Are YOU a Citizen of the World?

November 01, 2010, 3:16 PM GMT+0

In his “Political Times” column last week in the New York Times, Matt Bai wrote that we are witnessing a sudden rise in political longing – nostalgia, it seems, is winning the 2010 election. In hard times, Mr. Bai argues, Americans long for the “good old days.” We want to re-elect political leaders from the booming 1980s, revisit twenty-year old rock songs, and recall the halcyon days of a Bill Clinton White House before a budget and a pizza redefined everything.

From my perspective, the longing and the nostalgia is made of more than just a desire for a better economy. It is, almost surely, born from that, but wrapped up in a view of the good old days is an idea about what we have here – in America – and how its changing right in front of us.

For some people, this is exciting – the idea of globalization, or global communication is the surest sign of progress in hard times. “We are all connected” they say, and we share a common responsibility to treat each other well.

For other people, the changing landscape is unsettling. “People who don’t understand the importance of our rituals are threatening our way of life,” they say. People are different and those differences cannot be and should not be minimized. We cannot all be connected. It will ruin us.

Since 2008, Simon Jackman (Stanford University) and I have been tracking what we call Cosmopolitanism – an attitude rooted deeply in individuals and probably in that set of interesting things that we learn before we become adults. The concept has a rich history in sociology, philosophy, and international relations, but researchers of voting behavior have never been interested in the concept. You can read our forthcoming chapter on Cosmopolitanism here.

For us, cosmopolitanism is a way to tap in to what we believe is a new form of prejudice that will become increasingly important as our world changes. This prejudice against things and people who are “different” is at the heart of our notion of cosmopolitanism. The roots of cosmo-measures date back to the 1950s and to Robert Merton, a sociologist thinking about workplace relationships. To Merton, a “cosmopolite” was a person’s whose base of power in the workplace came from his or her knowledge of the state of industry-things outside the local community or factory. Alternatively, a “local’s” power came from his or her connections to people in the workplace and in the adjacent community. Both types of power were real, but one was outward looking and the other less so. The distinction was not pejorative. Locals and cosmopolites were different, but they were both effective.

To Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosopher at Princeton University, cosmopolitanism is the answer to an increasingly important question about how we relate to one another. How do we deal with people who are different from us? How do we start and continue “conversations” with people we don’t understand? For Appiah, cosmopolitans are people with more “practice” interacting with people who are different. They are citizens of the world – in the broadest sense of the phrase. A cosmopolitan has “gotten used to” all sorts of different kinds of people.

In our work, we bring Merton’s and Appiah’s ideas directly to American politics. Are we going to protect the American way of life or become citizens of the world? That is the fundamental question on which American political choices will turn in the next decades. We’re already seeing signs of this in the 2010 midterm elections as Tea Party supporters wave the symbols of our founding as a rallying cry and a prime of American identity.

We are witnessing a battle on this dimension fully now, but the roots start in 2008. Jackman and I guessed that people who are uncomfortable with “the other” would have a hard time voting for Barack Obama in 2008 – and thus we thought that the vote choice between he and Clinton and then he and McCain was about more than just attitudes about race directly, but also about attitudes about people who are different.

We set out to measure how strongly Americans would tell us they want to protect this American way of life. We asked people about cultural and religious differences and about how they view themselves vis a vis others who live in the world.

The results tell me that The Tea Party movement is on to something – most Americans want to protect this way of life and many are not sure they are “a citizen of the world.”

Sixty-five percent of Americans believe that differences across global cultures and religions are too great to manage and we should stop trying so hard to minimize them. There’s a 25-point difference in Obama vote share between the people who agree with this statement (43 percent voted for Obama in 2008) and those who disagree with it (68 percent voted for Obama). Similarly, 67 percent of Americans think we should protect our own way of life and worry less about how people from other cultures feel or behave. The difference in vote choice on this dimension is even greater --- among those who agree 38 percent voted for Obama in 2008; among those who disagree, 79 percent voted for Obama.

How many Americans answer that they consider themselves to be a “citizen of the world”? Fifty-eight percent. The breakdown on Obama vote share between those who agree and disagree shows a 47-point gap in support levels (74 percent of those who agree voted for Obama compared to 27 percent of those who disagree). When we scale all these attitudinal variables and move from one end of the scale (the least cosmopolitan) to the other end (the most cosmopolitan) the probability of voting for Obama changes by 20-points, even controlling for income, education, gender, ideology, and party identification!

But – these attitudinal measures predict Democratic vote share and ratings of candidates regardless of whether the candidates are “different.” They are solidly related to the Democratic voter identity.

Our behavioral measures, however, do different work – and they are related to vote choice, but only when Obama is in the choice-set. If both candidates are white, this behavioral measure does no work. If Obama is in the choice-set, it picks up on Obama’s difference – and helps to explain some of the reaction to him on non-political dimensions. For more information, read the full text chapter here.

So what’s in this scale? Whether in the last decade you’ve traveled to Canada or Mexico (nearly half have), Europe or Australia (about a quarter), or Asia, South America, or Africa (only 15 percent); whether you’ve been to a Japanese (67 percent) or Indian restaurant (39 percent); and whether you hunt (20 percent) or play softball (22 percent). The goal is to tap in to whether people choose to interact with others who are different or choose to spend time with people who are the same.

There is nearly a 20-point difference in Obama vote depending on whether you have gone to an Indian restaurant (by the way, these differences survive controls for urbanity and other geographic markers). There is no difference for the patrons of Japanese restaurants. Overall, moving across the range of the scale changes fewer votes than the attitudinal scale – affecting the probability of an Obama vote in 2008 by about 6-points. But this scale picks up on something about Obama that makes him different from the other candidates (like John Edwards v. Hillary Clinton, for example or a vote choice in the 2010 midterm).

The future of American politics is going to be fought on these dimensions because of the lopsided nature of the distribution of public opinion on protecting the American way of life and the strong sense of American identity we are marinated in as public school children in America.

We respond to our symbols. And we want to protect them.

Elsewhere, I’ve written about how presidential candidates can “steal” elections away from economically advantaged opponents, and Obama very well could have enough economic growth in his last year to get re-elected. But, an opponent running a campaign on the lop-sided theme of protecting our way of life – priming an American identity – that’s a winning message. Just like Kennedy’s New Frontier and Nixon’s Crime and Safety – public opinion is on this candidate’s side. And Obama? He’s stuck in the unpopular position of being “the other.”