Political discourse, socioeconomic misery, and anti-immigrant sentiment

Our latest post is by team member Christopher Cochrane of the University of Toronto. Chris’s research interests focus on left-right ideological disagreement:

People do not invariably blame immigrants for socioeconomic ills like high rates of
crime and unemployment. And people’s minds are not blank grey screens that are shaken,
erased, and re-written at the whims of political elites. Anti-immigrant sentiment appears
to spike, however, when elite political discourse projects immigration against a backdrop
of socioeconomic misery. This basic finding persists over time and across countries, and
it persists within countries as well (Hopkins, 2010; Cochrane and Nevitte, 2014). What
matters for public opinion, it seems, is the interaction between elite political discourse and
the conditions that people experience in the environment around them.

There are generally more immigrants in economically prosperous regions than in economically depressed ones, and immigrants are more likely to arrive during economic upturns than during economic downswings. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s rhetoric to the contrary,
two million immigrants does not equal “two million French people out of work” (quoted
in Jackman and Volpert, 1996, 507). Reality is one thing, however, perception is another.
On this front, it seems much harder to convince people that the unemployment rate is
high, even when it is not, than it is to convince people that immigrants are to blame for
a high unemployment rate, even when they are not. The realm of plausibility has limits, but there is a great deal of space for politicians to manoeuvre within these limits.
Anti-immigrant frames are particularly potent when they weave tangible and established
threads of widespread social concern into the public’s conception of immigration.

Who says what about immigration in national legislative debates, and when and why
do they say it? Presumably, immigration has defenders as well as detractors. Has the
framing of immigration changed over time? The contemporary frames that link immigration to concerns about protecting gender equality and gay rights are almost certainly
different than the frames that prevailed when most people cared hardly at all about either
of these concerns. What about cross-national variation? If immigrants tend to cluster geographically within countries, then there may be differences in national legislative debates between, on the one hand, countries where politicians represent electoral districts and on the other hand, countries where they do not. What about the effects of demographic changes? It seems reasonable to conjecture that the frequency of political discussions about immigration bears some connection to rate of immigration, but what is the nature of this connection? When it comes to debates about immigration in national legislatures, there are a number of questions to explore. Answering these questions begins by tracking across time the legislative debates in many different countries.


Cochrane, C. and N. Nevitte (2014). Scapegoating: Unemployment, far-right parties and anti-immigrant sentiment. Comparative European Politics 12 (1), 1–32.

Hopkins, D. J. (2010). Politicized places: Explaining where and when immigrants provoke local opposition. American Political Science Review 104 (1), 40–60.

Jackman, R. and K. Volpert (1996). Conditions favoring parties of the extreme right in western europe. British Journal of Political Science 26 (4), 501–521.

Text to ideology or text to party status?

This is a post by team member Graeme Hirst of the University of Toronto:

Is it possible to tell what a politician’s ideology is or what party they are a member of just by looking at a list of the words that they and don’t use?

You might expect that even when two politicians express completely contrary opinions on a topic, they would use much the same words — mostly just opinion-neutral words germane to the topic of discussion. But research on members of the U.S. Congress by Daniel Diermeier and colleagues has shown that extreme conservatives can be distinguished from extreme liberals just by their vocabulary. A key shibboleth is the word gay, preferred by liberals, whereas conservatives say homosexual. But many other, more subtle differences are apparent as well. However, these differences apply only at the edges, and they don’t discriminate the more moderate conservatives from the more moderate liberals.

We wondered whether this result could be replicated on members of the Canadian Parliament, where party discipline is more rigid than in the U.S. Congress. Indeed, we found that it’s pretty easy to separate Liberals from Conservatives just by their vocabulary, but with a big caveat! When we applied our method, derived from the Hansards of the Chrétien Liberal government, to Hansards of the Harper Conservative government, we got systematically wrong answers. A closer examination showed that the vocabulary differences that we found weren’t discriminating between Liberal and Conservative, but rather between government, using words of defence and felicitation, and opposition, using words of attack — regardless of which party is which.

If that analysis is correct, then the effect should disappear if we look at parliamentary debates where there is no government and opposition per se. Using English-language data from the proceedings of the European Parliament, collected by our Dilipad colleague Maarten Marx, we found that we could indeed distinguish speakers of left-wing parties (unions, equality, gender) from those of right-wing parties (subsidiarity, competitiveness, Christian) with a fairly high accuracy, and we could pick out the speaker’s exact party from among the five largest parties with an accuracy far greater than chance.

Our results cast doubt on the generality of the results of research that uses words as features in classifying the ideology of speech in legislative settings, and possibly in political speech more generally. Rather, the language of attack and defence, of government and opposition, may dominate and confound any sensitivity to ideology. So our next step, as part of the Dilipad project, will be to move beyond simple word lists to analyze syntax, discourse structure, and the structure of arguments in parliamentary speech.

The research, including our methods for text classification, is described in detail in our newly published paper, “Text to ideology or text to party status?” by Graeme Hirst, Yaroslav Riabinin, Jory Graham, Magali Boizot-Roche, and Colin Morris, in From Text to Political Positions: Text analysis across disciplines, edited by Bertie Kaal, Isa Maks, and Annemarie van Elfrinkhof (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2014).