The Big Sort and the "Anti-Immigrant" Label

By Jerry Kammer on February 5, 2014

A discussion yesterday on NPR concerned research by social scientists who were trying to understand why many Americans move to places where there are more people like themselves. The researchers understood that job opportunities and family considerations play a role in decisions to change address. But they also tested the conclusion that the moves are part of "the big sort," in which Americans uproot themselves to replant themselves in more comfortable political soil.

I suspect there's a tie in with the immigration debate, which I'll explain later. First a quick look at the NPR discussion, in which Shankar Vedantam described an experiment by University of Virginia researchers that "was designed to trick [subjects] into feeling either more liberal or more conservative than they really were." The researchers asked their subjects: "Do you think abortion should be legal under all circumstances?"

Here is some of the exchange between Vedantam and Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep.

Vedantam: Now most Americans don't think abortion should be legal under all circumstances. But answering no to that question made volunteers feel more conservative than they might've been.

Inskeep: Oh, even if you're pro-choice and you feel like you're a liberal, by stating this really, really far out liberal position, you feel kind of conservative by comparison.

Vedantam: Exactly right. Now if you also ask other people: Do you think abortion should never be legal? Most Americans don't believe that either. But answering no to that question made people feel more liberal than they may have been. [The researcher] then gauged how moving people's ideology, what effect this had on their willingness to move, and he found that when people sense that they were living among the enemy – so to say – they had a greater desire to pick up and leave.

I think the same dynamic goes to work when a discussion frames those who want to enforce immigration law or reduce immigration as "anti-immigrant." Ordinary Americans who observe the discussion may want to limit immigration for the good of the country, but they have a more immediate concern that relates to their standing in the community. They don't want to be seen as racist or bigoted or sympathetic with people who are.

In response, they don't move geographically. But they do shift their position in the debate, muffling their immigration concerns in order to show sympathy for groups that – under the banner of "Stop the Hate" – have sought to shut down the debate by smearing those of us who don't think that because some immigration is good, more can only be better.