The Democratic Consequences of Anti-immigrant Political Rhetoric: A Mixed Methods Study of Immigrants’ Political Belonging

Abstract

Anti-immigrant political rhetoric is proliferating in Europe, inspiring research to examine the potential effects on public opinion. However, studies of the reactions of first- and second-generation immigrants—the objects of this rhetoric—remain scarce. This article argues that political rhetoric should be treated as a context of integration affecting political outcomes, in particular political belonging. To that end, the article combines qualitative evidence from focus group discussions conducted in Denmark, a high-salience context, and quantitative evidence from cross-national survey and party manifesto data from 18 Western European countries over a 12-year period. In addition to demonstrating a negative mean effect, the analyses show that those most in focus of contemporary political messages (Muslims and immigrants with shorter educations) are most affected, suggesting a sophisticated processing of political rhetoric. In contrast, traditional explanations concerning structural incorporation, generational integration, and exposure to rhetoric are not supported. The article discusses the implications of the results for democratic inclusion in contemporary Europe.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Throughout the text, “immigrant” refers to both the first and second generations. The reasoning behind looking at effects on both generations is that much of contemporary political rhetoric focuses not only on immigrants but also on their children, born in the country of residence. In the statistical analysis, generation effects are formally tested.

  2. 2.

    In addition to the intrinsic importance of political belonging, perceptions of exclusion may reduce engagement in the political life of the nation because it is not considered meaningful or “worthwhile to perform one’s civic duties” (Campbell et al. 1954, p. 187). It may also be connected to decreased willingness to support and comply with public policy (Michelson 2016). Examining these hypotheses is beyond the scope of the article, but the considerations figure as a backdrop for broader discussions of political alienation.

  3. 3.

    Crul and Schneider (2010) are not alone in pointing to the importance of contextual factors. The theory of segmented assimilation (Portes and Zhou 1993) stresses that different types of barriers in the receiving environment may push some immigrant groups away from “straight-line” assimilation to downward mobility. In this article, I discuss the perspective offered by Crul and Schneider because it is geared specifically to the European situation of cross-national (more than local and cross-ethnic) variations.

  4. 4.

    Respondents are considered first-generation immigrants if both they and their parents have been born outside of the country of residence. Second-generation immigrants have been born in the country to parents who have not. Excluded from the analyses are respondents born in the country to parents born in the country.

  5. 5.

    The study is restricted to Western European countries to avoid too much unobserved variance at the country level. In addition, the flavor of anti-immigrant political rhetoric is more comparable within Western Europe than across East and West. Countries included are Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.

  6. 6.

    The analyses reported in the next section are based on this absolute measure of negative political rhetoric, since the focus group participants emphasized anti-immigrant rhetoric and even seemed to disregard examples of positive messages that came up in the discussion. This is in line with Helbling et al. (2016) finding that inclusive appeals are ineffective for impacting the majority population’s view on the nation. However, all analyses were also performed with a ratio measure (following Helbling et al. 2015): \(Ratio\,measure\, = \,\frac{{{\text{Multiculturalism}},\,{\text{negative}}\, - \,{\text{Multiculturalism}},\,{\text{positive}}}}{{{\text{Multiculturalism}},\,{\text{negative}}\, + \,{\text{Multiculturalism}},\,{\text{positive}}}}\)

    I note when results from these analyses differ from analyses with the absolute measure.

  7. 7.

    This is the only case where choice of rhetoric measure makes a difference, since generation moderates the relationship between the ratio measure and political trust (but not satisfaction with democracy). While first-generation immigrants appear unaffected by political rhetoric using the ratio measure, second-generation immigrants display lower levels of political trust when confronted with a greater proportion of negative-to-positive messages.

  8. 8.

    Note that although likelihood ratio tests do not suggest the need for a random slope for neither education nor religion, interaction terms were specified based on theoretical reasoning. The fact that the interactions of education and political rhetoric, respectively religion and political rhetoric are statistically significant testifies to the higher power of testing an interaction directly compared to testing for a random slope (Snijders and Bosker 2012, p. 106).

  9. 9.

    One may wonder whether this effect is indeed driven by differences between religious groups or between people with different regions of origin. As people of the same origin often share religious affiliation, disentangling these effects in the quantitative analysis is difficult. However, results are robust to adding a control for region of origin. Unfortunately, this control leads to more than 3000 missing respondents, which is why I do not include it in the reported analyses. Insights from the qualitative analysis add important leverage to the interpretation of the moderation effect as demonstrating the negative impact that contemporary European political rhetoric has on Muslims. While the focus groups were comprised of participants with very different ethnic backgrounds (Somalian, Syrian, Pakistani, Palestinian, and Moroccan), varying in phenotypical and cultural traits, the focus group discussions uniformly highlighted the dominance of attacks on Muslims and Islam (cf. Table 2).

  10. 10.

    Other groups may also be affected by political rhetoric. In particular, the tendency for the working class to abstain from politics in recent decades is seen in the literature as a function of the departure of traditional political parties from using class-based rhetoric and appeals (Evans and Tilley 2017). However, while politicians may have forgotten the working class, they do not portray blue-collar workers as not belonging to the political community. This likely offers them a sense of worth and political belonging, after all, which can be utilized, for instance, to claim their status against immigrant groups (Lamont 2000).

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Acknowledgements

I am grateful for helpful comments from the anonymous reviewers, former editor Professor Peterson, current editor Professor Radcliff, participants at the 2017 American Sociological Association Conference and participants at the Centre for Immigration Policy Evaluation workshop, Concordia University.

Funding

Internal Grant, Department of Political Science, Aarhus University.

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Correspondence to Kristina Bakkær Simonsen.

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Appendices

Appendix 1

See Table 4

Table 4 Composition of focus groups on central background characteristics

Appendix 2. Transcripts of Video Clips Shown During Focus Group Sessions

Statements from Three Local Politicians, TV2 Østjylland, Sep. 29, 2016, 7:30 pm

  1. 1.

    I know you can go to school, e.g. as a pupil, or to work, but if in your spare time you socialise with Muslims, watch Al-Jazera, and in general you are a Muslim when you come home, and pray, and so on, and support sharia law, then you can definitely not say that you’re Danish.

  2. 2.

    What I think is most important, that is that you live by the Danish norms and the Danish values and that you won’t work against them. And then, there is also something we call a Danish democracy, and you need to fully respect that and when you do that, then you’re a Dane.

  3. 3.

    If you have all kinds of special demands—it could be about what you eat or how you are in relation to change of clothes and waterparks and swimming and gymnastics, then you’re not Danish. No matter how long you’ve lived here and whether you have Danish citizenship. But if you agree to be part of Danish democracy and the Danish culture, then of course you’re Danish—also with a foreign mom or dad.

Facebook-Video ‘Freedom for the People’, Ida Auken (Uploaded June 16, 2015)

I think we need to pull ourselves together. I think we should welcome the people who come here. And we need to remember that Denmark is a country which has a strong tradition, a strong culture, which easily can take outside inputs. We have existed for hundreds of years, and we shouldn’t talk down to our own country like that, in the sense that we think that because someone comes here with another culture, then we are destroyed. Quite on the contrary, throughout history we have become stronger, smarter, richer from letting ourselves be inspired by other countries and other ways of doing things. So I hope that Denmark again can be a “high-ceilinged” country, with room for differences, with freedom to not look completely alike, and to do things in slightly different ways. Then I hope we will properly welcome the people who choose to be in Denmark.

Appendix 3

  Model 1a Model 1b Model 1c
Direct effect Moderation by religion Moderation by education
Gender (male) 0.002 0.002 0.002
(0.003) (0.003) (0.003)
Age − 0.000 − 0.000 − 0.000
(0.000) (0.000) (0.000)
Second-generation immigrant (first = ref.) − 0.034*** − 0.034*** − 0.035***
(0.004) (0.004) (0.004)
Citizen of country − 0.030*** − 0.030*** − 0.030***
(0.003) (0.003) (0.003)
Religion (other = ref.)
 Muslim 0.023*** 0.039*** 0.024***
(0.005) (0.006) (0.005)
 No religion − 0.030*** − 0.035*** − 0.030***
(0.003) (0.004) (0.003)
Education in years 0.001* 0.001* − 0.000
(0.000) (0.000) (0.000)
Employment status (paid work = ref.)
 In education 0.029*** 0.029*** 0.029***
(0.006) (0.006) (0.006)
 Unemployed -0.010 -0.009 -0.010
(0.006) (0.006) (0.006)
 Out of workforce − 0.007 − 0.007 − 0.007
(0.004) (0.004) (0.004)
 Other 0.007 0.006 0.008
(0.012) (0.012) (0.012)
TV news consumption 0.000 0.000 0.000
 (hours/week) (0.002) (0.002) (0.002)
Political interest 0.088*** 0.088*** 0.089***
(0.005) (0.005) (0.005)
ESS round (1 = ref.)
 2 − 0.004 − 0.004 − 0.004
(0.006) (0.006) (0.006)
 3 − 0.001 − 0.001 0.000
(0.006) (0.006) (0.006)
 4 0.010 0.010 0.011
(0.006) (0.006) (0.006)
 5 0.007 0.006 0.007
(0.006) (0.006) (0.006)
 6 0.013* 0.012* 0.013*
(0.006) (0.006) (0.006)
 7 0.014* 0.014* 0.015*
(0.006) (0.006) (0.006)
Foreign-born population 0.001* 0.001* 0.001*
  (0.000) (0.000) (0.000)
Foreign-born unemployment 0.000 0.000 0.000
  (0.000) (0.000) (0.000)
Mean political trust in majority population 0.833*** 0.834*** 0.833***
  (0.023) (0.023) (0.023)
Negative political rhetoric − 0.005*** − 0.004* − 0.021***
  (0.002) (0.002) (0.004)
Muslim (other = ref.)*   − 0.016***  
Political rhetoric   (0.004)  
No religion (other = ref.)*   0.005  
Political rhetoric   (0.003)  
Education in years*    0.001***
Political rhetoric    (0.000)
Constant 0.073*** 0.074*** 0.086***
(0.014) (0.014) (0.014)
N 17,800 17,800 17,800
  1. Standard errors in parentheses
  2. *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01, ***p < 0.001

Appendix 4

  Model 2a Model 2b Model 2c
Direct effect Moderation by religion Moderation by education
Gender (male) 0.014*** 0.014*** 0.014***
(0.003) (0.003) (0.003)
Age 0.000 − 0.000 − 0.000
(0.000) (0.000) (0.000)
Second-generation immigrant (first = ref.) − 0.035*** − 0.035*** − 0.036***
(0.005) (0.005) (0.005)
Citizen of country − 0.039*** − 0.038*** − 0.039***
(0.004) (0.004) (0.004)
Religion (other = ref.)
 Muslim 0.032*** 0.044*** 0.032***
(0.005) (0.006) (0.005)
 No religion − 0.023*** − 0.029*** − 0.023***
(0.004) (0.004) (0.004)
Education in years 0.001** 0.001** 0.001
(0.000) (0.000) (0.000)
Employment status (paid work = ref.)
 In education 0.036*** 0.036*** 0.037***
(0.006) (0.006) (0.006)
 Unemployed − 0.027*** − 0.027*** − 0.027***
(0.006) (0.006) (0.006)
 Out of workforce − 0.012** − 0.012** − 0.012**
(0.005) (0.005) (0.005)
 Other − 0.004 − 0.004 − 0.003
(0.013) (0.013) (0.013)
TV news consumption − 0.003 − 0.004 − 0.003
(hours/week) (0.003) (0.003) (0.003)
Political interest 0.040*** 0.040*** 0.040***
(0.006) (0.006) (0.006)
ESS-round (1 = ref.)
 2 − 0.001 − 0.001 − 0.001
(0.007) (0.007) (0.007)
 3 0.008 0.007 0.008
(0.007) (0.007) (0.007)
 4 0.012 0.012 0.013*
(0.006) (0.006) (0.006)
 5 0.006 0.005 0.006
(0.006) (0.006) (0.006)
 6 0.009 0.009 0.010
(0.006) (0.006) (0.006)
 7 0.015* 0.015* 0.016*
(0.006) (0.006) (0.006)
Foreign-born population 0.001 0.001 0.001*
(0.000) (0.000) (0.000)
Foreign-born unemployment 0.001 0.001 0.001
(0.000) (0.000) (0.000)
Mean satisf. w. democracy in majority population 0.854*** 0.855*** 0.853***
(0.022) (0.022) (0.022)
Negative political rhetoric − 0.006*** − 0.007** − 0.016***
(0.002) (0.002) (0.004)
Muslim (other = ref.)*   − 0.012**  
Political rhetoric   (0.004)  
No religion (other = ref.)*   0.006*  
Political rhetoric   (0.003)  
Education in years*    0.001*
Political rhetoric    (0.000)
Constant 0.112*** 0.114*** 0.121***
(0.016) (0.016) (0.016)
N 18,330 18,330 18,330
  1. Standard errors in parentheses
  2. *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01, ***p < 0.001

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Simonsen, K.B. The Democratic Consequences of Anti-immigrant Political Rhetoric: A Mixed Methods Study of Immigrants’ Political Belonging. Polit Behav 43, 143–174 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-019-09549-6

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Keywords

  • Political rhetoric
  • Immigrant integration
  • Political incorporation
  • Political belonging
  • Mixed methods