Do a majority of Americans really feel like “strangers in their own country”?
That’s one of the provocative conclusions of a recent Ipsos poll. According to the poll, 53 percent of Americans surveyed — 62 percent of Republicans, 53 percent of Independents, and 37 percent of Democrats — agreed with the statement “These days I feel like a stranger in my own country.” An even larger percentage of respondents agreed with the statement “More and more, I don’t identify with what America has become.”
The poll designers believe these results expose “neo-nativist” sentiments in America and help to explain the mystifying, continuing popularity of Donald Trump. They state: “Simply put, Trump’s candidacy taps into a deep, visceral fear among many that America’s best days are behind it. That the land of freedom, baseball and apple pie is no longer recognizable; and that ‘the other’—sometimes the immigrant, sometimes the Non-American, and almost always the nonwhite—is to blame for these circumstances.” In short, they apparently view the statements posed by the poll and quoted above — which don’t explicitly refer to race or immigration — as nevertheless exposing racist and xenophobic attitudes among Americans. (At the other end of the spectrum, they view the statement “More and more, America is a place that I can feel comfortable as myself” as exhibiting non-“nativist” sentiments.)
I’m skeptical of this kind of armchair analysis of the American psyche generally, and particularly in this instance where the two purportedly “nativist” statements seem to tap into a less sensational sentiment — the view that America is heading in the wrong direction. For decades, pollsters have asked whether respondents think America is heading in the right direction; last week the Rasmussen poll found that only 28 percent of Americans say yes to that question. I don’t recall reading that the right direction/wrong direction question is supposed to expose “nativist” views, and I don’t see its phrasing as materially different from the statement that “More and more, I don’t identify with what America has become.” Both statements are broad enough to encompass a wide range of dissatisfactions — with political developments, with economic issues, with cultural and social changes, with security issues, and with America’s position in the world, among many others — and therefore can’t be directly tied to “nativist” attitudes.
I have no doubt that there are racists in America and that at least some of the anti-immigrant sentiments are rooted in racist xenophobia, but I think the notion that a majority of Americans are “neo-nativists” is silly. It is, perhaps, easier to rationalize a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction with our country’s direction as rooted in ignorant, racist views, because it allows people to avoid evaluating whether there are less inflammatory, more substantive concerns underlying the sense of unease with our position in the world. I don’t know why, for some people, the bumptious blowhard Donald Trump seems like a solution to our nation’s perceived problems, but I think the conclusion that he has tapped into a previously hidden vein of racism in America just allows people to avoid tacking the tougher question: what is it, exactly, that is motivating people to express support for this guy?