Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Does a Nationalist Card Make for a Weak Hand? Economic Decline and Shared Pain

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Does a Nationalist Card Make for a Weak Hand? Economic Decline and Shared Pain

Article excerpt


This article tests theories of group threat, competition, contact, and shared pain. The author argues that economic downturns undermine rather than increase support for prejudice. The absolute pain of a recession is felt by all groups in society, even if the relative costs are often distributed unevenly across groups. While nationalists can scapegoat minorities for economic woes, competing elites have incentives to adopt economic frames that focus on individual suffering. Empirical support comes from a subnational research design that includes quantitative data from Latvia's 565 localities and from a qualitative analysis of the framing techniques adopted by Latvian political parties.


prejudice, nationalism, ethnic politics, framing, group threat, contact, competition, shared pain.

Long-standing debates persist in the social sciences over the effects that increased contact and worsening economic conditions have on intergroup relations. The contact hypothesis points to possible beneficial outcomes from the mixing of diverse individuals (Allport 1956; Forbes 1997). Group threat theory, however, suggests the opposite (Quillian 1995). As the minority presence rises, a corresponding reaction from the majority population is likely to build. Group threat scholars also claim that worsening economic conditions favor politicians who scapegoat minorities for economic problems (Blumer 1958). Finally, competition theorists contend that it is the combination of large minority populations and hard economic times that fuels ethnic mobilization and conflict, as groups compete for scarce jobs and services (Olzak 1992).

Two main research designs have been adopted to test aspects of group threat, competition, and contact. First, survey research has been used to explain levels of prejudice and the extent of out-group contact. Second, multilevel research techniques that combine individual-level survey responses with country-level or regional data have been employed. The goal of such research is to incorporate more concrete measures of the contextual factors that affect prejudice than can be gained from survey questions alone. Most of the empirical work has been conducted on race relations in the United States (Sears and Kinder 1985; Fossett and Kiecolt 1989) and anti-immigrant politics in Western Europe (Quillian 1995; McLaren 2003).

Existing studies have produced contradictory findings. Starting with the pioneering work of V. O. Key, Jr. (1949), students of American racial politics have found that prejudice among white Americans rises together with the black population (Glaser 1994; Taylor 1998). McLaren (2003), on the other hand, demonstrates some support for the contact hypothesis in Western Europe, suggesting that individuals without minority friends are more likely to hold prejudiced views. Jackman and Volpert (1996) find that higher rates of unemployment strengthened the vote for European extreme right parties. Schissel, Wanner, and Frideres (1989), however, suggest a weak link between unemployment and anti-immigrant sentiment across Canadian cities.

In this article, I propose an alterative subnational research design to test theories of group threat, competition, and contact. There are a number of reasons why this alternative research design provides a better method to test these competing theories. First, the use of subnational data from one country offers more control over potential lurking historical or cultural explanations, which are routinely raised with respect to cross-national research (R. Snyder 2001). Second, disaggregated data provide more variance on key independent variables of interest than the countrylevel or regional data found in cross-national or multilevel research designs. This arguably allows the researcher to operate at the proper level to test theories in which contextual variables are the independent variables (Przeworski and Teune 1970, 68-72). It goes without saying that economic conditions and minority populations are rarely spread evenly across polities. …

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