your new paper on backlash to unauthorized migration in the U.S.?
Ernesto Tiburcio: Hi. Hi, Matt. Thank you. Thank you for having me in the podcast. What Karen Roscamarena and I found is that the inflows of unauthorized Mexican migration generate a conservative response at the local level in the U.S. This conservative response has two dimensions to fit. One is an electoral response, and what we see is an increase in the vote for the Republican Party in federal elections. We study House elections and presidential elections both in midterm years and presidential years. That’s the electoral response. And in policy terms, we also see a conservative change that is consistent with the Republican Party, and this is a decrease in total expenditure. At the local level, we study expenditures of all local agencies inside local governments, inside of a county geographically. So county governments, city governments, townships, special districts, and school districts, which had declining in total expenditure and a decline in education expenditure, which is the largest, as you know, at the local level in the US.
And we see an increase in the relative share of expenditures that go to policing and the administration of justice. In terms of magnitudes, I’m going to tell you specifically for the electoral responses, a one percentage point increase in the flow of unauthorized Mexican migrants, which is equivalent from going to percentile 25 to percentile 75 in our distribution. That 0.1 percentage point increase raises the voucher for the Republican Party in House midterm elections by one percentage point broadly speaking. Is that a lot or a little? Well, in our period of analysis that goes from 2010 until 2018, in those three midterm elections, there were around a hundred races at the county level. Granted not at the electoral district level, but at the county level that were decided by less than one percentage point. So we think that this reaction to the inflow of unauthorized Mexican migrants could have actually decided elections, legislative elections.
Matt Grossmann: So describe these new measures that you have of unauthorized migrants and why they matter.
Ernesto Tiburcio: We use a confidential data set on unlikely unauthorized migrants who obtained a consular ID in one of the over 50 Mexican consulates in the US. We are not the first ones to use this data set, but we are the first ones to use this data set to study the effect of flows of unauthorized migrants in the US. The working assumption, our working assumption, and that of people that have used this data set in the past is that migrants or everyone who obtains a consular ID is almost everyone unauthorized. And the reason for that is that authorized migrants can obtain IDs issued by government agencies in the US. So if you can obtain an ID that would more useful, why not doing that? Right? The relative value of a consular ID is significantly higher for people that cannot have access to other types of identifications.
And in the manuscript, we make a correlation between the share of or number of unauthorized migrants, Mexican migrants in a county using our measure with the number of unauthorized migrants using other measures. For example, the classic residual method that among others, Piri, Mylan, and Stangras use. And there’s a strong correlation. So it’s not like we are measuring a very different population. As I said, there is an important overlap, but we think that we are better able to capture this specific population of unauthorized Mexican migrants. Importantly though, the Mexican government through the consulates do not ask at all for migration status. So it’s just the assumption that we make. And again, we’re not the only ones that make that assumption, but that assumption is widely shared.
Matt Grossmann: So you also consider both economic and more cultural prejudice explanations or mechanisms for your findings. And I know there’s been somewhat of a wider debate trying to differentiate those, but mostly finding that they work in tandem. So where’s your work, what are your findings and how does it place within that research?
Ernesto Tiburcio: Yeah, so again, the Alicina and Tabellini literature review, besides pointing at this general conservative response, they also highlight two different sorts of explanations behind the conservative response. One is something that I call economic grievance or that others call economic grievance, which is the idea that there might be certain competitions in certain sectors that might generate this conservative response. And the other is the existence of non-economic mechanisms. That could also explain that there might be no job loss, no changes in wages, no changes in the manner or supply of absolutely anything, but there might be some sort of distaste for migrants in general. And the literature shows evidence in favor of both. We engage with that literature and test different mechanisms. So before telling you what we find, the hypothesis that we were able to reject, let me tell you the hypothesis that we were not able to reject, meaning the results that are not statistically significant.
So influence of unauthorized Mexican migration do not have a discernible effect on average wage levels, average employment levels, average… Or not average, just unemployment levels and crime levels. And this is very important. I think that highlighting these null effects is almost as important as highlighting all the statistically significant effects. And also in line with a bunch of literatures, right? The literature on migration and crime and the economic effects of migration. So no general effects there. We do find evidence in favor of three interrelated mechanisms. Now, this paper is not a paper about the mechanisms, so we cannot really tell the timing and how they interact with each other. We would need an additional instrument, but at least we can shed light on these general trends, these variables that are moving along with electoral and policy responses. So one is we observe what we think is formal job loss in migrant intensive sectors.
So we see a decline in formal employment in the sector of construction and in the sector of hospitality and leisure. Now, since I told you that we do not observe a general decline in employment levels, I should tell you that we can increase informal employment in manufacturing. So we observe some sort of job switching, but that nonetheless, this job switching may be economically challenging for people that are losing their jobs. And we also observe a marginal increase in poverty that we think is associated with this job loss or this we call it temporary job loss. So that’s the first mechanism. So support for economic grievance. Second, we see evidence in favor of two non-economic mechanisms. The first one is an increase in negative bias against the outgroup. We use the replication files of a famous paper, 2020 paper by Ben Enke who studies the correlation between measure of universalism, moral universalism, and political behavior, and these changes at the county level.
So it matches our measure of inflows very well. And what we see is that these inflows decrease this measure of relative universalism. And what relative universalism is this… It comes from, again, from the replication files from Enke, and it’s based on the Humorals survey, the Humorals questionnaire. And what this says is that people place less moral emphasis on the outgroup relative to the ingroup. You can think of the ingroup as people from your own religion, your own racial group. So citizens place less moral emphasis on or more moral emphasis on the ingroup relative to the outgroup. Ingroup is the group that I told you. And the outgroup is people from a different background, a different group. They can be migrants themselves. So that’s the other thing that we see. Interestingly, these effects seems to be stronger or concentrated in areas that see more economic grievance.
So we think that these two might be related. Again, this is suggestive evidence, but at least they tend to move together, this bias and economic grievance. So that will be the second mechanism. And the third mechanism, and this is linked with the literature of the effects of internal migration in the US is that inflows of unauthorized Mexican migration generate white flight and residential sorting. We see that the white population in the counties tend to decrease, and we see more out migration. Now, this compositional effect, we know two pieces of the compositional effect. We know that the racial piece, we know that there’s less white population in these counties, and we know that the people that leave is relatively non-poor people. But we do not know whether these people are more Republican, more Democrat. That complicates a little bit the analysis because we don’t know if we’re estimating a lower bound or an upper bound of our effects.
It may well be the case that people that are leaving are relatively more Democrat, but that they may also have a distaste for migration if the people that were leaving were Republican, as we would be estimating a lower bound. So that’s the third mechanism. And we think that this is important because it links, as I said, with the literature on the effects of internal migration in the US. For example, all the literature on the great migration and how the inflow of black citizens from the south generated white flight and other changes in cities in the north.
So yeah, we represent evidence in favor of both mechanisms. Now, we do not find any heterogeneity based on county characteristics except for one. Areas that have a more progressive taxation. And we proxy progressive taxation by the ratio of income to sales taxes. So areas that have a more progressive taxation or where the safety net covers a larger share of the poor population. Here we use TAMF. This is at the state level. So states where TAMF covers a larger share of the poor population of the state. Those areas see consistently a more muted response, both in terms of the main political effects and the mechanisms, which we suggest that there is policy able to mitigate the reaction that we observe.
We don’t know exactly how the mitigation occurs. We think that this probably has to do with compensation of economic losers. So that supports the economic hypothesis that we’re testing. But since the economic hypothesis are linked also with a measure of negative outgroup bias, we don’t know exactly how that operates. But we do know that these areas that are, by the way, not particularly liberal areas, are areas that are better able to, or that can mitigate the effect.
Matt Grossmann: But somehow we get to these pretty broad political effects, election results between the main two parties, expenditures at the government level. So how do we get to there from these more immigration specific views or attitudes? One story, because I’m thinking, I’m comparing it to say in Europe where there’s an obvious kind of anti-immigration party that you could support in many places, or people might look at referendum effects where there’s more direct angle in people’s minds from immigration to their political behavior. So one story is that it is an immigration specific thing. It moves some people’s immigration views, move them to another party or change their views of local government. But another is that this is just one thing that’s making people more conservative overall or siding with the right over the left. Do we have any way of parsing that or which do you think?
Ernesto Tiburcio: That’s a great question, and I see this as an area of opportunity to keep looking at exactly what is driving this conservative response. And I absolutely agree that there can be two interpretations to this. This might be just simply an anti-migrant response. And there’s probably some truth to that. I don’t think that this can be answered by fully one or the other explanation, but that’s one. And the other one is that there might be something, some idea or prejudice attached to this group that correlates well with conservatism, but that is not necessarily anti-migrant itself.
For example, as I said, this idea of somehow breaking the law, maybe some people would be okay with migration, but they might be averse to irregular migration, because in their minds, and I should stress this, there is an easy way to come to the US regularly. That’s, as we know, very complicated. So the idea is, “Well, if there was a way for migrants to come here in a documented and authorized way, I’ll be fine with that.” So it’s hard to disentangle, but I think that should be the next thing to do, to try to see where the variation comes from. And yeah, as I said, a challenge of the US political landscape is a two-party system, and these two parties capture preferences in a lot of different dimensions. So the advantage of studying a European setting is that there are parties that differ in dimensions by margin, by a little bit in this and that dimension. So it’s easier to approximate the reasons for the reaction, whereas here, that’s why we don’t specifically and explicitly call it an anti-migrant response, just a conservative response.
Matt Grossman: So let me ask a little about that in relation to current events, because the public has moved more against immigration under President Biden, there is lots of attention to unauthorized migration flows at the southern border. But some of the mechanisms for at least the immigration attitudes were fairly abrupt, like immediately after Biden was elected compared to Trump. People had been liberalizing their immigration attitudes, then immediately upon the election, they shifted gears and were more restrictive in their attitudes. And then they became more restrictive maybe as they saw migration. So it seems like you’re fitting your geographic effects in the context of what is a broader pattern of fairly abrupt political thermostatic reaction. So help me place the broad reaction with your more specific geographic findings.
Ernesto Tiburcio: So I would say that, and this is really linked to the previous question, I would say that a big shortcoming, and probably just given that we don’t have data, and this is not a published paper, shortcoming or an area of opportunity for paper is the role of the media. And I think that if we see migration flows, they clearly increased significantly in the last two years, but they did not increase, let’s call it, discontinuously once the administration changed. So if attitudes, and taking your premise as given, which I have not really seen the attitudes, but taking your premise as given that attitudes can change almost discontinuously when the administration change, then there is something else that might be explaining why attitudes are changing. And I would guess that the media is playing a big role there.
One thing in our setting, these results are robust to controlling for inflows in different parts of the US. For example, it seems to be the case that attitudes change based on what’s happening in the county, but not on what’s happening on the capital of the state, or based on what’s happening on the closest largest metropolitan area. But that’s also a little bit challenging to test because maybe people are also reacting. We’re thinking that we’re really estimating the effects of changes in the local area, but it is possible that changes in the national narrative or in certain areas also have an effect that can be probably well-estimated and an additional effect to these. And my sense is that if attitudes are changing in parts of the US that are not seeing an increase of migration, well this probably because ideas and preferences can be moved by what’s happening in another part of the country. And that is something that I’m very interested in testing.
So yeah, a very interesting phenomenon is that, if I understand correctly, the bulk of migrants in the past two or three years does not come from Mexico. So it would not show up in our data. We would need a different data. We would need, for example, to use ACS five and their residual method to try to map migration or migrants across the country. But my guess is that this is a different type of migration. This is something unique. Something unique is happening these years in that the composition of migration from south and central America has changed. And now we’re seeing more migrants from, for example, Venezuela.
Matt Grossmann: So what about the potential for reverse effects that might favor Democrats or pro-immigration attitudes? So under Trump, there was a nationwide move toward more pro-immigration attitudes. There was a very visible kids-in-cages southern border coverage that liberalized attitudes, and some people have found affected election results. I know that your paper is framed as if we had zero, here would be the effect on elections versus an increase helping Republicans. But is there any sense that the reverse could also be the case, that when there is a big cutting off of migration, that you would see a liberalizing effect?
Ernesto Tiburcio: Yeah, that would be interesting to test, and maybe I would start there by looking at the effect of a decrease in migration or maybe a negative net migration, for example, on the labor markets, on the local labor markets. And my guess is that maybe that, and again, taking into consideration the role of political entrepreneurs and the media can really boost support for migration. If, for example, we’re seeing, and I was reading an article today, that there is a decrease in labor supplying key industries due to apparently restrictive migration and not enough migrants working there. So my sense is that that can generate support for migration not only for more numbers, but for a change in migration policy that would allow to have a more stable labor supply in those sectors in the short, medium and long run. So I would say that that’s probably one of the mechanisms by which migration could help or migration flows could help increase the voucher for Republicans, for Democrats, sorry, and eventually change in migration laws.
Matt Grossman: So the other interview for this episode is with Alexander Kustov, and one of his findings is that, at least in Europe, but he believes in the US as well, that success of radical riot or anti-immigration parties actually moves voters in favor of immigration and immigrants. So I know that you didn’t necessarily study the reverse backlash, but how do you think about it as a two-sided phenomenon? Would you think there would be the potential for both backlashes in each direction?
Ernesto Tiburcio: Yeah, what you’re describing would be, if I understand correctly, some sort of dynamic effect. There’s an inflow of migrants, then there are attitudes that change in an anti-migrant way, which leads the public to react in a more pro-migrant way. I think that is possible again, but since that would be easier to look in Europe because certain parties are fundamentally the anti-migrant party, and that’s it. In the US, the set of preferences that these two parties capture are bundled. So it would be harder to test, but I can see how maybe a shock, I think that that could really create a change, a very strong shock to migration could eventually lead to a demand for more migration.
But my prior would be that that would have to be such a large and directly linked, a very hard to link to migration that then the response of the electorate should be, “We want specifically more migration.” And given how parties react, I would think that there could be probably an internal response by parties, by being more pro-migrant. That would be a more endogenous reaction. Otherwise, it would be suicidal for a party to do something that then it would become so unpopular and then not take a reverse stance. We are seeing in other issues how that has been the case where a party supported something that the party thought was popular, then the party realized that that was not popular at all, and then the party’s being punished by that in elections, and now certain members of the party are reversing and saying, “Well, actually, we’re not really that opposed to that.” So my sense is that we could see that happening if migration becomes a very salient issue in a different direction, not we want less migration, but we want more migration. And then maybe we would see some sort of backtracking from said party.
Matt Grossmann: Another one of his findings is that anti-immigration voters consistently care more about the issue than pro-immigration voters across the world. And so that might relate to your findings in the sense that one interpretation is that the whole area, or at least the people who are economically impacted, are all moving a little bit rightward, and some of them, that changes their votes. But another interpretation is there’s going to be some kind of a polarizing thing. Some people will like it, some people won’t. Maybe the benefits will be more widely distributed, so everybody will get a little bit, and maybe some people will move in a pro direction while others are moving in an anti direction. But it’s just that it’s not motivating for anybody who’s pro-migration. So what do you think of those two potential interpretations?
Ernesto Tiburcio: I agree. I agree that migration plays a larger role for certain people, and probably those are the people that are… That’s a variation that is explaining the results. And I think that interpretation supports the evidence that we find for the labor market. Certain sectors are declining formal employment, formal employment in certain sectors is increasing. So one could say, “Well, on net, we should observe nothing.” But actually probably the people that are losing their jobs are people that have certain views and people that are moving to the right. And again, what is interesting or what I think is not evident is that migration is always a politically salient topic, even for those people that really care about it, that is somehow immutable. Because as our heterogeneity analysis finds is that maybe these people, maybe people that can be compensated, maybe they would care less about migration eventually, maybe they care so much about migration because migration, in their minds, has a certain set of consequences, and maybe they leave those consequences themselves. But if they see more migration and those consequences are not there, then maybe migration would become less politically salient.
Now, it is true that some people might care more about migration, but also might care about specific type of migration. Maybe people would care less if migrants, and this is something that I think we’ve seen in the literature, if migrants have certain characteristics that align with their personal characteristics. That’s something that, for example, [inaudible 00:31:15] found that migrants that come from players that came from places in Europe in the early 20th century that had I think the same religion or not a large linguistic distance, then maybe the reaction against those migrants was more muted. So what I would say, going back to the question is that, yes, it’s probably true that only some people that are generating these effects, but my guess is that even the preferences of those people could be changed with policy that are not immutable.
Matt Grossmann: So the policy implication that you discuss in the paper is about the ability of state and local governments to potentially minimize these effects. But there’s a much more direct policy implication that would be that Biden’s negotiating right now to strengthen border enforcement, and he should go all in because it’s going to benefit him directly electorally in the next election. So how do you think about that? And how should political observers or practitioners interpret your findings?
Ernesto Tiburcio: I think that hinges on one assumption, and the assumption is that that would dramatically reduce migration. I think that is unclear. I think that, as Michael Clemens said, migration is like a $1 billion bill on the street. We know that the economic returns to migration are very large, so the cost would have to change so much for people around the world, not just in the US, but around the world for migration to stop. Now, I’m not saying that migration cannot be organized and migration cannot be controlled, and that the numbers cannot decline, because I think, again, the migration numbers that we’re seeing right now are very large, even for US standards.
Matt Grossmann: So one interpretation of your results is kind of consistent with a pretty pessimistic view of people’s view of migration and kind of the overall literature. But another is that you find pretty rational reactions here. These are people reacting to things happening in their communities. The people who are mostly affected are the people who are reacting more. And so maybe this isn’t people just reacting to media stories or hyped up controversy. How should we interpret it kind of along that dimension?
Ernesto Tiburcio: Yeah. Yeah. If anything, as I said, I want to explore the role of the media, but we think that these effects are the reaction to inflows in their communities. And people are reacting, but what I want to highlight is that maybe the things that the media is highlighting are not things that are happening at the local level, right? So it’s not true that people are voting more for the Republican party and local governments are increasing the expenditure in police and the administration of justice because there is more crime. We cannot really see the relationship between one another, but we see that these things… We don’t see more crime, and we see more expenditure in one thing, in policing and the administration of justice. It’s not true that people are losing their jobs because unemployment rates are not changing. So I think I can see why an external reader or reader can see these results as pessimistic, but I would encourage the reader to read until the end of the paper and see that there is policy that mitigates their response that we’re seeing.
Matt Grossmann: For a broader global view, we now turn to my interview with Alexander Kustov, who’s recently found a backlash to hard-write anti-immigration politics, but also has found some reasons why anti-immigration politics resonates. Here’s my interview with Alexander. So what were the biggest findings and takeaways from your new public opinion quarterly article, Reverse Backlash.
Alexander Kustov: So in short, we find that after radical and anti-immigration parties win elections, voters tend to support immigration more. So a lot of people are rightly worried about the code immigration backlash, the idea that any significant pro-immigration advancement, whether it’s in terms of being friendlier to immigrants or having more immigrants around can be counterproductive because it’s going to help radical right parties and politicians come to power, and so we’ll crack down on all those advancements and more. In our paper, what we do is we’ll look at what happens to public attitudes to what immigration after that, right? And we start with the premise that politics is a dynamic game where a lot of people disagree with each other. And for every action, there is a contrary action. So in our case, the success of populist and anti-immigration parties might signify that there is a lot of voters who are dissatisfied with how the government is handling the issue, but that’s really mean that the public itself become more opposed to immigration.
Anything we find, it’s the opposite. Basically for every voter who dislikes immigration, there is another one who dislikes anti-immigration politics, and populist politicians even more probably.
Matt Grossmann: So you study 24 European countries over several decades, but give us some of the names and predominant trends that people might be able to connect this to. What’s been happening in Europe over these decades?
Alexander Kustov: Yeah. So I would say that in urban general, there has been a pretty steady rise in populist radical right parties with some increase of positive attitudes. There was some pause in radical rights success just before COVID. But with the recent success of the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, the Swedish democratic, the [inaudible 00:37:22] in Germany, it’s sort of all back in the news right now. Of course, all of these general trends, they mask all of those important differences between countries. So if I remember correctly, I think in Italy and a lot of the Eastern Europe for instance, we’ve been experiencing a lot of growth of both radical and anti-immigration attitudes at the same time, while in western Europe, the picture is much more mixed. It’s also important to know that in the background of all that, there has been a significant increase in the immigration numbers, including the two major refugee waves, right? Also, a lot of ambiguous policy change where countries are trying to stop humanitarian migrants and externalize border control, but also at the same time trying to open up to skilled immigration.
So there’s a lot of stuff going on with immigration in Europe and more generally.
Matt Grossmann: So you find that radical right party success makes immigration attitudes move leftward, but it doesn’t change economic conservatism or other views. So help us kind of contextualize that, especially the American-centric listeners. Do these parties stand out only on immigration? What other kinds of effects would you expect? And are they concentrated where there’s been a real policy change in immigration or where the major parties are responding to these radical right parties?
Alexander Kustov: Right. So as usual, it depends on a particular country, but I think it would be fair to say that a lot of those parties are primarily anti-immigration parties. Some of them might have conservative views on gender and sexuality, but very few would challenge the predominant economic policies of the mainstream parties. And even if they do, it’s usually all about excluding immigrants from those welfare benefits as opposed to constraining those benefits in general. Yeah, so it’s a mixed bag, but that’s why in the paper, we just use it as a placebo check, because we don’t really expect people react to the success of this party in any way in terms of changing their economic ideology.
Matt Grossmann: And when they succeed, are they really changing policy and making it more restrictive, or is this just kind of a rhetorical rise of anti-immigrant views that’s causing these changes in public opinion?
Alexander Kustov: Yeah, so my view on that is that it’s a mixed bag. There is some evidence that they’re not quite successful, obviously themselves in terms of changing any policies or attitudes. I think there is some research that looks at what happens to mainstream parties, whether they adopt their rhetoric and policy positions, and whether it causes any change. I think in general, if there’s any effect of those parties in terms of long stream and downstream immigration policy is due to the changing policy positions of the mainstream parties. And there’s some limited evidence to that, but I don’t think there is much going on in that respect.
Matt Grossmann: So give us a sense of what the analysis was. I know you had these 24 countries you’re looking at within country changes. What did you actually do to analyze this?
Alexander Kustov: Right. So we are looking at basically just a time series cross-sectional dataset where we have some kind of indicator of agreed public opinion as an outcome, and then some indicator of radical right success as an independent variable. We try to be as open to various interpretations and operationalizations of how we think about both of those things, but what we find is that regardless of how you actually define those dependent, independent variables, there is always a positive relationship, the one that we find.
Matt Grossmann: But you also have some countries with very little radical right party success in your data set, but still some aggregate changes in immigration views. So I guess what else would you expect to be in the model for driving these changes?
Alexander Kustov: Yeah, so I certainly think that this kind of pro-immigration reaction that to the popular success that we document is not a primary reason behind any kind of robust that will change to the extent it may exist in some countries. So in my other backlash paper from the Journal of European Public Policy, in my upcoming book, I show that policy change is probably one of the main sources of long-term attitudinal change. So the idea is basically when governments pass programmatic for immigration policies that are largely in line with public opinion, it can help generate and sustain more support for immigration, basically. Obviously, the underlying reality of immigration itself is important. I’m not so sure about the immigration levels themselves. So it’s a mixed bag. Basically, if we just look at it [inaudible 00:42:24]. Most of the places with very pro-immigration attitudes are usually very high on immigrants themselves, right? So places like London, all of the urban cosmopolitan places.
Obviously, the causal identification here is very tricky, but I think what we do see is that any kind of large scale in rapid immigration flow or change in the immigrant population can certainly increase the salience of the issue. And as my co-authors James Dennison and Andrew Geddes show in their political quarterly piece, it can actually be even more politically consequential than people’s underlying opinion. So just in terms of, again, the correlation, people’s sense of how important immigration is to them is usually more correlated with the success of radical right and how many people actually oppose immigration to begin with.
Matt Grossmann: So you contrast your story with, one, emphasizing social norms and the end of stigma. So kind of play out why there might be people who would expected the opposite of what you find, and whether you think it doesn’t materialize at all or it’s just kind of canceled out by other factors.
Alexander Kustov: Yeah. So there’s some good evidence for the negative normative impacts of radical right success from both the US and Europe. And my reading of all of those things is usually they’re confined to voters who already oppose immigration. The idea here is that when you support those parties and candidates and they are successful, you are now more emboldened to actually express reviews publicly right and be more openly anti integration, and even discriminate folks in the public. So it’s very concerning, and we certainly don’t want to dismiss that, but we also believe that the potential countervailing. And aggregate effects are important as well. So in our paper, we don’t focus on how the radical rights success may impact different voters in a different way, mostly due to data limitations. But this would certainly be a great follow-up if there are any grad students listening to this podcast. If someone has good cross-national longitudinal data where we interview the same people over time, I think that would be great. Yeah. And obviously, we do see that the success of radical right is polarizing the electorate ideologically, right?
So there was this really great paper, if I remember correctly, in AJPS by Daniel Bishop and Marcus Wagner that shows precisely that, that when populist and radical right parties enter parliament, people become more ideologically polarized after that.
Matt Grossmann: So how well do you think your story fits your fits the American case? I know that the data doesn’t stretch to the United States, but certainly Trump’s rise in success within the Republican party and nationally seems to have produced something of a pro-immigration backlash. Do you think the story fits? And was it for the same reasons?
Alexander Kustov: Yeah, I think the American case fits our story pretty well. In fact, one of the biggest motivations for our paper was exactly the somewhat surprising pro-immigration dynamic that we observed during the Trump years. And also a similar immigration shift some folks documented post Brexit in the UK, which is also Brexit itself is not in our dataset, right? So what we wanted to do basically is to see whether it generalizes the same dynamic to a much broader set of elections and countries. And it seems to generalize pretty well. I think a good follow-up research to that would obviously extending this data to OECD countries more generally, right? Again, incorporating the US case, Canada, Australia, and many other countries and see whether it would still check out or not.
Matt Grossmann: So somewhat like clockwork, as soon as Biden was elected, immigration attitudes seem to be moving back rightward under Democrats, and that suggests, at least to me, that there were some expectations that immigration policy would change under Biden. Then there were some actual changes in policy and immigration flows. What do you see in Europe? Do you see that when the radical right is defeated or when it goes down in power that you see more anti-immigration attitudes, or is that more traditional backlash, not present?
Alexander Kustov: Yeah, I actually think that the increase of stated public opposition to immigration during Biden is a very important country trend that is worth emphasizing more. I feel like a lot of folks, including immigration researchers and advocates and stakeholders have still not quite internalized it fully. So in my JOP paper, they’ve actually finished in 2019, which feels like a long time ago, we show that attitudes are generally stable, and we cautioned the readers in the conclusion that the recent pro-immigration trends in the Trump years that you described may not last very long. And I remember the reviewers were very skeptical, but I think ultimately were proven. And so even now, I see constantly people share this famous gallop immigration attitudes chart with the presumption that immigration ideas can only go up and be more positive. But again, if you add a confidence intervals to it, it’s like my pet peeve, right? And account for recent increases in negativity during Biden politicization, partisan polarization over the issue. I’m not sure the picture is as optimistic on immigration anymore, right? And so when it comes to similar dynamic in Europe, I think they should totally apply to.
I don’t think there were as many prominent defeats of the far right after they were already in power, but I would definitely be on the lookout of what’s happening in the UK after Labor presumably takes control of the government and what happens in the Netherlands in the next election, Sweden, for sure.
Matt Grossmann: So the other paper for this episode is about the more traditional backlash, especially with respect to new measures of unauthorized Mexican migration, and they find that that increases Republican support and does so through both an economic and prejudice kind of mechanism. So I guess that seems more like the traditional backlash that people have in mind. How would you fit your story in with that?
Alexander Kustov: I saw Ernesto’s great paper and [inaudible 00:48:52] immigration, the causal identification is always very tricky. So I think kudos for that. I think his evidence makes sense. I don’t think it contradicts our evidence much. I think, in general, even correlation, there is a lot of data that we have that people just may react negatively to any demographic change or policy they don’t like politically by voting for different parties and whatnot. I think it would be interesting to see. I don’t think he had immigration attitudes as an outcome. I think it would be interesting to see what happens and if the increases in unauthorized immigration that he documents that are exogenous to some extent, so whether they also lead to more negative immigration attitudes, which I would expect to, but can be a good followup.
I think it’s also important to emphasize that, I think, that paper focuses on unauthorized immigration in particular, which is an important part of the story, especially in the US, but not the whole thing. There is some evidence, if I remember, by Steven Liao and colleagues in Nature Human Behavior, where they showed that exogenous local increases in legal and skilled immigration make people actually more positive toward immigration. So as usual, the devil is in details.
As I also do in my other backlash paper in the Journal of European Public Policy, I would also differentiate between people’s reactions to immigrant presence, in particular immigrant flows and potentially the policies that affect those flows, and the reactions to political rhetoric and the party system in general, which we focus more in our paper. So these are obviously very related things, but still distinct. So it’s possible that people might react negatively to immigrant presence, but not rhetoric or the other way around.
Matt Grossmann: So you mentioned in the paper that this is a potential case of thermostatic reaction or related to theories of thermostatic politics where policy moves voters in the opposite direction. So of course, we have canonical evidence, especially from spending, that when spending goes up, people’s preference for more spending goes down and vice versa, but it seems like this is a different case in several different ways. So how would you compare your story to that baseline model?
Alexander Kustov: Yeah. I remember when we just published the paper, a bunch of people co-tweeted it with a thermostat picture. My understanding of the regional thermostatic theory as proposed by Chris Wiesen is all about how people react to policy changes in terms of their stated relative preferences. So if government increases spending, for example, voters are more likely to say that they want it reduced, which doesn’t necessarily mean that they changed their absolute preferences in terms of the ideal amount of spending.
I feel like there’s some tendency of just assume that anything that goes back and forth is thermostatic. So our story, I think, is more in line in with some interpretations of the thermostatic model that take into account belief cues and basically how people learn about policy changes to begin with. So basically, it means that, in our case, the thermostat is not really about people’s ideal policy views on immigration, but more about the direction of the party system and what constitutes an acceptable opinion in the political environment.
So in the UK, that would be, for instance, the average voter probably thought that Trump went a little bit too far when it comes to immigration, while Biden is not doing enough on the issue, despite the fact that a lot of stuff happening, a lot of policy changes, a lot of changes in numbers, border encounters, things like that, but I think that the overall wipe is Trump was anti-immigration, so we need less of that, Biden is pro-immigration, so we need less of that, too. So that’s the idea.
Matt Grossmann: It is different, but it doesn’t sound like the mechanism is necessarily that distinct. Couldn’t voters here basically be reacting to real or expected policy change? Just that when the radical right gains power, if you’re somebody who wanted immigration reduced, maybe you’re just assuming that there’s already enough pressure to do that, at least some of those people, and then people who had wanted it stable might feel like, well, actually, now there’s even more reason that we need to emphasize our pro-immigration views.
Alexander Kustov: Yeah. It’s complicated. In my other backlash paper, I’m looking at how people react to, actually, pro-immigration policy changes, whether there’s any thermostatic reaction. I actually find there’s none. So when government pass … So I do subset it for programmatic pro-immigration policy changes when it comes to increasing legal, family, and work migration. So it’s not all migration. And I find that, if anything, when governments pass those pro-immigration forms, people become more positive. So there’s no thermostatic reaction at all. It’s possible that when people just imply or they might not know about those reforms or whatnot, but it seems like, I think, the party system and party cues here are very important to the overall story. It’s really hard to single them out.
Otherwise, we know that, from a lot of research, people are not very knowledgeable about the political system for a good reason. They have other things to do in their lives. That’s why, actually, I’m a huge fan … There’s one interpretation of thermostatic model by one of my colleagues, Mel Atkinson, at UNC Charlotte. She recently had a book at Cambridge [inaudible 00:54:27] where they proposed the implied thermostatic model, which I think is more in line with what we’re talking about, too.
Matt Grossmann: So in other work, you’ve found that anti-immigration voters tend to care more about the issue than pro-immigration voters, but it seems like this is not contradictory, but at least a different kind of story where, at least with radical right party rise, maybe people might start to care more about the issue on the pro-immigration side. So do you think that there’s any tension there, and is it possible that what you found in the other paper is just more about the anti-immigration side usually losing because of immigration increasing and that the losing side is more mobilized?
Alexander Kustov: Yeah. In my mind, it’s all connected and not contradictory at all. I do think that in terms of how much someone cares about issues may change and the prospect of loss can certainly be mobilizing, and actually exploring this right now in the followup research with the Russell Sage Foundation, but what I find in my British Journal of Political Science paper is that people who happen to be anti-immigration, for whatever reason, they are always considering it more personally, nationally important than those who happen to like it. And what was fascinating to me is that it’s virtually true across all years in countries that we have data on, no matter how you measure it, and regardless of whether anti-immigration side is actually losing in a particular context.
So I think this is just something more primal psychological. I think it is related to the idea that loss and threat is more mobilizing than the potential gains of immigration. I think it would be interesting to think about what happens when, actually, we’re not just talking about the success of radical right, but actually, they take over completely, maybe that something’s going to change things a little bit. But I haven’t seen that, so I didn’t do the test that you proposed or anything, but I would be skeptical, but I think that that’s an interesting idea, for sure.
Matt Grossmann: One thing we didn’t talk about in relationship to the other paper is that there’s this long-running, I don’t know if it’s a debate, but a question about the extent to which anti-immigration views are driven by economic circumstances or prejudice and some sense some findings that they go together, that economic circumstances might relate, but be primarily acting through prejudice. So how do you think about it in relation to the other direction? Is it possible that voters are learning about economic implications here? Do you view this as primarily a social cultural attitude unrelated to economic circumstances?
Alexander Kustov: Yeah. I personally don’t like this debate. I think it’s much more illuminating to think about sociotropic versus egotropic perceptions and causes as opposed to cultural versus economic. And the idea here is that it’s more about whether people care about what’s happening to them personally as opposed to what’s happening to their country or community as a whole. And I think those things can both be cultural and economic. I think a lot of people, and there’s a lot of research on that, shows that people don’t really distinguish those things really neatly in their minds. So if you are concerned about the negative impacts on immigration on your community and your country, a lot of it can be about the proliferation of foreign languages that you don’t like. Something can be about different cultural values or something can be about economic and job losses of others in your community.
So I don’t know, I think a lot of those things are not as separated as we want them to be. I think a lot of this research that tries to separate cultural and economic factors, it just looks at subsequent survey questions that asks about economic things or cultural things, but in the end of the day, if you plug them in a correlation, they’re very highly correlated and a part of the same underlying dimension. So I personally don’t think there is much going on between cultural and economic factors. There is also some interesting research that shows that cultural and prejudice factors can be activated by economic losses, too, so they’re interrelated, too. So I’m not saying that there is nothing there, but for me, I think it’s more important to talk about sociotropic versus egotropic factors, to be honest.
Matt Grossmann: You said you could reconcile all of your work together, but you also have important work that shows that immigration attitudes are remarkably stable and then you’re investing a lot of energy and showing what happens when they change. So how would you reconcile that usual stability, especially in response to changes in the political environment, with the potential for backlash that you find?
Alexander Kustov: Yeah. Our stability paper in [inaudible 00:59:26], politics is pretty nuanced. So I think now it holds even more true than before, I would say. And so what we find there specifically is that attitudes are stable within individuals and robust to various kind of shocks in longitudinal data, and mostly because they’re probably rooted in those stable personality traits and predisposition that we know are stable. So what that means in practice is that, if we interview the same people over and over again across many years, they might slightly change their stated opinion for some question in response to various events, like the recession or the success of radical right parties for that matter, but they will more likely than not to go back to their initial position in the end, and that’s what we observed there.
We do acknowledge that those short-term shifts that we also document in this reverse backlash paper may be important, especially if it happens within the same electoral cycle, just before the elections, for instance, but it’s important to understand that those attitudes are still generally stable. And we also show that young people in particular can change their attitudes. So if someone is socialized during the Trump years as opposed to the Biden years, they might come to view immigration differently just because of that, and I think this is very important, too, for the longterm change in opinion.
Another thing that we also acknowledge is that, even though attitudes are generally stable, even in the long run, so obviously, there is a very significant institutional change or shock, there’s literally a revolution in a country, I think people might change their attitudes toward immigration, if not other things, for sure.
Matt Grossmann: Anything you want to tout about what’s next for you or anything we didn’t get to that you want to include?
Alexander Kustov: Two things. First, [inaudible 01:01:19] finish up my first book manuscript right now entitled In Our Interest: How to Make Immigration Popular, which is the culmination of a lot of the stuff that we’ve been talking about today. So in short, I argue that the only way to make immigration popular is actually to implement better immigration policies for governments that people can actually see it working for them in the long run. In other words, there is no easy behavioral fix. You cannot just change the way you talk about immigration or educate people that immigration is actually good, you have to show it to them. So stay tuned. It’s going to come out hopefully soon.
Matt Grossmann: What are the national-level cases for that book?
Alexander Kustov: Global. It’s all global, but I actually think, for me, the most convincing evidence comes from my qualitative comparison of Canada and Sweden where I think … So Canada has basically the most clear demonstrably beneficial side of immigration politics, where people who are regularly not really knowledgeable about politics actually know about the system, and it’s point-based, and it’s supposed to be designed in their interest, while in Sweden, it’s basically the other way around, where there is no even rhetorical allusion to national interest, usually, until very recently, and despite the fact that Sweden is the most cosmopolitan country in the world, people are not really happy with the way the government is handling immigration there. So there’s a limit to how much you can do in immigration just based on humanitarian intentions alone, just because, in fact, there are very few people who actually adhere to those kind of humanitarian impulses. And even those folks, as I show, they usually care about national interests more than anything else.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center, and I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. If you like this discussion, here are the episodes you should check out next, linked on our website; Anti-Immigration Politics: Is California’s Past the Republican’s Future; Is White Identity Causing a Backlash Against Immigration; Republicans Successfully politicized Ebola, Can They Do it Again; Values and Racism in American Immigration Views; and How Does the Public Move Right When Policy Moves Left? Thanks to Ernesto Tiburcio and Alexander Kustoff for joining me. Please check out The Local Reaction to Unauthorized Mexican Migration to the US and Reverse Backlash, and then listen in next time.