Economic and Racial Attitudes in a Comparative Perspective

By Jordan Klein (@J_D_Klein)

“Economic populism” and “identity politics” are mutually exclusive, the pundits tell us. Progressives can either embrace an agenda of economic justice, downplaying (or even moving to the right on) issues of race, identity, and immigration; or they can embrace racial justice, downplaying economic and kitchen table issues, but not both. While some countries’ ideological landscapes may suggest some invidious trade-offs be made between emphasizing these two priorities, at least in the United States we don’t have to; they go hand in hand.

The World Values Survey and European Values Study have been conducted every few years since 1980. Looking at data from countries in the Organization for Cooperation and Development (OECD), a group of industrialized peer countries of the United States, we built statistical models to explore the association between economic ideology and racial resentment cross-nationally.

We created an index for economic ideology from data on attitudes towards economic redistribution, the appropriate role of the state in the economy, and economic competition. We used data on attitudes towards people of other races and immigrants to construct an index for racial resentment. Adjusting our models to control for education and religiosity, we find a strong association between left-leaning economic views and lower levels of racial resentment (and between right-leaning economic views and higher levels of racial resentment) in the United States. Interestingly, this relationship is stronger in the United States than it is in other countries.

The interactive visualization below shows a cross-national comparison of trends in the association between economic ideology and level of racial resentment over time. A higher value indicates a stronger association between left-leaning economic views and lower levels of racial resentment, and vice versa, while a lower value indicates a stronger association between left-leaning economic views and higher levels of racial resentment, and vice versa.

The following interactive visualization gives a closer look at the dynamic between economic ideology and levels of racial resentment in each OECD country’s most recent survey since 2008. It shows the relative probabilities of someone having each level of racial resentment at each specific position across the left-right economic ideological spectrum.

We can see that in the United States, someone on the left of the economic ideological spectrum is most likely to have a very low level of racial resentment, and as we move from left to right, people become less likely to have very low or low levels of racial resentment and more likely to have moderate, high, or very high levels of racial resentment.

The United States’ strong link between economic and racial progressivism puts it in the company of a small group of countries like Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Spain, where recent elections have featured left-leaning parties campaigning on progressive platforms across both economic and racial justice issues pitted against right-leaning parties campaigning on conservative platforms across both of these issue sets.

Such ideological alignment on economic and racial issues is relatively rare. Across most of the countries we’ve studied -- including Great Britain, Australia, and Germany -- we see a weaker or even reversed relationship between attitudes on economic and racial issues. We can see such a dynamic manifest in many European parties on the left worryingly turning against freedom of movement. The countries where being farther to the left on economics is meaningfully associated with higher levels of racial resentment include Slovakia, Portugal, and Hungary, and Poland, where the far-right, anti-immigrant Law and Justice party has pushed for a British-style universal healthcare system. In spite of this, our results also suggest progressives around the world should have reason for hope; across all OECD countries, we find that left-leaning economic views have been becoming more strongly associated with lower levels of racial resentment over time.

To further investigate why the relationship between economic ideology and racial resentment differs across the countries we’ve studied, we looked at data at the country-level for the following: number of political parties (adjusted for vote share), ethnic diversity, cultural diversity (measured by linguistic diversity), immigrants as a percentage of the total population, income, income inequality, percentage of the population with a university degree, and a history of fascism or communism. We built statistical models using these factors to predict the association between economic ideology and racial resentment, and found that the model containing ethnic diversity, cultural/linguistic diversity, income inequality, and a history of communism was most predictive.

Controlling for the other factors, we find economic and racial progressivism are more likely to be strongly linked in countries with greater ethnic diversity, less linguistic diversity, less income inequality, and without a history of communism. A plausible explanation for this finding could be that countries with people from different ethnic backgrounds, with small income gaps between them, who are able to communicate with one another are more likely to develop cross-ethnic solidarity. Additionally, formerly communist countries have to contend with ideological traditions of left-wing economics being wrapped up with authoritarianism.

The graphs below show the association between economic ideology and racial resentment vs ethnic diversity, cultural/linguistic diversity, and income inequality, respectively, controlled for the other factors. The United States has more ethnic diversity, less linguistic diversity, and it goes without saying, more income inequality than its peer countries. However, we can see that the United States is above the trendline in each of the three graphs, meaning given its levels of ethnic diversity, linguistic diversity, and income inequality, economic and racial progressivism are more strongly linked in the United States than our model would predict.


Do our findings call for a celebration of American exceptionalism? Probably not, but they do call for a recognition that the United States appears to be comparatively very well positioned for a progressive movement that advances both economic and racial justice. These issues do after all have a long history of being intertwined in the United States, since before the civil rights era. This historical tradition may be a plausible explanation for why economic and racial progressivism have a stronger association in the United States relative to its peer countries. Progressives in the United States should not give into the false premise that they must choose between prioritizing economic or racial justice. More broadly, the fights for economic and racial justice around the world are becoming increasingly intertwined. To more effectively fight for them in one country, we must fight for them in all countries.

Jordan Klein (@J_D_Klein) is a quantitative research methodologist and incoming PhD student in Demography at Princeton University.

The visuals can also be found on Shiny here and here.

A methods report, table of results, and code for this project are linked.

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