Jens Hainmueller and Dominik Hangartner have a new article in the American Political Science Review (ungated version here) that takes advantage of Switzerland’s high level of direct democracy to measure and understand the xenophobia of Swiss citizens. Some Swiss cantons allow citizens (or, in a couple of cases, a subset of long-established citizens) to vote directly on foreign residents’ applications for Swiss citizenship. The resumes of applicants for citizenship are circulated to voters, who then vote yes or no by secret ballot. The results are striking. In a 2008 opinion poll, 88% of voters in the country as a whole said that there should be no discrimination based on country of origin in naturalization decisions. However, as the below graph shows, country of origin plays a very important role in Swiss citizens’ private votes over whether to accept foreign residents as citizens or not.

Hainmueller and Hangartner report that the national origin of foreign residents explains about 40% of the variation in citizens’ opposition to their naturalization. Applicants of Turkish or Yugoslav origin on average get 13% or 15% more no votes than applicants from rich northern or western European countries. Hainmueller and Hangartner suggest that about 40% of this animus is explained by `statistical’ discrimination (citizens discriminating against people because they think that these people are less likely to be integrated) and 60% by taste based discrimination (citizens discriminating simply because they don’t like e.g. Turks or Yugoslavs). Furthermore,

In municipalities with the highest levels of xenophobia, Yugoslavian and Turkish applicants face a penalty of about 20–30 percentage points compared to observably similar applicants from richer northern and western European countries. This penalty is much
lower at about 3–10 percentage points in the least xenophobic municipalities. Also consistent with taste-based discrimination, the models reveal that the level of xenophobia is uncorrelated with the proportion of “no” votes for applicants from richer northern and western European countries (the lower-order terms for the anti-immigrant vote are close to zero). As a robustness check, [we also replicate] the models using two alternative measures of xenophobic tastes, the municipality-level vote shares from similar federal
anti-immigration referendums in 1983 and 1988, and the patterns are very similar. Taken together, these results indicate that origin-based discrimination is largely driven by local voters’ xenophobic prejudice. We would not expect such strong patterns if the discrimination were purely statistical.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.