A Matter of Principle? On the Relationship Between Racial Resentment and Ideology

Adam M. Enders, University of Louisville

Racial resentment is perhaps the most contentious – albeit most frequently used – measure of racial prejudice in American political behavior research. Where proponents see a reasonable measure with desirable statistical properties (e.g., consistently high reliability, unidimensional structure) and predictive power when it comes to things such as attitudes about racial issues, skeptics challenge the validity of the individual questions that compose the scale and suggest that such questions may be conflating several latent constructs. Perhaps the most vocal critics ­have argued that observed responses to the racial resentment questions that suggest racial prejudice are just as likely a product of adherence to conservative ideological principles. I, following others, refer to this perspective as the “principled conservatism thesis.”

While plenty of previous work has engaged this debate, very few scholars have done so with a consideration of the measurement of ideology in mind. Indeed, investigations of the principled conservatism thesis are usually undertaken using a measure of ideological self-identification, instead focusing on the statistical model, control variables, or even employing different measures of racial prejudice. However, we know from previous research that a large proportion of self-identified conservatives are not conservative when it comes to issue attitudes or other orientations toward the government. This puts a low ceiling on any potential support for the principled conservatism thesis. Given high levels of “conflicted conservatism,” and low levels of ideological constraint, I argue that self-identifications are likely an inappropriate operationalization of adherence to ideological principles.

In this manuscript, I construct several measures of adherence to conservative ideological principles using survey questions about government spending and more abstract ideas about the appropriate size and scope of government. Then, I consider the relationships between the two measures of operational ideology, the self-identification measure, and racial resentment. I find that the correlation between operational ideology and racial resentment is much lower than that between symbolic self-identifications and racial resentment. Moreover, this trend holds over time, from 1992—2016.

Finally, I consider the potential impact of principled conservatism on the observed responses to the individual racial resentment items using a methodology developed to investigate differential item functioning (DIF). Simply put, DIF is a situation in which observed responses to a given survey item are the product – either additively, or interactively – of both the assumed latent construct (e.g., racial prejudice) and some other confounding characteristic (e.g., ideology). I find very little evidence for ideology-based DIF over time across the four racial resentment items. Furthermore, what DIF I do observe is largely related to the self-identification operationalization of ideology that is inappropriate for investigating the effect of adherence to ideological principles on racial resentment.

All evidence taken together, I find little support for the principled conservatism thesis. We are, however, left with a question as to what explains the relationship between ideological self-identifications and racial resentment. The answer seemingly does not lie in adherence to ideological principles. One potential explanation is elite partisan cueing. There exists strong evidence for partisan sorting – the increasing congruence between partisan and ideological identities – among the mass public over time. If self-identified conservatives are increasingly identifying as Republicans, they are also likely being exposed to Republican messaging (to which they are more receptive) more frequently. In other words, perhaps people who identify as conservatives “learn” the language of racial resentment from elites? Or, perhaps, it is one of the other ingredients of ideological identity ­– values, group orientations, cultural connotations – that causes the correlation between symbolic self-identifications and racial resentment. Despite another piece of supporting evidence for the validity of the racial resentment scale, there are no shortage of questions regarding the measure of racial prejudice to be investigated.

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