Government Professor Ben Knoll and Jordan Shewmaker ’14 collaborate on political research
In keeping with what has become a student-faculty tradition, this summer Jordan Shewmaker ’14 has stayed on campus to work with Assistant Professor of Government Ben Knoll on a project assessing political attitudes at both the local and national levels.
“We had one primary project, but also many smaller ones,” Knoll says. “Our primary project looked at two areas. The first specifically studied political attitudes in the United States and how perceptions of American identity affect those attitudes. The second was to analyze Danville city politics.”
For the national part of the research, Knoll and Shewmaker examined two specific issues. The first is how “nativism” has affected voter attitudes toward health care reform.
“Within the first part of the national research, we analyzed how attitudes towards the Affordable Health Care Act were affected by attitudes about American identity,” Knoll says. “We asked the question, ‘Do you think there’s a traditional American culture that needs to avoid influence?’”
The two theorized that if there was a correlation between “nativism” and opposition to the health care reform act, it might be the product of certain terminology used by politicians.
“Lots of people who are opposed to health care reform used certain types of words—saying, for instance, that it was an ‘un-American’ or ‘un-democratic’ piece of legislation,” Knoll says. “We wondered if people had internalized that in their political attitudes.”
Knoll and Shewmaker are aware that some people are sensitive about being classified as “nativist.”
“It’s simply the closest word in the social sciences to describe the general idea of feeling that there’s a particular culture and way of life in the United States that’s uniquely American—and that it’s being threatened somehow by foreign influences,” says Knoll.
The second aspect of the national research studied the political attitudes of those who identify their ethnicity as “American”—instead of the ethnicity of their ancestors who immigrated to America in the past.
“Some people identify their ancestry as American despite not having any Native American heritage,” Knoll says. “We wanted to know if there was anything unique about those people in terms of explaining their political attitudes, and whether they were different from the rest of population in terms of their political affiliation.”
In their national findings, Knoll and Shewmaker established that no matter what a person’s political party affiliation, if they felt especially protective of American culture from foreign influence, they were also likely to oppose health care reform.
“These results show that this particular attitude of nativism has an effect on all sorts of public policy support—not just immigration, like one might think,” Knoll says.
For the local part of their project, Knoll and Shewmaker were interested in studying whether there were geographic patterns for voter approval and disapproval of the Danville City Commission.
“We did a county-wide exit poll in November 2011. In the poll, we asked about approval of city commission as a whole, as well as approval of individual candidates,” Shewmaker says.
Their findings showed that the highest correlation between approval of the commission had less to do with where a voter lived than it did with other factors.
“We studied approval levels without looking at precincts, and generally speaking, older voters with higher incomes have a lower approval of city commission,” Shewmaker says.
In general, Knoll and Shewmaker’s findings showed that there are many influences over a person’s political persuasions.
“The bottom line is that how a person self-identifies their heritage does affect that person’s political attitudes,” says Knoll. “The findings suggest that rhetoric—about health care reform being socialist or whatnot—has worked, to some extent, and has become associated with the topic in the minds of many Americans.”
As a native of Boyle County, Shewmaker particularly enjoyed working on the local aspect of the research.
“I was excited to see the exit poll results,” says Shewmaker. “I’ve lived here for a long time, but thinking about why voters in this precinct think this way or that was interesting and fun.”
Knoll and Shewmaker will present their findings on national attitudes towards health care reform at the annual conference of the American Science Association (ASA) in New Orleans this September. The results in their research on local city politics will be presented to the community in the hopes that it can be helpful for Danville as a whole.
“That information may be useful to voters in Danville,” Knoll says.
“It’ll also be helpful for candidates to look at information and analyze and try to figure out why this was the case,” Shewmaker adds. “The exit poll is unique for Danville in that a lot of counties this size don’t have access to this information.”
The opportunity to collaborate, says Knoll, is another benefit of this research.
“It’s awesome that Centre supports student-faculty research,” says Knoll. “Having these opportunities is an important part of the Centre experience.”
To read more about the results of Knoll and Shewmaker’s research, visit Knoll’s blog atinformationknoll.com.