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It is a commonplace assumption in public discourse about immigration that anti-immigrant sentiment is mainly to be found among the working classes and low-income groups generally, and that this ideological bent is therefore connected in some way to a perception of one’s own social exclusion. In Finland, which has seen a steep rise in popularity for its populist Finns Party in the years following the European migrant crisis of 2015, culminating in a close second place in the 2018 parliamentary election and a current lead in opinion polls, the same assumption seems plausible at first glance.
However, the latest research from Rasmus Mannerström, a researcher at the Swedish School of Social Science of the University of Helsinki, and colleagues Joona Muotka (University of Jyväskylä), Sointu Leikas and Jan-Erik Lönnqvist (both University of Helsinki), presents data that bring the assumption into question.
In their recent academic article, the researchers relate findings from a statistical analysis about the political attitudes of young people in Finland, aged 18-29. The survey that provided the data sets was conducted in 2015, around the time of the parliamentary elections, and afforded the researchers a fairly representative sample of the young people.
“What our study showed was that anti-immigration views were in fact the strongest among the most privileged.”
The survey measured attitudes about immigration, social benefits, income inequality, respect for the environment, and the strength of the defense forces. Based on the participants’ answers, four ideological groups emerged: a left-wing liberal group, a right-wing liberal group, then a left-wing conservative and a right-wing conservative group.
We spoke with Dr. Mannerström, who explained to us what these groupings meant. “Previously, political ideology was shared only on one dimension, and that was economic policy, which positioned you either left or right. But today, as can be seen in this study, there has been movement away from the economic dimension to what is called the socio-cultural dimension, where you consider questions of immigration, environment, same-sex marriage, etc. And this is called in traditional terms as the liberal-conservative dimension.”
Measuring where respondents fit based on both dimensions then position them in one of the four groups. A right-liberal, for example, “is right-wing on economic issues—they favor income gaps, low social benefits—but at the same time they also support immigration and to some degree environmental issues,” explained Mannerström.
As it turned out, the right-liberal group was also the most represented. “Almost half of our respondents in the study showed this ideology. One strong explanation for this is that, although our sample was for the most part fairly representative, the overall majority of it consisted of young adults from cities. And in cities young adults are significantly more liberal in their values, which likely explains why about half of the sample population would fall into this group.”
The researchers found an expected imbalance in gender representation. “Men were over-represented in the right-wing conservative group and women were over-represented in the left-liberal group.” These results confirm the generally held notion that women tend to be more liberal than men, as well as the idea that young people—especially those from cities— tend to be in favor of immigration in general.
Sentiments of social class
The surprising result, however, was the correlation of anti-immigrant sentiment with the social class of respondents. As Mannerström said, “the right-wing conservatives scored highest on income and it turned out that most of them were already in working life, they had permanent jobs, they had a fairly high education, and they scored highest on psychological well-being. So this group was on many variables considered the most privileged. But at the same time this group scored highest on anti-immigration views.” This right-conservative group was also the second biggest, behind right-liberals. Left-conservatives came third, while left-liberals were the smallest group.
The idea that affluent and well-educated youth are most inclined to hold anti-immigrant views runs contrary to popular belief. “It has been long considered that anti-immigrant views are most popular only among the low- income groups. But it doesn’t seem to be exactly like that. It is true that the left-conservative group, which scored high on anti-immigration as well, were mostly working class, which fits with the traditional view. But what our study showed was that anti-immigration views were in fact the strongest among the most privileged.”
This finding also has implications for Finland’s electoral politics. In recent years, the anti-immigrant Finns Party has made great advances to become the second-biggest party in parliament and currently sitting at the top of opinion polls. “The general view in Finland has been that the Finns Party voting base consists of working-class and low-income people. But the study of young adults showed a majority of Finns Party supporters were actually right-wing conservatives. They were very well-off and not as marginalized as we usually think.”
The research did not extend to explaining this correlation between high social class and anti-immigrant views among young Finnish people. As this was a statistical study, there were no open questions, which means that the motives and reasoning behind the political attitudes of these young adults were not examined. Dr. Mannerström also pointed out that the four groups were created by the researchers based on the respondents’ answers, but that the respondents themselves, if interviewed, may very well disagree with the labels.
Still, the survey showed that the political climate is ever-changing and that older models and assumptions about it may not always be up-to-date enough to explain it.