Health Care, Race and Political Polarization

Race has leapt back into the political conversation following former president Jimmy Carter's assertion that many of the attacks against the White House were motivated by the color of President Obama's skin. The debate underscores not only the country's racial sensitivities but also the American political divide. Authors Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler offer a perspective in their book "Authoritarianism & Polarization in American Politics," published last month by Cambridge University Press.

Hetherington is a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and Weiler is director of undergraduate studies and adjunct assistant professor of international and area studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

GUEST BLOGGERS: Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler

Former president Jimmy Carter caused a stir when he suggested that opposition to health care reform reflected negative racial attitudes. While there is surely anecdotal evidence to suggest Carter is onto something -- a widely circulated image of President Obama clad in a loincloth and sporting a bone through his nose comes to mind - commentators, conservatives, and the White House dispute the former president.

Our research favors Carter's interpretation and adds some hard data to the debate. In fact, the partisan divide today is even more troubling than if it was driven by race alone.

Americans' views of political issues and their partisan attachments are being increasingly shaped by gut-level worldviews. On one side of many issues are those who see the world in terms of hierarchy, think about problems in black and white terms, and struggle to tolerate difference. On the other are those who favor independence over hierarchy, shades of gray over black-white distinctions, and diversity over sameness.

We call this dividing line an authoritarian one, and we find that what side of the line people fall on explains their positions on a wide ranging set of issues, including race, immigration, gay rights, civil liberties, and terrorism. This is because what lies behind these preferences is a larger difference in worldview, where people understand reality in starkly different ways. This, in turn, leads to rancorous and irreconcilable-seeming political conflicts.

As evidence of the link between health care and racial attitudes, we analyzed survey data gathered in late 2008. The survey asked people whether they favored a government run health insurance plan, a system like we have now, or something in between. It also asked four questions about how people feel about blacks.

Taken together the four items form a measure of what scholars call racial resentment. We find an extraordinarily strong correlation between racial resentment of blacks and opposition to health care reform.

Among whites with above average racial resentment, only 19 percent favored fundamental health care reforms and 57 percent favored the present system. Among those who have below average racial resentment, more than twice as many (45 percent) favored government run health care and less than half as many (25 percent) favored the status quo.

No such relationship between racial attitudes and opinions on health care existed in the mid-1990s during the Clinton effort.

It would be silly to assert that all, or even most, opposition to President Obama, including his plans for health care reform, is motivated by the color of his skin. But our research suggests that a key to understanding people's feelings about partisan politics runs far deeper than the mere pros and cons of actual policy proposals. It is also about a collision of worldviews.

Viewed through that lens, it is not at all surprising that Rep. Joe Wilson blurted out "You lie!" following a reference to illegal immigrants, another object of grave concern to the more authoritarian.

Beneath the arguments about government intrusion into the health care market, death panels, and such, a much more emotionally-laden dynamic is at work. Views about race along with a suite of other visceral matters are linked to people's opinions about health care reform, which likely explains why the present debate has caused a much stronger uproar than it did in 1994.

By Steven E. Levingston |  September 21, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Health Care , Steven Levingston
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I admire President Carter for having the courage to speak out--knowing the brickbats will inevitably follow. When it comes to Man's inhumanity, Jimmy has never been one to call a spade a petunia. If the constuction of dividing walls and tunnels in the Middle East isn't "apartheid," what is it?

Posted by: lheffelkcrrcom | September 21, 2009 11:28 AM

I think it is wrong-headed and morally offensive to "psychologize" political and ideological differences. It is, at best, patronizing. But, the use of pejorative descriptions like "authoritarian" betrays Hetherington and Weiler's own motives and embedded prejudices.

To hold that opposing political views are tantamount to a psychological disorder is itself a hallmark of the authoritarian worldview.

Posted by: awhazlett | September 21, 2009 11:44 AM

The word authoritarian is definitely a charged term, and it is problematic for that reason. But in this case it seems like it fits in describing the present day divide. On one side, you have a party that has used race as a cudgel for decades, expresses hostility to immigration, opposes a Latina Supreme Court justice based in part on her temperament, fights against gay rights, favors torture in certain circumstances, opts for security over civil liberties, and favors military intervention over diplomacy. On the other side, you have the reverse. How "authoritarian" a person is predicts which side of the debate he or she will stand on all these issues.

Posted by: gustafson16 | September 21, 2009 1:13 PM

@gustafson16: How is opposing a larger role for the gov't in health care "authoritarian"?

Posted by: awhazlett | September 21, 2009 2:11 PM

I don't think it is. And there are definitely lots of people who oppose health care reform because they think the government is too big. Small government conservatism lives, but it doesn't explain everything. It is also true that a fair number of people oppose health care reform because they either 1) think the actions of a black president are in a sense less legitimate (depicting Obama in a loin cloth and a bone through the nose is suggestive of this view) or 2) that they think that most of the recipients of the new government program will be non-white and they think less well of non-whites. The latter is surely a more common view than the former. It is why people were/are so opposed to welfare. Those who wanted to do away with the program were much more likely to wildly overestimate both how much it cost and what percentage of the dollars went to blacks.

Posted by: gustafson16 | September 21, 2009 3:06 PM

The only people who have been injecting racist accusations were Liberals. Jimmy Carter, Al Sharpton, Maureen Dowd, Tony Harris (liberal employee of CNN).

They accuse Conservatives of being racists, but the Liberals are so enamored of the word 'racist' that they see racism under every cabbage. Tell the Liberals to stop using the word (I sound like a Liberal here, eh?) and start thinking about the issues, if they are able.

Posted by: JudyBird | September 21, 2009 3:45 PM

So tell me JudyBird, when will conservatives point out the racists in their midsts. Let's not even make this hard, they could point out the sign holders, the swastikas, and the like, that they clearly bait to attend these events. When does that happen? Why leave it only to the "liberals"? Birds of a feather, fly together.

Posted by: flabbergast | September 21, 2009 4:24 PM

Dear JudyBird;
You missed this:
September 29: Danny Funderburk, mayor of Fort Mill, South Carolina (sent out an email claiming the Bible says the Antichrist will be a person of Muslim extraction, meaning Obama)

October 16: Diane Fedele, president of the Chaffey (California) Community Republican Women (included “Obama Bucks” with pictures of watermelon and fried chicken on them in her group’s newsletter)

December 25: Chip Saltsman, former chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party and candidate for RNC chairman (sent out a “Christmas gift” containing a Youtube video about “Barack the Magic Negro”)

February 5: Carol Carter, Republican state committeewoman from Hillsborough County, Florida (sent out an email asking, “How can 2,000,000 blacks get into Washington, DC in 1 day in sub zero temps when 200,000 couldn’t get out of New Orleans in 85 degree temps with four days notice?”)

February 25: Dean Grose, mayor of Los Alamitos, California (emailed around a picture of watermelons growing on the White House lawn)

March 12: Boyd Austin, mayor of Dallas, Georgia (suggested on his Facebook status that Obama give the British prime minister a gift of malt liquor and cigarettes)

June 2: Diann Jones, a vice chairman of the Collin County (Texas) Republican Party (sent an email about how Obama is plotting against Americans from his office in the “Black House” because Texas state lawmakers were considering a tax on firearms purchases)

June 14: Rusty DePass, South Carolina GOP activist (said an escaped gorilla from a local zoo was a relative of Michelle Obama’s)

June 16: Sherri Goforth, executive assistant for Tennessee Republican State Rep. Diane Black (sent around a picture of all the presidents where Obama is just goggle eyes against a black background)

July 17: Gary Frago, city councilman in Atwater, California (sent a whole lot of emails full of racist jokes about Obama to everybody he knew)

July 23rd: Tea Party idiot Dr. David McKalip sent around a hee-larious image of Obama’s head and face — with a bone through the nose, of course — photoshopped atop the body of a dark-skinned tribesman of some kind. Underneath the picture is a very comical “Obama-Care” logo featuring, of course, a hammer and sickle.

Posted by: edlharris | September 21, 2009 4:43 PM

To edlharris


Posted by: JudyBird | September 21, 2009 5:07 PM

The part that aggravates me is the attempt to demean the President or any other person. We are seeing the "new" racism where a difference is accentuated to cast doubt on credibility, acting much like a school yard bully. We don't do intimidation any more, the traditional racism. but we demean much like the dumb blonde and dumb pollack jokes. When my father's immigrant parents landed from Poland, those jokes were no laughing matter. When My father met my mother during WWII, he made up a fake last name because he was so ashamed of his heritage that he wanted to "pass" for some other heritage. Every wave of immigrants has been demeaned. Resurrecting this tactic is very distasteful.

Posted by: Beacon2 | September 21, 2009 5:34 PM

Are there dark forces within the GOP bent on dividing the USA as a pretext to sucession and a second Civil War?

Posted by: walker1 | September 21, 2009 7:14 PM

looks like they are closing in on more thieves in the democrat socialist party including President ACORN.

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Hassan Nemazee, a fund-raiser for Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and other Democrats, has been indicted for defrauding Bank of America, HSBC and Citigroup Inc out of more than $290 million in loan proceeds, U.S. prosecutors said on Monday.

Posted by: charlietuna666 | September 21, 2009 7:38 PM

everybody knows white liberals are riven by racial self-loathing, and the rest of the democratic base (blacks and hispanics) are certainly as racist as the republican base.

opposition to obama might be fueled by race, but no more than was opposition to bush.

dont believe me? do some 2 minutes googling and you can find pictures of bush protestors wearing shirts that have his face and include the words "dumd white motherf---er"

also, why were white voters BY FAR the most open-minded electorate in the 2008 election?

Posted by: dummypants | September 21, 2009 7:42 PM

For those who fail to see a racial connection, how do you explain away the empirical evidence the authors provide? Why do we see an effect of racial resentment on health care preferences, and why did we not see one during the Clinton years? This question is more important for the GOP to answer than the Democrats because the country is getting more diverse, not less.
One final point, the authors are providing broad evidence but in no way are they claiming that everyone who opposes health care does so out of racial resentment. Instead, some of the people do, and these data are highly suggestive of this claim, a claim that heretofore has had little evidence to back it up.

Posted by: alabamagal | September 21, 2009 8:00 PM

I agree with the authors that this is more than just racial.

Imagine if Hillary Clinton was president and proposing a health plan. Does anyone actually think the Republicans would be falling into line to support HilliaryCare II?

Posted by: jimk8mr | September 21, 2009 8:13 PM

I would suggest that we have had a sea change in political parties, moving from the old USA pattern, which was of two centrist parties with memberships largely based on tradition and region, to a more European ideological model. The Republican Party is now much more like a European right party, while the Democrats are still a pretty mixed bag, though rightists are moving out and leftists, who in the past weren't necessarily loyal Dems, are being forced to oppose the right and ally with the still largely centrist Dems. In most countries of the world, people like Steny Hoyer and Harry Reid would be considered moderate conservatives.

In an ideological party, we can expect that members will be more similar in their psychology, certain in their worldview, than in a vaguely defined centrist party. And this is happening.

In addition, we have always had at least a core of the Dixiecrat group playing a part in US politics, and now they are in the Republican Party.

As for "small government," the right in this country can only be seen as "small govt." oriented if we do not consider the military and law enforcement to be part of government. In most definitions of the state, these are in fact its central functions. They are certainly the ones that our Founders saw as the greatest threats to our liberty. It's interesting to theorize that social welfare programs increase governmental power. There's no theory involved in fearing increased police and military power in our daily lives, such as the Bush/Cheney erosion of the 4th amendment.

The right is authoritarian. One question we should be asking is -- what is good, or at least rewarding about authoritarianism? Why are people drawn to it? There is no solution to the world's problems that does not involve dealing with millions of authoritarian white USAns, and most of us want a peaceful solution. What is it?

Posted by: lamaryates | September 22, 2009 2:02 PM

It's interesting that several conservative posters have commented on this article, but have failed to address the findings or attack the conclusion in any meaningful way. Several accused liberals of being the ones to inject racism into the debate. That may be so, but this little study appears to indicate they justly injected racism into the debate. We may prefer to ignore it, but that doesn't make it any less relevant to the debate.

The authors state that no such correlation between race and position on health care existed during the Clinton Administration, but fail to provide a study that supports that position. Was there such a study?

Posted by: ashotinthedark | September 22, 2009 3:02 PM


A Commentary by Lloyd C. Daniel

Why is there so much anger and fear in the public debate over the White House’s moderate plan for health care reform? Have you had a chance to stop and think why there are so few people of color or young people of any nationality actively protesting? The main reason is because we won the last presidential election! It’s not all about race and that’s not what Carter said. And it’s not just about political disagreement. This political passion play is also about paranoia and other forms of madness. That’s why some of the demonstrators are scary to the point of embarrassment for many Republicans. I don’t think that racism, alone, would lead a rational person to conclude that this is the end of the world and that the President is the anti-Christ. But let’s face it, many people find it hard to accept that they were smashed at the polls back in November and a new America is on the rise, an America within which white skin privilege just isn’t quite what it used to be. So at the adrenaline charged demonstrations, they’re unintentionally showing all of America their true feelings, their “true colors”. They make a mockery of what they claim to stand for, and as conservative Congressman Joe Wilson auditions for a cameo, walk on role, as the guy who stands, this time, not in “the school house door”,
but the hospital door, once again, “the whole world’s watching” to see what this country is really about.

© Lloyd Daniel 2009

Rep. Lloyd C. Daniel is a writer, educator, advocate and a former member, of the Missouri House of Representatives. His website address is HYPERLINK ""

Posted by: edtrmc | September 23, 2009 7:05 PM

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