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A rally against Trump's Muslim ban near the White House on January 29, 2017 (Kyle Tsui via Wikimedia Commons)

Deep Dive: American Identity vs. American Democracy

A new paper finds a correlation between strong American identity and support for anti-Muslim policies.

Words: Emily Tamkin
Pictures: Kyle Tsui

Writing in the Journal of Public Policy, Nazita Lajevardi and Kassra A. R. Oskooii ask whether American identity predicts preference for anti-democratic, anti-Muslim policy. Their argument is that, without significant priming of an inclusive understanding of Americanness, those with strong American identity are less likely to reject anti-Muslim policies, even though those policies are counter to ostensibly American values like religious freedom and equality.

And, indeed, across two studies, one’s sense of American identity is a powerful predictor of preference for curbing Muslim citizens’ civil liberties. Notably, this is true of Democrats as well as Republicans. That fact, per the authors, “explains the endorsement of exclusionary policies among self-identified Democrats, who typically hold more progressive policy positions toward minority groups than Republicans.”

The authors argue that, despite the idea that America is a nation of immigrants, many often associate American identity with whiteness, and that there has long been concern over whether people of color can be American or whether they threaten Americans’ way of life. They thus contend that identity is an important factor when considering public opinion of Muslim Americans, who are often not only vilified by public opinion, but also targeted by policy.


The authors conducted two studies: one relied “on a nationally representative survey fielded in 2018 by the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) through YouGov.” The other used “two original, cross-sectional surveys that were hosted on Qualtrics and conducted online in English through opt-in panels of adult US respondents via Lucid survey sampling firm.”

Across the two studies, they surveyed not only respondents’ sense of American identity, but views on six different policies.

The authors feel this demonstrates the contradictory, exclusionary nature of American identity.

The authors feel this demonstrates the contradictory, exclusionary nature of American identity. Americans may say that they cherish American diversity, but, per these studies, a strong sense of American identity is also a strong predictor that a person will still support discriminatory policy. 

“Undermine Principles”

This work, the authors noted, could be replicated with other minority groups. They also say a “cross-group comparison study will help scholars identify for which populations and policies American identifiers may be more or less likely to undermine their principles for,” though they offered that it was their prediction that Americans are likelier to be fine with stripping away Muslim Americans’ rights than other minorities.

Ending on a relatively optimistic note, the authors write that this can shift. For example: “Recent panel studies on the Muslim Travel Ban show that while high American identifiers were more likely than their counterparts to endorse President Trump’s executive action, a wave of swift and one-sided political communication highlighting the incompatibility between the ban and American values nudged some high identifiers to oppose the ban.”

Under the right conditions, in other words, Americans might need reminders of what it is they purport to believe in until they actually believe in it when it comes to policy preference.

Emily Tamkin


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