The study of American national identity has taken on renewed relevance with the election of President Donald Trump. The president’s surprise win in 2016 followed a campaign in which he engaged in frequent anti-immigrant rhetoric, called for a ban on admitting Muslims to the United States, and pledged to put “America First.” Subsequent studies linked his victory to support from Americans who were more likely to hold an “ethnic” view of what it means to be an American.
The study of national identity centers on understanding how people define what it means to be a member of a national group. In the American context, it is the study of the degree of importance people place on factors like language, race, religion, values, and respect for laws and institutions on being an American. An ethnic definition of national identity limits members of a national group to those who share a common racial identification, language, culture, religion, or shared history. Ethnic definitions of American national identity have been common in American history. For example, the Supreme Court declared in its notorious Dred Scott decision that African-Americans were excluded from citizenship, thus defining a person’s Americanness by their racial identity.
A second common form of national identity is civic, which draws upon an “acceptance of certain fundamental values and institutions” (Citrin and Wright 2009). As Lieven (2004) puts it, “the essential elements of the American Creed and American civic nationalism are faith in liberty, constitutionalism, the law, democracy, individualism, and cultural and political egalitarianism.” A person who places importance on civic values as part of national identity might believe that a true American is loyal to the constitution or believes strongly in the principles of liberty or equality.
Political scientists traditionally view American national identity as civic, although this idea has routinely been criticized. For example, Rogers Smith (1999) argues that American national identity was built on a white ethnic identity and intentionally excluded certain Americans. Smith suggests that the civic and ethnic branches of nationalism often draw from one another—they are not completely independent.
Based on data from the Grinnell College National Poll (GCNP), we analyze the extent to which present-day Americans hold ethnic and civic views of who is a “real” American. We also explore the demographic factors that lead individuals to be more likely to support a particular brand of national identity. We then explore the relationship between strong definitions of national identity and approval for President Trump. We expect those who hold an ethnic view to be more likely to approve of the President, but past research gives less basis to hypothesize a relationship between civic nationalism and support for the president. Those who value civic principles might reasonably see President Trump’s call to “make America great again” as a promise to protect traditional principles and institutions, or interpret his unconventional behavior as an attack on beloved political institutions.
The Grinnell College National Poll was conducted November 24th-27th for Grinnell College by Selzer & Co. of Des Moines, IA. It includes telephone interviews from a random sample of 1,000 U.S. adults ages 18 and older, including 828 likely voters in the 2020 general election and 769 self-identified voters in the 2018 midterm election. The poll includes a battery of questions regarding nationalist attitudes, which is the focus of this post.
This battery began with the following description: “This is a question about what it means to be a ‘real American.’ I’m going to mention traits sometimes associated with Americans. People differ in their views of how important these are to be a ‘real American.’” Respondents were then asked to rate how important a given trait was in order to be a “real American.” The poll included twelve traits in total. The traits were to have been born in America, to have lived in America most of one’s life, to be able to speak English, to be a Christian, to respect America’s political institutions and laws, to accept people of different racial backgrounds, to accept people of different religious backgrounds, to believe in getting ahead by one’s own hard work, to believe in treating people equally, to support the U.S. Constitution, to take personal responsibility for one’s actions, and to believe that democracy is the best form of government.
As a first step, we coordinated with three students in Professor Ryan Miller’s Applied Data Sciences course. Ethan Pannell, Jasper Yang and Matthew Palmeri conducted a Principal Components Analysis of the American National Identity battery to assess whether the 12 questions on the battery could be placed into subcategories based on underlying similarities. They found that the questions could be broken into three separate groups.
Using their analysis as a starting point (and comparing it with a factor analysis conducted by Professor Hanson), we identified three underlying ways of thinking about what constitutes a “real American” in the battery. The first includes the importance of being Christian, speaking English, being born in America, and having lived in America for most of one’s life. Since these are the traits aimed at measuring ethnic national identity, we designated this as the ethnic national identity index. The second includes the importance of respecting America’s political institutions and values, believing in getting ahead by one’s own hard work, supporting the U.S. Constitution, and taking personal responsibility for one’s actions. This combines respect for political and legal institutions with certain traditional American values, and thus is the civic national identity index. The final index combines the importance of accepting people of different racial backgrounds, accepting people of different religious backgrounds, and believing in treating people equally. This is the equality index.
Civic, Ethnic, and Equality National Identities
To understand what makes an individual more likely to hold each form of American national identity, we conducted OLS regressions for each index using a series of standard demographic questions as independent variables. In this analysis, we are looking for relationships that are strong enough to be statistically significant. In other words, we are looking for demographic variables that the data suggest are correlated with a given form of national identity at statistically significant levels. The following plots show regression coefficients for each independent variable. The points show the exact estimate and the lines show confidence intervals. If a variable’s line does not cross zero, it is statistically significant. An estimate on the positive side of the line has a positive relationship with a given form of national identity, meaning as it goes up so do the chances of a respondent holding a certain view of national identity. On the other hand, an estimate on the negative side of the line has a negative correlation with a given form of national identity. For numeric coefficient estimates and significance levels, see Table 1 in the Appendix.
Figure 1 shows the relationship between the independent variables and the ethnic form of national identity. We find Democrats, moderates, and liberals are considerably less likely than Republicans and conservatives to define what it means to be a “real American” in ethnic terms. People who are older and more religious have higher levels of ethnic nationalism, while people who are wealthy and highly educated have lower levels. Additionally, we find that respondents who identify as Black are more likely than white respondents to hold an ethnically nationalist view of what it means to be a “real American.”
Figure 2 shows the same regression but for the civic form of national identity. Both liberals and Democrats are significantly less likely than conservatives and Republicans to hold views of who is a “real American” that are consistent with our definition of civic national identity. Additionally, the older a respondent is the more likely they are to agree that civic traits are very important to being a “real American.”
Figure 3 shows the regression again with those who believe that a “real American” must abide by values of equality as the dependent variable. In this regression, the only statistically significant variable is identifying as a liberal. Self-identified liberals are more likely to have an equality-based understanding of who is a “real American.” Unlike the other two regressions, this model suggests that age and political party have insignificant impacts on this index.
National Identity and Approval of President Trump
Next, we examine whether these three views on national identity are correlated with approval of President Trump. To begin, we conducted three regressions using the same independent variables as above. Additionally, each regression included one form of national identity as an independent variable. Our dependent variable was feelings of favorability towards President Trump, ranging from very favorable to very unfavorable.
These regressions, not presented here, showed a robust, positive relationship between the ethnic and civic forms of national identity. We found a negative, but not statistically significant, relationship between equality-based form of American national identity. With those estimations in mind, we conducted a fourth regression analysis that included all three forms of national identity in the same model. Figure 4 show the results. Each of the patterns in the individual regressions hold. Measures of both ethnic and civic national identity are correlated positively with presidential approval and remained statistically significant. The equality-based form of national identity remained negative and moved to the edge of statistical significance. Table 2 in the appendix shows the precise coefficient estimates and significance levels for the estimation.
To better understand the relationship between the strains of nationalism and presidential favorability, we plot the change in favorability felt towards President Trump each of the three forms of national identity increase. The following margins plots show how much a respondent’s feelings of favorability change in response to change in the given form of national identity. They are based on the above regression model that includes all three forms of national identity.
Figures 5 and 6 demonstrate that a respondent’s feelings of favorability towards the president steadily increase as the measure of ethnic and civic national identity increase. In the original question on favorability, a 1 indicates very unfavorable, 2 is mostly unfavorable, 3 is mostly favorable, and 4 is very favorable. The graphs have similar slopes, suggesting that increasing belief in civic and ethnic national identity changes favorability towards the president at a similar rate. In each case, the effect of moving from the lowest to highest level of valuing these two forms of national identity is to shift a respondent approximately 1 point on the response scale, the equivalent from moving “mostly unfavorable” of the president to “mostly favorable.”
Figure 7 shows that as levels of equality-based national identity increase, feelings of favorability towards the president steadily decrease. The slope of the line is less steep than those in Figures 5 and 6, demonstrating that equality-based national identity does not have as strong of a relationship with presidential favorability as the civic and ethnic based views. Moving from the lowest to highest level of equality-based national identity results in less than a 1-point decline on the response scale.
Our data allow us to better characterize and understand the consequences of three sets of values our respondents associate with being a real American: the ethnic, civic, and equality-based views of national identity. First, there is a strong relationship between party identification and ideology with the civic and ethnic forms of national identity. Identifying as ideologically liberal or as a Democrat is negatively associated with both forms national identity compared to being conservative or a Republican. Second, those who value the civic and ethnic forms of national identity are more likely to be older and more religious than those who do not. Additionally, we observe a negative relationship between income and the ethnic view of national identity, and a positive relationship between identifying as Black and the ethnic view of national identity.
Our analysis revealed less variation by group among those who value equality as an important component of being a “real American.” Ideological liberals see “real Americans” as those who accept people who are different from themselves or the majority. No other variable had a statistically significant relationship with this form of national identity.
Finally, we show both the civic and ethnic views of national identity are robustly associated with approval of president Trump. Despite criticisms that the president is undermining American political institutions, those who value the civic form of national identity are significantly more likely to approve of the president than those who do not. This pattern holds across individual logistic regression models and in a model that includes all three of the national identity indexes. The fact that civic and ethnic nationalists are very similar in terms of demographics and approval for the president suggests that the two forms of nationalism might not be as separate as political scientists sometimes portray them to be. Perhaps, as Smith suggests, American national identity blends together the civic and the ethnic.
Studies of President Trump’s surprise election victory in 2016 often focus upon his appeal to those who hold ethnic views of national identity, observing that his anti-immigrant stances and “Muslim Ban” helped him win support from voters. Our findings show that his appeal is more nuanced, attracting those who hold both the ethnic and civic views of national identity.
Hanson, P. & Elfenbein, C. (2019). What does it mean to be a ‘real’ American? Retrieved 4 May 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/01/03/what-does-it-mean-be-real-american/
Lieven, A. (2004). America Right or Wrong. Oxford University Press.
Citrin, J., & Wright, M. (2009). Defining the Circle of We: American Identity and Immigration Policy, The Forum, 7(3). doi: https://doi.org/10.2202/1540-8884.1319
Sides, J. (2017). Race, Religion, and Immigration in 2016. Retrieved 4 May 2020, from https://www.voterstudygroup.org/publication/race-religion-immigration-2016
Smith, R. (1997). Civic ideals. Yale University Press.
Georgia Rawhouser-Mylet ’21 is a political science major at Grinnell College.
Peter Hanson is associate professor of political science at Grinnell College.
Table 1: OLS regression results for each form of national identity
Table 2: OLS regression results for Trump Approval with three forms of national identity