Two years ago I reviewed the book Us Against Them: Ethnocentric Foundations of American Opinion by Donald Kinder and Cindy Kam. Given that we are in the midst of an election year I thought I'd bring this research back to your attention. The effects of ethnocentrism upon American political life should be of concern to every follower of Jesus.
Kinder and Kam define ethnocentrism as generalized prejudice, the propensity to separate the world into in-groups and out-groups. From Us Against Them:
...ethnocentrism is an attitude that divides the world into two opposing camps. From an ethnocentric point of view, groups are either "friend" or they are "foe." Ethnocentrism is a general outlook on social difference; it is prejudice broadly conceived.Ethnocentrism is the psychological tendency to separate our social worlds into "us" and "them." As a part of this process we attribute virtue to people similar to ourselves and vice to out-group members, people from different ethnic groups, nations, socioeconomic strata or belief systems. More, given these attitudes we are ready to help in-group members and thwart out-group members:
We define ethnocentrism to be a way of thinking that partitions the world into in-groups and out-groups--into us and them.
Ethnocentrism is a mental habit. It is a predisposition to divide the human world into in-groups and out-groups. It is a readiness to reduce society to us and them. Or rather, it is a readiness to reduce society to us versus them. This division of humankind into in-group and out-group is not innocuous. Members of in-groups (until they prove otherwise) are assumed to be virtuous: friendly, cooperative, trustworthy, safe, and more. Members of out-groups (until they prove otherwise) are assumed to be the opposite: unfriendly, uncooperative, unworthy of trust, dangerous, and more. Symbols and practices become objects of attachment and pride when they belong to the in-group and objects of condescension, disdain, and (in extreme cases) hatred when they belong to out-groups. Ethnocentrism constitutes a readiness to act in favor of in-groups and in opposition to out-groups...What does it mean to say ethnocentrism is generalized prejudice? We tend to think prejudice is group specific, and it can be. For example, one might have very negative feelings about a particular out-group (e.g., Whites, Blacks, gays, Muslims, etc.). However, the research on ethnocentrism has revealed that prejudices tend to cluster together. Thus, if we hear a person make a comment about blacks on welfare we can make a good guess about where this person stands on gay marriage or immigration reform.
What are the sources of ethnocentrism? In Us Against Them Kinder and Kam show evidence that ethnocentrism, across ethnic groups, is generally uncorrelated to various political positions (e.g., party identification, views on limited government). Among Whites there are some slight trends. Among whites ethnocentrism is, albeit weakly, correlated with political conservatism, a distaste for egalitarianism (e.g., social welfare to produce "fairness"), social distrust, and a desire for a more limited government. Generally, however, ethnocentrism is a force in American life that is distinct from other, more commonly discussed, political variables. Consequently, ethnocentrism needs to be examined as a political force in its own right if we are going to get a true and accurate sense of the dynamics involved in American policy debates.
Interestingly, ethnocentrism declines with increasing education. The most important factor appears to be college education. As Kinder and Kam summarize the data: "Based on these results, it would seem that education, and especially the experience associated with higher education, build tolerance and erode ethnocentrism."
The bulk of of Us Against Them is devoted to examining how ethnocentrism influences how certain Americans approach various policy issues and hot button topics. Kinder and Kam are keen to note that ethnocentrism does not have an effect on every political topic. Rather, ethnocentrism is activated when a particular political issue, or a media framing of the issue, is presented as an "us against them" conflict. Sadly, this "us against them" frame fits many of the issues currently facing America. Thus, while ethnocentrism doesn't affect every political debate is does influence public opinion on a wide variety of topics. In Part 2 of Us Against Them in Chapters 4-10 Kinder and Kam use two different measures of ethnocentrism to predict attitudes on a variety of political topics. Summarising, ethnocentrism predicts the following:
- An aggressive, hawish foreign policy stance.
- Less empathy for foreign civilian casualties in America's wars (e.g., the deaths of Iraqi women and children in the War on Terror).
- Less support for foreign aid and assistance.
- Support for anti-immigration policies and protective measures to preserve "our American" culture from the effects of immigration.
- Opposition to gay rights.
- Opposition to policies, such as affirmative action, aimed at redressing historic inequalities between blacks and whites.
- Opposition to means-tested welfare (i.e., programs for low-income persons) such as Food Stamps or Medicaid.
- Support for social insurance welfare, such as Social Security and Medicare.
So we sort of like the welfare state. More precisely, we like social welfare that is for us. But we are against welfare for them.
These are some of the reasons for why I think some of the opposition to the Affordable Care Act is driven by ethnocentrism.
Anyway, ethnocentrism--generalized prejudice--is out there this election year. It always is. It's called sin. So do your best to fight these tendencies within your own heart and help raise the political discourse between now and November.