Home > News > Republicans and Democrats are more polarized on immigration than parties in the U.K. or Australia. Here’s why.
71 views 7 min 0 Comment

Republicans and Democrats are more polarized on immigration than parties in the U.K. or Australia. Here’s why.

- August 16, 2018

The family separation policy, the “travel ban,” the threat of a government shutdown if Congress doesn’t fund a border wall: Both as candidate and now as president, Donald Trump has consistently made his opposition to immigration the center of his politics.

Of course, he’s not the only politician to do so. For several years now, immigration has been roiling politics all over the world. The United Kingdom’s Brexit vote was driven in part by resentment over the free movement of migrants across Europe. And in Australia, one member of parliament recently called for a “final solution” to the “immigration problem,” while debates continue to rage over whether immigration boosts the nation’s economy or strains its infrastructure and identity.

Of these three countries, our recent survey suggests, U.S. public attitudes about immigration are by far the most polarized by party.

Part of this has to do with Trump’s embrace of anti-immigration policies, which has prompted Democratic voters to move left on the issue. But it also reflects differences in the three countries’ political party systems. In the U.K. and Australia, citizens with strong nativist sentiments have found a home in radical right minor parties, whereas in the United States, lacking viable minor party options, strongly anti-immigrant voters mostly identify with the Republican Party.

How we conducted our surveys

This conclusion comes from a series of studies we conducted in late June and early July in the United States, Britain and Australia. The nationally representative surveys, fielded by YouGov, had sample sizes ranging between 1,010 and 2,002.

In the survey in each country, we asked respondents a series of questions designed to tap, among other things, what scholars refer to as “nativism,” an ideology that holds that countries “should be inhabited exclusively by members of the native group.

As part of this larger study into populism and the radical right, we asked three questions about immigration. We have used these as a proxy to measure nativist attitudes.

The questions asked whether, first, immigrants take jobs away from people born in the country; second, things would be worse if all immigrants who wanted to come were allowed in; and third, migrants’ assimilation to local culture and traditions was important. We define as “nativists” those individuals who agreed to all three of these statements.

Overall, the level of nativism in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia were virtually identical: 23 percent of U.S. respondents, 22 percent of U.K. respondents, and 24 percent of Australian respondents.

Wide gaps in nativism between Republican and Democratic voters

But when we looked at which parties the nativists support, we found very different patterns.

To determine which party respondents supported, we asked them how they would vote if an election for the national legislature was held the day they took the survey.

As you can see in the figure below, according to our calculation, 55 percent of Republican voters are nativists, while just 3 percent of Democrats are. Republican voters were especially likely to view immigrants as an economic threat and to oppose the idea that all migrants who wished to come to the United States should be free to do so.

Meanwhile, Democratic voters support immigration even more strongly than center-left party voters in either the U.K. or Australia. This may be at least partly a backlash against Trump’s strong anti-immigration positions, as Democrats have become more pro-immigration since Trump took office.

As you can also see, British and Australian center-left voters included a larger proportion of nativists than did U.S. Democrats. In Britain and Australia, we calculated that 11 and 16 percent of the major center-left party’s supporters are nativist, respectively.

Meanwhile, nativists made up a smaller proportion of British and Australian center-right voters than we found among the Republican Party’s voters, making up 35 percent of the U.K.’s Conservative voters and 28 percent of Australia’s Coalition supporters.

In fact, the level of nativism in the Republican Party looks more like that among radical-right parties in the U.K. and Australia, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and One Nation, with 65 and 62 percent nativists, respectively.

What this means for immigration politics and the parties

Trump’s anti-immigrant sentiment reflects attitudes among the majority of Republican voters. And it also suggests that, since the United States lacks viable third parties, anti-immigrant sentiment has been channeled into the Republican Party.

The U.K. and Australia have seen a different pattern. Those with strong anti-immigrant views have drifted away from the mainstream parties, instead supporting radical-right parties. These are influential but have so far been locked out of government. In Australia, the center right has frequently flirted with the idea of working with the radical right, while in the U.K. the center right now includes Cabinet members with nativist views who supported Brexit.

The electoral landscape in both countries is also increasingly fragmented, providing opportunities for new and existing radical-right parties to succeed. But the U.K.’s Conservatives and Australia’s Coalition are also trying to woo back some of the nativists who have defected — which would make them more like the Republican Party.

Whether that happens or not, since around one-quarter of each country’s voters hold strongly nativist views, anti-immigrant posturing isn’t likely to end anytime soon.

Glenn Kefford (@GlennKefford) is a lecturer in the department of modern history, politics and international relations at Macquarie University in Sydney.

Shaun Ratcliff (@ShaunRatcliff) is a lecturer at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

Note: Updated Oct. 6, 2023.