Last week, in response to presidential candidate Donald Trump’s proposal that the U.S. ban Muslim immigrants, MSNBC host Chris Hayes tweeted …
If America was a multi-party parliamentary democracy, a National Front-style party would get, what, 30%?
— Christopher Hayes (@chrislhayes) December 7, 2015
Thirty percent seemed high to me (or at least I hoped it was high) and I thought I’d try to come up with a better estimate of the percentage of Americans who might support an American National Front party if we had a parliamentary system. I also wanted to explore who these people would be. But first a few caveats …
In the Land of Imaginary Politics
In some ways, considering any question about a parliamentary system in the U.S. is a bit like asking, “how would things be different if everything was completely different?” In part, that is because a parliamentary system would allocate representatives differently, shifting power away from low population states (e.g., Wyoming, North Dakota) that are overrepresented because of their mandatory one House seat and two Senate seats. A truly proportional system would be more urban, more coastal, more diverse, and almost certainly a bit more Lefty. The Democratic and Republican coalitions would also probably split into multiple parties. It’s quite possible that we could see a white working-class unionist party with some strong protectionist policies that might contend with the National Front for votes. Any case, there are a lot of “known unknowns” and probably a few “unknown unknowns.”
For the sake of this exercise, let’s assume a few things. First, I’ll assume that the U.S. National Front has the organizational and financial resources to operate a functional political party and field reasonably electable candidates. Second, let’s stipulate that the mainstream media regards the NF as a legitimate political party and treats them with the same commitment to the objectivity norm that we see with the Democrats and Republicans. Trump’s recent Muslim ban proposal caused a number of mainstream media outlets to break with that practice, calling it dangerous and racist. Finally, while the National Front is more or less a single issue party, they do have stances on other issues. For example, the National Front in France is pro-choice and pro-civil unions for same-sex couples (though opposed to same-sex marriage). Let’s chalk that up to the particulars of each country’s domestic politics and ignore the party’s secondary positions.
With all those provisos, let’s now explore how many Americans have attitudes that might align with a U.S. National Front party using data from the 2014 General Social Survey.
The American National Front
The National Front’s primary issue is opposition to immigration. The most basic question we can ask is, how do Americans feel about the current levels of immigration? The view that immigration should be reduced is, by no means, rare. A full 43.6% think immigration ought to be decreased – a minority, but a sizable one.
But there’s more to the National Front than just wanting to reduce immigration. The key to understanding them is that they see immigration as fundamentally destructive to the nation’s culture. Compared to the level of support for reducing immigration, far fewer Americans hold (or at least admit to) this view. Only 3% of Americans strongly agree that “immigrants undermine American culture” and only an additional 18.2% agree. Even among those who favor reducing immigration, only 29.4% see immigrants as undermining American culture at all.
Those who favor reducing immigration and see immigrants as undermining American culture – the key positions of the National Front – make up approximately 12.8% of the American public, according to 2014 GSS data. That makes it a fringe group.
Still, as Figure 1 shows, depending on the exact issue, up to half of Americans favor some of the views and policies of the National Front. A majority of Americans disagree that legal immigrants should have the same rights as Americans. About 35% agree that immigrants take jobs away.
Taken together, these results tend to suggest that a U.S. National Front could draw substantial support if they avoided the rhetoric of immigrants damaging culture and focused on policy.
Who are the core National Front supporters?
If we take only those who are on board for the full anti-immigrant slate (reduce immigration, shouldn’t have the same rights, take jobs away, hurt American culture), they make up only 8.2% of those that answered all of these questions in the GSS’s sample. That 8% would likely be the NF’s corest of core supporters.
But to expand that a bit, let’s assume that the NF’s cultural grievance is essential to the party’s nature and combine that with the issue dominating the news at the moment: closing the borders. That gives us the 12.8% previously mentioned, the largest group that matches up with the NF on both culture and policy.
Who are the core of an American NF? Surprisingly, they only partially fit with the popular image of Tea Party types. The group is 79.3% white, 57.8% female (yes, female!), has slightly higher incomes, and has a mean age about 3 years older than the rest of the sample (50.7 years). They are also much more likely to come from the South Atlantic region and only 17% of them have a college degree or higher. Perhaps, most surprising, they’re not all or even mostly Republicans as Figure 2 shows. In a multi-party system, a U.S. NF would probably draw votes away from the two current parties in relatively equal proportions.
In conclusion, Chris Hayes’ estimate of 30% is well above the 12.8% who are strongly aligned with the National Front’s views. The anti-immigrant sentiment that Trump is tapping into is not merely a subset of Republicans. Rather, it appears to be an ideological group that is concentrated among low education Southerners, but also one that spans the current parties. Though the cultural anti-immigrant argument does not resonate with most Americans, depending on how the party campaigned and who their opposition was, they might attract a larger pool of voters who agree with them on immigration policy.