A Brief Summary of “Conservatism, White Nationalism, and the Paradox of Rightwing Politics”

By Christopher Schorr, PhD.

July 1, 2021.

Writing a dissertation is an ordeal and the same can be said of reading a dissertation. It is with this in mind that I offer the following brief summary of my second dissertation chapter.

My second chapter links ideological preferences to group attitudes. Drawing on social identity theory, I begin with the premise that identification with an “ingroup” creates cognitive biases in favor of other ingroup members and against members of “outgroups.” I refer to this ingroup orientation as “tribalism.” In line with existing research on ethnocentrism, authoritarianism, and social dominance, I argue that we should treat tribalism as a general psychological disposition on which individuals vary – i.e., some people are more “tribalistic” than others.

Survey data demonstrates a strong positive association between conservatism and ingroup preference among American whites. This relationship is depicted below using data from the 2016 American National Election Studies (ANES) Time-series.

White Ingroup and Outgroup Preference, by Ideology

Focusing on right-leaning whites, I argue that the group attitudes dimension (tribalism) should be incorporated into our understanding of ideology at a dispositional level. Stated differently, right-leaning whites are inclined this way (more tribalistic) while left-leaning whites are inclined that way (less tribalistic) and our politics is shaped by these inclinations independent of the particulars of political philosophy (e.g., the role of government and the market), policy demands by interest groups, and so forth.

If correct, the question then emerges, what ingroups are we talking about here? Specifically, are ingroups necessarily racial? The short answer is no; indeed, one remarkable feature of social identity research is that research subjects display marked ingroup biases even when the groups themselves are constructed along arbitrary or trivial lines. We construct our ingroups (and therefore, outgroups) in our minds.

To take one prominent example, the American nation is an ingroup constructed primarily along “civic” (i.e., shared institutions and values) rather than “ethnic” lines. American identity has been described as a “creed” that champions ideas of liberty, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire. This creed draws on the nation’s founding documents, especially the Declaration of Independence. Abraham Lincoln, described America as having been “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Historically speaking, Lincoln is correct, and the civic nationalist character of American identity/nationhood follows logically from his account of America’s founding. At the same time, nations are ultimately imaginary communities that exist in the minds of their members. America is a creedal nation only insofar as Americans believe it to be.

Experience demonstrates that ingroups are often constructed around the highly visible and therefore, salient characteristics associated with race. Amazingly, infants seem to recognize racial differences and to display racial biases. So, while ingroups are not inherently constructed around race, a preference for this pattern does seem to be “hardwired” into the human mind.

White nationalism is one result of whites constructing the ingroup in racial terms. For white nationalists, the ingroup is the white population of the United States rather than the American population as a whole. As the rightwing alternative to conservatism, white nationalists (e.g., the Alt Right) reject traditional American understandings of national identity (the ingroup) along with other foundational American values embraced by liberals and conservatives alike (see pp.17-18 and chapter 4 here).  

From this conceptual footing, I propose that we should view conservatism and white nationalism as competing rightwing ideologies derived from alternative constructions of the national ingroup. Along with core disagreements over civic equality and nationhood, the rightwing rivals are at odds over things like abortion, universal healthcare, and school vouchers. White nationalists view their “leftwing” positions on these issues as “pro-white” and therefore in line with their ideological commitments: abortion disproportionately reduces births among racial minorities and vouchers would increase racial integration in K-12 schools. Alt Right figurehead Richard Spencer even opposed President Trump’s merit-based immigration proposal on the grounds that increasing high-skilled immigration would jeopardize whites’ social position.

I find and report evidence that, among more tribalistic whites, conservative ideology reduces racial identification and racial prejudice. How does conservatism accomplish this feat? With a whole lot of flag waving and standing for pledge of allegiance! Conservatism’s unwavering pro-Americanism elevates the traditional, civic national understanding of American identity in the minds of conservative (more tribalistic) whites thereby promoting a more racially-inclusive vision of the nation (ingroup) to the very people most inclined to care about distinctions between “us” and “them.”

Developing this point further, I find that, among “right-leaning” white ANES respondents, American identification predicts positive assessments of both whites and racial minorities, whereas white identification predicts positive assessments only of whites and negative assessments of racial minorities. This is consistent with my claim that the American ingroup – the traditional, civic-nationalist, national ingroup – is racially inclusive whereas the racially-defined white ingroup is not.

Group Evaluation Coefficients on Americans and White Identification: Self-identified “Conservative” White Respondents. 2016

Viewing ideology this way has the potential to upend much of our present political dialogue.

Liberal conventional wisdom indicts conservatism and conservatives for real and imagined expressions of ingroup preference/prejudice. We see this in condemnations of jingoism (extreme national ingroup preference) but especially in allegations of racism: i.e., racial ingroup preference.

Conservatives counter that liberals too often display insufficient national ingroup preference (i.e., loyalty). For example, as compared to conservatives, liberals,

  • self-report less patriotism,
  • are more apt to condemn America’s history, identity, people, and values, and
  • seem less willing to place the interests of their own countrymen, including blacks and working-class wage earners, over the interests of foreign nationals (e.g., Central American economic migrants).

Yet, in this rhetorical battle, conservatives are at a severe disadvantage. This is because, for historical reasons, the social climate is such that excessive or inappropriate expressions of ingroup preference are severely sanctioned. By contrast, excesses in the other direction are actively encouraged: America’s new public religion of “Anti-racism” is explicitly hostile to the racial ingroup (assuming one is white), and major institutions like universities promote cosmopolitanism (e.g., “global citizenship”) over national attachments.

However, if we bring tribalism – the predisposition-based, group attitudes dimension – into our understandings of ideology, alongside other influences, it becomes clear that those other influences (namely, political philosophy) are doing vital work. Conservatism directs right-leaning whites towards racially inclusive constructions of the national ingroup. In so doing, it helps to safeguard our multiracial national community from the white nationalist wolf lurking in our midst. All of us, liberals included, should be immensely grateful for at least this aspect of conservatism’s role in American politics.