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White backlash? Five intriguing points about immigration, race, politics and population dynamics

Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Zoltan Hajnal argues that immigration and political preferences have become inextricably linked in the United States.

While Donald Trump’s vitriolic rhetoric about immigrants (calling Latino immigrants “criminals” and “rapists,” for example) has scored thousands of headlines across the globe, political scientist Zoltan Hajnal said there is a growing number of white, working class Americans who back up those kind of beliefs. A political science professor at University of California, San Diego, Hajnal recently co-wrote the paper “White Backlash: Immigration, Race and American Politics.”

On Wednesday, he’ll be at UMSL at Grand Center to discuss “Race, Turnout and Bias in Local Politics” at 4 p.m.

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Hajnal joined host Don Marsh to discuss immigration, politics, race and population dynamics as it pertains to the predominant political parties today. 

Here are the five most intriguing points he made during the show:

The connection between your view of immigrants and your politics is increasingly inextricable

“Increasingly, over time, the connection between how you think about immigrants, whether you view them positively or negatively, and your political preferences has become increasingly tied,” Hajnal said. “Twenty to 30 years ago, those two things weren’t connected. Now, if you express concern, fear or anxiety about immigration/immigrants and undocumented immigrants, you are very likely to be Republican, vote Republican, identify with the Republican Party.  If you view immigrants more positively, you are much more likely to be a Democrat. It has become central and driving the increasingly large share of white Americans who are supporting the Republican Party.”

White, working class hostility toward immigrants stems from a loss of economic power

“If you look at the reality of immigration, if we look at the economics of immigration, we know that immigrants aren’t a massive burden on American society. Most economists argue that immigration helps our economy grow. We also have lots of evidence of immigrants not hurting us in other ways. What is the fear? Part of it is a world view. There’s a segment of society that’s afraid of change and change in all sorts of forms: immigration, globalization, technology. Especially if you are A, concerned about those changes, and B, in a position not to capitalize on them. A lot of this is driven by the white, working class. They feel the world is passing them by and that they’re losing. They once had a lot of power and they feel like they’re losing more of that power as we move forward.”

Fears over immigration are dividing Americans along racial lines as well

“[Immigration] is dividing us racially as well. You have increasingly, whites on one side, and racial and ethnic minorities on the other. Muslim Americans, Asian Americans are a good example of where those communities weren’t politicized or partisan a decade ago and Asian Americans are now overwhelming Democratic when they do vote and you see that with Muslim Americans as well. As these issues become more central, we become more racially divided and that has all sorts of potentially negative implications as far as conflict and tension go.”

In terms of population dynamics, the Republican Party is in a difficult spot regarding immigration

Using California as an example, Hajnal showed that when minority populations grow, the tide against immigration shifts. There was a wave of immigrant backlash in California in the early 90s, which has since shifted due to the fact that minority populations have become the majority population in California. California has shifted Democratic in the past few years and the Republican Party has stopped focusing so much on immigration, Hajnal said.

“There may be a point at which power shifts and this polarization ends on a national level,” Hajnal said. “I wouldn’t predict it happening in the very near future. This year, I would imagine when the votes are tallied in November that we will be in the most racially polarized election in American history. You can’t have one party demonizing large swaths of the population, immigrants and Muslims, and not have that impact the way that whites and racial and ethnic minorities are voting.

“The national minority population is growing, so Democrats have an advantage over time. The white population is declining and Republicans have gotten 90% of their votes from white Americans. Structurally, at a national level, Republicans are in a difficult position.”

In politically disengaged immigrant populations, there’s room for Democrats and Republicans to grow

“One of the other elements that is not talked about with both Latinos and Asian-Americans, is that both groups, the largest segment of the populations, is either apolitical or nonpartisan,” Hajnal said. “Of the active Hispanics and Asian Americans, they vote Democrat. But the larger segment is inactive and doesn’t know where they fit in American politics or doesn’t like the options that are available. That’s important because both the Democrat and Republican parties could begin to target that population. There’s a reason for both parties to move away from polarization and using race and immigration as a wedge issue and motivation to engage the immigration population and to do so with compelling policies and softer rhetoric. I’m hopeful that would happen but I don’t predict it will any time soon.”

Related Event

What: "Race, Turnout, and Bias in Local Politics: A Discussion with Zoltan Hajnal"
When: Wednesday, April 6 from 4:00 - 6:00 p.m.
Where: UMSL at Grand Center, 3651 Olive Street, St. Louis, MO 63108
More information.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.