Is Progressivism Going Native In The United States?

Roughly 14 percent of the United States’ citizenry is comprised of individuals born outside of the United States who have immigrated to the U.S. A significant portion of the electorate, the opinion of the nation’s new citizens will likely shape policy priorities for decades to come.

Therefore, it is worthwhile to study if and how the public opinion of non-native born Americans differs from that of native-born Americans in the areas of environment, alternative energy, and science expenditure. With intense concern about global climate change and its impacts on both human society and the natural environment, policy prioritization might lead to both general public and policymaker expectations for increased public funding. Certainly, the work of scholars such as Donald Stokes and Benjamin Sovacool call for balancing scientific endeavor with the priorities and values of a democratic society.

Our study employed longitudinal public opinion data from the General Social Survey from 2010-2016 (n=5,054) and used binomial regression modeling to determine what key factors best explain variations in public opinion in the aforementioned policy areas. While we were particularly interested in opinion differences between native and non-native born U.S. citizens, we were also interested in controlling for the effects of respondent demographics—such as gender, age, income, race, ethnicity, and education—as well as indicators that reflected their core values and beliefs reflected in the respondents’ stated religious preferences, their level of social trust and confidence in their fellow human being, political ideological preferences and political party identification, levels of confidence in government, science, and the mass media (journalism). As has been shown through the work of many social capital theorists, public confidence and social trust and engagement are often related to concerns for the greater good of society, as exemplified in this case through public investment in alternative energy, environmental, and science policy.

We found that survey respondent confidence in the scientific community was strongly related to a belief that public funding for basic science and alternative energy policy should be increased. We also found that political ideology and partisanship were correlated with support for increased funding in all three areas, with those identifying as Liberal to Very Liberal and those identifying as Democrats being significantly more supportive of increased funding when compared with self-identified Conservatives and Republicans. Socioeconomic considerations do seem to play a role with greater support for increased funding coming from individuals with more years of formal schooling and with higher incomes. In terms of religious values, we found that self-identified Evangelical Protestants were consistently less supportive of funding increases for alternative energy, environment, and science policy. Catholics and Mainline Protestants were less supportive of funding increases for basic science and alternative energy policy. There was not consistent evidence to show that social trust and confidence was related to public opinion in the three areas of study. We did find, however, that African-Americans were significantly more supportive of basic science and alternative energy funding increases when compared with Whites.

Table 1. Public Opinion of Alternative Energy, Environmental, and Science Funding (2010-2016)

Funding to Develop Alternative Energy Resources
Native BornNon-Native BornChi-Square
Too Little60.90%53.60%30.92 (p<0.0001)
About Right29.50%37.60%
Too Much9.60%8.80%
Funding to Improve and Protect the Environment
Native BornNon-Native BornChi-Square
Too Little60.00%55.20%12.57 (p<0.002)
About Right29.70%36.70%
Too Much10.30%8.10%
Funding to Support Scientific Research
Native BornNon-Native BornChi-Square
Too Little41.90%35.30%17.72 (p<0.0001)
About Right45.80%51.30%
Too Much12.20%13.30%

Table 2. Logistic Regression Models

Natural Res.ScienceAlternative
Confidence in Executive
1=A Great Deal-0.070.16-0.21*0.1-0.030.11
2=Only Some0.110.1-
3=Hardly Any (reference cat.)
Confidence in Scientific
1=A Great Deal0.30.21.00**0.150.55**0.13
2=Only Some0.250.190.47**0.140.38**0.13
3=Hardly Any (reference cat.)
Confidence in the Press
1=A Great Deal-0.150.17-0.32**0.12-0.65**0.23
2=Only Some-0.030.1-0.10.07-0.12†0.07
3=Hardly Any (reference cat.)
Political Views
1=Extremely Liberal1.06**0.320.74**0.220.86**0.23
7=Extremely Conservative
(reference cat.)
Respondent’s Sex
2=Female (reference cat.)
Highest Year of School0.010.020.02*0.010.05**0.01
Respondent’s Income0.*0.01
Evangelical Protestant-0.24*0.12-0.17*0.08-0.21**0.08
Mainline Protestant-0.210.12-0.20*0.09-0.23**0.09
Other Religion-
None (reference cat.)
Native Born0.37*0.150.36**0.110.20†0.11
People are Fair?
1=Take Advantage0.
2= Depends0.37†0.2-0.150.14-0.10.14
3= Fair (reference cat.)
People Helpful/Looking Out
 For Themselves?
2= Depends-
3= Looking Out for Themselves
(reference cat.)
Can People Be Trusted?
1=Can Trust0.**0.08
2= Depends-
3= Can’t Be Too Careful
(reference cat.)
Year of Survey
2016 (reference cat.)
-Log Likelihood=2,964.566,165.106,057.57
Nagelkerke R-Square=
Percentage Correctly Classified:67.361.563.3
† p<0.10
* p<0.05
** p<0.01

*Tables reprinted from Simon, Christopher A., and Michael C. Moltz 2018. Going Native? Examining Nativity and Public Opinion of Environment, Alternative Energy, and Science Policy Expenditures in the United States. Energy Research & Social Science46: 296-302, with permission from Elsevier.

Finally, and perhaps most central to this study, we found that native-born survey respondents were consistently and significantly more supportive of increased public funding for alternative energy, science, and environmental policy. While nearly 54 percent of non-native born survey respondents were supportive of increased funding for alternative energy, nearly 61 percent of native-born respondents indicated that too little money was being spent on alternative energy. Approximately 55 percent of non-native born respondents felt that too little money was being spent on the protection of the environment, 60 percent of native-born respondents felt similarly. Finally, approximately 35 percent of non-native born respondents felt too little money was being spent on basic scientific research, nearly 42 percent of native-born respondents echoed this same view.

There are differences of opinion on policy priority between native and non-native born U.S. citizens. Statistically-speaking, the differences are significant. In a practical sense, there appears to be a five to seven percentage point difference in opinion. In a less politically divided United States, these differences might appear trivial. In contemporary American politics, however, the differences might have meaningful and long-lasting impacts. Democrats, for instance, may not be able to easily attract new voters on issues related to alternative energy, environment, and science policy priorities possibly imperiling the future direction of certain core progressive policy commitments.

These findings are described in the article entitled Going native? Examining nativity and public opinion of environment, alternative energy, and science policy expenditures in the United States, recently published in the journal Energy Research & Social Science. With the permission of Benjamin K. Sovacool, Editor-in-Chief, Energy Research & Social Science. Special thanks to Nicholas Lovrich, Regents Professor Emeritus and C.O. Johnson Professor of Political Science, Washington State University for helpful comments and suggestions.

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