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Authoritarianism and White Opinion Toward Demographic Change

Fri, August 31, 10:00 to 11:30am, Hynes, 209


According to Census projections, the United States will become a majority-minority nation by the year 2043. As the nation moves steadily toward this demographic future, a number of scholars have explored the impact that these anticipated demographic changes may have on the political behavior and public opinion of white Americans (for review see Craig et al 2017). These studies, primarily using white opinion toward a majority minority nation as an explanatory variable, have found that whites who are opposed to, or at least aware of, this demographic future are more likely to: express more hostility toward racial outgroups (Outten et al. 2012), support more conservative policy preferences (Craig and Richeson 2014), identify more strongly with the Republican Party (Craig and Richeson 2014), and to support the candidacy of Donald Trump (Major et al 2016). Taken together, these studies suggest that whites view this change as a threat to their historically hegemonic status in the U.S., and react to this change by expressing in-group favoritism, stronger in-group identification, and out-group hostility (Craig et al 2017).

While these studies have expanded our understanding of how whites react to the news of this demographic future, to date there have been no empirical investigations into the nature of white opinion on the change to a majority minority nation. More precisely, we know very little regarding the distribution of white opinion concerning this shift, the central determinants of white opinion on this issue, and whether and which perceptions of threat best predict white opinion. As a result of this shortcoming, we lack a complete understanding of the potential impact of demographic changes on white opinion and behavior.

Given this shortcoming, we investigate the mechanisms driving white opinion toward the nation’s demographic future. In our paper, we hypothesize that while white opposition to a majority minority nation springs from a number of individual and contextual level factors, a key component in understanding white opposition to this change is found in the theory of authoritarianism. Recent studies have defined authoritarianism as a predisposition that leads individuals to: value uniformity, reject diversity, and respect authority figures that wield their power to ensure the conformity necessary to maintain the status quo (Stenner 2005; Hetherington and Weiler 2009; MacWilliams 2016). For some scholars, most notably Stenner (2005), authoritarianism is activated only when a “normative threat” appears in the sociopolitical environment, leading citizens high in authoritarianism to rely more intensely on this predisposition in shaping their individual opinions (Stenner 2005). We hypothesize that the impending demographic change to a majority minority nation is viewed by a non-trivial portion of white Americans as a normative threat, and thus authoritarianism will emerge as a significant and substantive determinant of white opinion on this issue.

In testing this hypothesis, we first rely on original cross-sectional survey data from: (1) a module of the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study and (2) the 2016 National Authoritarian Study. Here we explore the utility of authoritarianism relative to other important factors – partisanship, ideological identification, white group identification, racial animus, and racial context – in accounting for white opinion on this issue. Second, in order to strengthen our causal claims, we couple these cross-sectional analyses with the results from an original survey experiment embedded in our module of the 2016 CCES in which respondents were randomly assigned to a treatment where the temporality of the normative threat – the year in which the nation will become a majority minority – was randomized (between the years 2018 and 2068), and then were asked their opinion on the change to a majority-minority nation.

Our preliminary results suggest that authoritarianism is among the central predictors of white opinion on this issue. Additionally, we find that altering the year which the nation becomes the majority minority does influence white opinion, with whites who are primed to think that the change will occur sooner more likely to express opposition to this change relative to white respondents who are primed to think that this change will occur later in the century. This finding is especially pronounced among white authoritarians, further supporting our claims regarding the import of authoritarianism in accounting for white opinion. We take our results as evidence that authoritarianism plays a key role in accounting for white fear over the demographic future of the nation.


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