As the Supreme Court gets ready to hear a case involving the constitutionality of President Obama's health care overhaul, social scientists are asking a disturbing — and controversial — question: Do the intense feelings about the health care overhaul among ordinary Americans stem from their philosophical views about the appropriate role of government, or from their racial attitudes about the signature policy of the country's first black president?
In a new paper published in the American Journal of Political Science, Michael Tesler presents survey and experimental data that suggest that the racial attitudes of ordinary Americans have shaped both how they feel about the health care overhaul, and how intense those feelings are.
The paper is one of many studies that examines how the views of voters on policy issues are shaped — at least in part — by factors unrelated to those subjects: Voters are more likely to back the policies of leaders with whom they share some core aspect of identity, such as race or religion.
Tesler finds that blacks have become increasingly supportive of health care under Obama's watch. Among whites, Tesler finds a sharp divide between whites who have a liberal outlook on racial issues compared with those who have a conservative outlook on racial issues.
In an experiment, Tesler presents a health care overhaul policy to whites, telling some that the policy is advocated by Bill Clinton and telling others that it's advocated by Barack Obama; Tesler finds that whites with liberal racial attitudes become more supportive of the policy when they think Obama is its chief advocate, while whites with a conservative attitude become less supportive of the policy when they think of health care as an Obama policy.
The study is part of a broad range of research projects that shows that issues such as race and religion play a powerful role in shaping how people feel about policies related to war, welfare and crime.
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All this week on MORNING EDITION, we're hearing about the health care overhaul. Next Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments about the law, and emotions are running high. There's new evidence that racial attitudes may play some role in the way the two sides have come to feel so passionately about this issue. We're turning, as we often do, to science correspondent Shankar Vedantam to tell us what it's all about.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Steve. Thanks for having me.
INSKEEP: And we should acknowledge at the beginning we're going into dangerous territory here. People are very emotional about health care. Of course, race can be a very emotionally charged issue as well. And now we're going to mix them all together here.
VEDANTAM: That's right. So let me give you a little bit of background. So social scientists have known for a long time that when you ask people their views on policy questions, they are influenced by the identities that they share or don't share with political leaders. So if you're president shares your religion or your gender or race, you're much more likely to find the president's policies something that you can support. If you don't share the identity of your president, then you're much more likely to find yourself in opposition to the president.
INSKEEP: Which is understandable. People may say I don't understand all the details here, but I identify with this guy or this woman. And if they don't identify with the guy, it's going to be a different situation.
VEDANTAM: Right. And this is especially true for policies that have something to do with race. So for example, it isn't surprising that our attitudes about race would say something about our policy views on affirmative action. But the interesting question is, does the same thing happen in policy domains that have nothing to do with race?
INSKEEP: Which, in theory, health care does not have anything to do with race, so what do the experts find when they look into it?
VEDANTAM: So I'm looking at a specific study that was just published in the American Journal of Political Science. The author was Michael Tesler at Brown University. And he's found that over the last 20 years there has been a steadily growing racial divide in how Americans think about health care overhaul. So he finds that compared to the early 1990s when Bill Clinton was advocating a health care overhaul, blacks have become much more supportive of health care overhaul than whites. Here's Tesler.
MICHAEL TESLER: African-Americans were about 20 points more supportive of the Barack Obama-framed plan than they were of the Bill Clinton plan.
INSKEEP: OK. So you're saying that African-Americans are more supportive of health care than when Bill Clinton was president. You're also saying, I suppose, that African-Americans are more supportive than whites of the health care overhaul that's been passed in the last couple of years?
VEDANTAM: So overwhelmingly, yes, blacks do support the health care overhaul compared to whites.
INSKEEP: Although some people are immediately saying, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait - African-Americans in this country are overwhelmingly Democratic, the president is a Democrat. This is a signature Democratic issue. Of course African-Americans would be more supportive...
VEDANTAM: Right. So that's an excellent question, Steve. You have a difference in the opinion of these two groups, but you don't know that it's race that's causing the difference in opinion.
So Tesler took his study a step further and he conducted an experiment. He said what if I gave whites the very same health care policy, but in one instance I told them that this policy was being advocated by Bill Clinton, a Democrat, and in the other case it's being advocated by Barack Obama, who's also a Democrat, but one of them is white and one of them is black. What Tesler's trying to do is he's trying to hold every other variable constant except for one - race.
INSKEEP: What happened?
VEDANTAM: Well, Tesler finds that there's a sharp divergence in opinion among people who have liberal attitudes toward race and those who have a conservative attitude towards race. Here he is.
TESLER: White racial liberals become more supportive of a policy when it's framed as Barack Obama than when it's framed as Bill Clinton's, but white racial conservatives become less supportive of that policy.
INSKEEP: Oh, now this is very interesting, because he is saying that people who are more conservative on racial issues may be more likely to oppose President Obama. At the same time, he's saying that people who are more liberal might be more willing to follow the president regardless of what the policy might be.
VEDANTAM: I think that's exactly right. What he's finding is that race seems to intensify people's support for health care policy and intensify their opposition to health care policy. And so what he's finding really is that race is making the divide between those who support and oppose the policy much wider.
INSKEEP: Which means that no matter where we may be on the health care debate, everybody is affected in some way by questions of race.
VEDANTAM: Yeah. We think we are making policy judgments based on our ideological views, and what Tesler is finding is that this unrelated issue, racial attitudes, is actually playing a very powerful role in shaping how we feel about health care.
INSKEEP: Shankar, it's always a pleasure when you come by.
VEDANTAM: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: NPR's Shankar Vedantam, science correspondent, joins us to talk about interesting social science research. You can follow him on Twitter @HiddenBrain. And you can follow this program @NPRInskeep and @MorningEdition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.