The Seeds of Ideology: Historical Immigration and Political Preferences in the United States


By Dr Paola Giuliano and Dr Marco Tabellini

Recent immigration flows to Europe and the US are usually associated with heated political backlash. Yet, little is known on the long run impact of immigration on political ideology and natives’ preferences. In our paper, we seek to fill this gap, and analyze how European immigrants moving to the US between 1900 and 1930 shaped American political ideology and views on the role of government among natives today. We show that the historical presence of European immigrants is associated with a more liberal political ideology and with stronger preferences for redistribution among US born individuals today. This is driven by the transmission of immigrants’ preferences and political ideology to natives – a process reinforced by inter-group contact.

Immigration is one of the most important political and social issues around the world. The political discourse is often reflected in the rise of anti-immigrant, right-wing parties that emphasize the lack of immigrants’ assimilation, painting it as a vital threat to host societies. While a large and growing body of work has examined the short run political impact of immigration (Dustmann et al. 2019; Halla et al., 2017; Tabellini, 2020), much less is known about the effects of immigration on natives’ political ideology in the long run. And yet, the long run effects of immigration on natives’ political preferences can vastly differ from their short run counterpart. First, consistent with the “contact hypothesis” (Allport, 1954), natives can change their attitudes towards minorities after prolonged interactions, which may gradually eliminate initially negative stereotypes. Second, although the immigration literature typically views the process of immigrants’ assimilation as one sided – with immigrants converging towards the new, local culture (Abramitzky et al., 2020; Fouka, 2020; Lazear, 1999) – it is possible for immigrants’ culture to spill-over into that of natives, eventually creating a diverse and “melting pot” society.

Our recent work (Giuliano and Tabellini, 2021) explores these ideas, by studying the long run effects of the 1900-1930 migration of millions of Europeans on political ideology of US born individuals today, which we measure using nationally representative survey data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES). This historical period, also known as the Age of Mass Migration, offers several advantages.1 First, as today, also at the time natives’ concerns about the lack of immigrants’ assimilation loomed large (Abramitzky and Boustan, 2017; Higham, 1955). Second, the composition of immigrants changed dramatically during these 30 years, thereby allowing us to leverage variation in the cultural background and in the political preferences of different European groups. Third, we can estimate the effects of immigration on American ideology over more than a century.


The 1900-1930 decades also represent an almost ideal “quasi-natural” experiment to causally identify the effects of immigration (Abramitzky and Boustan, 2017; Abramitzky et al., 2019a; Tabellini, 2020). Between 1910 and 1930, immigration from different European countries was differentially impacted by nation-wide shocks – World War I and the Immigration Acts – that were arguably unrelated to cultural, political, or economic conditions prevailing in individual US counties at the time.2 Because immigrants tend to concentrate in areas with larger ethnic enclaves, the differential effect of these shocks across European countries generated significant variation in the number as well as in the “cultural mix” of immigrants received by US counties between 1910 and 1930.

Born respondents who today live in counties with higher historical immigration are significantly more likely to vote for the Democratic Party and to support more generous welfare spending. These effects are quantitatively large, and comparable to those of key determinants of political preferences in the United States. For instance, a 5 percentage point increase in the average immigrant share has an impact that is roughly equivalent to that estimated in other work for the effects of race or that of moving from an income of 100,000 to an income of 20,000 US dollars per year (Alesina and Giuliano, 2011). We obtain similar findings for several other proxies of left-leaning political preferences and preferences for redistribution, such as party identification or support for an increase in the minimum wage.

Our results have important policy implications:

The long run effects of immigration and diversity can differ from their short run counterparts. To the best of our knowledge, our paper is the first to document that immigration is associated with a higher desire for redistribution and a more left leaning political ideology, contrary to studies showing the opposite for the short run. (Alesina et al., 1999; Dahlberg et al., 2012; Tabellini, 2020)

Assimilation is not a one-way process. While immigrants likely converge towards natives’ culture, they might also transmit their values and ideology to locals. In our context, European immigrants imported their political preferences and desire for the welfare state, transmitting them to US born individuals.

Consistent with our conjecture, we find that higher exposure to social welfare reforms in immigrants’ countries of origin is predictive of stronger preferences for redistribution and a more liberal ideology today among US born respondents.

We provide supportive evidence for our argument that immigration left its footprint on American ideology via cultural transmission from immigrants to natives by constructing an index of exposure to historical social welfare reforms in immigrants’ countries of origin. This index counts the number of years elapsed between the introduction of the different reforms and the year in which an individual emigrated. It includes reforms on education, pension, health, unemployment, insurance, and occupational injuries. Consistent with our conjecture, we find that higher exposure to social welfare reforms in immigrants’ countries of origin is predictive of stronger preferences for redistribution and a more liberal ideology today among US born respondents.

We dig deeper into the possibility that immigrants could have transmitted their ideology to natives, by exploiting differences in intergroup contact, proxied for by using inter-marriage and residential integration – We show that the effects of immigration on natives’ ideology are stronger in counties where, historically, intergroup contact –was higher, and where immigrants’ preferences could thus be more easily transmitted to natives.

We conclude by showing that European immigrants’ support for social welfare started to influence the attitudes of US-born individuals soon after the end of the Age of Mass Migration in the election of 1928, the year when Alfred Smith, a Roman Catholic with immigrant background, ran as candidate for the Democratic Party, against the Republican opponent, Herbert Hoover, who emphasized the idea of “rugged individualism” (Bazzi et al., 2020). The 1928 increase in support for the Democratic Party in places with a higher immigrant share persisted until today, suggesting that the initial political mobilization of immigrants (Andersen, 1979) was an important factor behind the positive association between historical immigration and left-leaning ideology today. In addition, and consistent with political realignment, we find that the presence of European immigrants, with their strong support for government spending and redistribution, influenced the allocation of New Deal spending across US counties.

Findings in this paper highlight the importance of distinguishing between the short and the long run effects of diversity and immigration on political preferences and ideology in receiving countries. Although immigrants might be opposed, generate backlash, and reduce natives’ preferences for redistribution upon arrival, they might eventually lead to higher social cohesion and stronger desire for generous government spending over a longer horizon of time. Moreover, our results indicate that immigrants’ assimilation is not a one-sided process and that, instead, immigrants’ preferences might spill over and be transmitted to natives, thereby contributing to a diverse and complex culture, and to the development of a “melting-pot” society.

We conclude reflecting briefly on the extent to which our findings apply to other contexts, and the recent inflow of refugees to Europe in particular. First, at the time of our study, the US was a relatively young country, and its culture may have been more “malleable” than that of many European countries that, today, are experiencing large influx of immigrants and refugees. For this reason, one might expect immigration to Europe to have a smaller effect on long-run ideology and culture today relative to what we found for the Age of Mass Migration in the US context. Second, we focused on a specific set of beliefs: political ideology and preferences for redistribution. More evidence is needed to tell whether our results apply to other cultural and socio-economic domains, since different cultural traits may be more amenable to horizontal transmission than others. Finally, the setting considered in our work entailed two groups – Anglo- Saxon descendants and European immigrants – that were relatively “similar” along many dimensions. It is thus possible that at higher levels of diversity (ethnic, religious, and racial), as those prevailing today between Europeans and incoming refugees, the transmission mechanism identified in our work might be less likely to operate.

About the Authors

Dr Paola Giuliano

Dr Paola Giuliano is a Professor of Economics at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. Her main areas of research are culture and economics and political economy. She holds a B.A. from Bocconi University (Milan) and a Ph.D. in economics from the University of California, Berkeley.

Dr Marco Tabellini

Dr Marco Tabellini is an Assistant Professor at Harvard Business School. Marco focuses on topics in political economy and economic history to study the economic, political, and social effects of migration and diversity. Marco holds a PhD in economics from the M.I.T.


The Age of Mass Migration is typically defined as the period between 1850 and 1920. However, the largest migration flows occurred between 1900 and 1914, and the immigrant share of the US population peaked at 14% in 1920 (Abramitzky and Boustan, 2017).

Most notably, the Immigration Act of 1921 introduced country-specific quotas that were based on the population of each country living in the United States in 1910. With the National Origins Act of 1924, the “baseline year” was moved to 1890, when very few immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe were living in the US, with the goal of restricting immigration from these regions even further (Goldin, 1994).


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