clock menu more-arrow no yes

“Ethnic outbidding”: the academic theory that helps explain Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric

(Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

When Donald Trump called for banning Muslims from entering the United States, it was the most extreme moment of Islamophobia in the presidential campaign, but it was by no means the first. Various candidates have called for only admitting Christian refugees, called Muslim immigration to America an "invasion," and suggested that Muslims should not become president.

There's a litany of factors thought to be driving this anti-Muslim sentiment. But a political science theory known as "ethnic outbidding" offers another possible explanation, raised by Steve Saideman, a political scientist at Carleton University.

The basic idea is that political leaders competing for support from an ethnically homogeneous group (in this case, the majority-white, majority-Christian GOP) have really strong incentives to demonize outgroups to gain political support. Once that process has started, this rhetoric increases the hostility, and each candidate may try to one-up the others to compete for a bloc of voters who hate or fear that outgroup — in this case, Muslims.

The candidates don't necessarily need to actually hate Muslims to engage in hateful rhetoric, in this theory. (And it's true that Islam is not an ethnicity; the point is that it's a demographic outgroup.) Trump, the theory goes, is just the most shameless.

"Trump is outbidding the other Republicans — trying to be the most hostile to America's Muslims," Saideman writes.

This theory can't explain everything, of course: for example, why it's ended up targeting Muslims. But it does suggest an interesting and fairly compelling factor to help explain why this year, more than any prior year, candidates are saying such cruel things about Muslims — and why the rhetoric seems to be getting harsher as the campaign goes on.

The theory: "ethnic outbidding"

Tamil Protesters March Through Hyde Park
A rally in London in support of Tamil self-determination in Sri Lanka.
(Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Saideman defines "ethnic outbidding" as "when politicians compete for the support of a particular ethnic group, leading to ever greater demands to protect that group at the expense of others." Like, say, Ben Carson saying Muslims shouldn't be president and then Trump going further and saying we should ban Muslims from entering the United States.

The theory's proponents — most famous among them being Duke's Donald Horowitz — use it to explain why some (though not all) multi-ethnic democracies seem at times unstable and prone to conflict. The basic problem, according to Horowitz and others, comes from ethnic parties. When a party's base is overwhelmingly from one ethnic group, politicians inside that party have a strong incentive to appeal to that group's particular interests. One really effective way to do that is to appeal to xenophobia and fear of outside ethnic groups.

This can create a kind of demagogic arms race. When one politician gets traction by demonizing other ethnic groups, others follow suit — and even try to one-up them.

One famous example is Sri Lanka. In his seminal work Ethnic Groups in Conflict, Horowitz writes that Sri Lanka's ruling party as of 1948 (just after independence) had leaders from both the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority. But by the 1956 election, the party's Sinhalese leaders decided to endorse making Sinhalese the sole national language — and not include the Tamil language.

Why did they do this? According to Saideman, it was in part out of politics. "With more than 80% of the population from the Sinhala ethnic group, and political institutions over-representing whichever part that gained more votes," he writes, "politicians learned to play to the one group."

This polarized both sides. The ruling party became more Sinhalese and began formally excluding Tamils from power, and the Tamil parties began competing for votes on grounds of who could propose the most aggressive response to Sinhalese repression. This tore the country's once-peaceful democracy apart.

"Tamil protests were met with Sinhalese violence in 1956 and again in 1958, when most of the island was subjected to a wave of killing," Horowitz writes. "As the Tamils were increasingly excluded from the public life of the country, the [Tamil] Federal Party turned to tactics of peaceful non-cooperation, culminating in a two-year state of emergency in Tamil areas."

This ethnic tension eventually culminated in an outright civil war along ethnic lines, which lasted until 2009. Somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 people were killed over the course of the conflict.

But this all began, in part, with structural political incentives created by Sri Lanka's ethnic parties that encouraged mutual fear, hatred, and competition. "On both sides," Horowitz writes, "intraethnic party competition had produced a politics of outbidding on ethnic demands that made reconciliation difficult."

Obviously nothing like this is going to happen in the United States. The US and Sri Lanka are very different places. But the point of the comparison is to show how ethnic politics can become a self-escalating phenomenon with a logic all its own. In the US, that is not going to lead to anything as bad as civil war. But it is part of how we've gotten to Trump's rhetoric, and that is scary enough on its own.

How ethnic outbidding explains Trump's Muslim comments

President Donald Trump. Isaac Brekken/Getty

Not every multi-ethnic democracy has problems with ethnic outbidding: MIT's Kanchan Chandra, an ethnic outbidding skeptic, argues that Indian ethnic parties have been fairly good at restraining this. But there are some reasons to see it in what's happening with anti-Muslim politics in the US.

Here's the basic diagnosis: The Republican party is overwhelmingly white and Christian, and deeply skeptical of Muslims. A recent poll found that 76 percent of Republicans believed "the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life." As Saideman put it in a note to me, "Politicians cannot outbid unless there is an audience for it."

Moreover, because the Republican field is so crowded, there's a real need for politicians to compete with each other. The GOP remained relatively un-Islamophobic during George W. Bush's presidency, according to Saideman, because Bush didn't have to substantially compete with other Republicans for political support.

Bush "had monopoly within [the] GOP so he didn't need to do this," Saideman told me. "This is happening now precisely because there are so many candidates in the GOP and each needs to get attention."

Finally, issues related to Islam are on the top of the political docket. Candidates are constantly being asked to weigh in on questions like whether ISIS represents a problem with Islam or whether Syrian refugees are threats to the United States. Polls have found that terrorism is one of the top issues for Republican primary voters, which wasn't as true in previous election cycles. So the candidates are piling on.

"In 20 years I have not heard such intolerance and hatred from political leaders in this society," Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told the Guardian.

Trump is, of course, by far the worst — calling for the closure of mosques, floating the idea of a database registering all Muslims, praising Japanese internment as an example for dealing with minorities, and, of course, proposing to ban Muslims from entering the country.

This owes to the very nature of the Trump campaign. Trump's campaign depends on two things: marshaling xenophobic, white nationalism and media attention. He needs to perpetually show that he's more hard-line on Muslims and other minority immigrant groups than other Republicans to fire up his base, and he needs media controversies to keep his name at the front of voters' minds.

It's almost impossible to imagine a candidate more likely to engage in ethnic outbidding about Muslims.