In a primary season filled with outlandish policy promises, one has stood out: Donald Trump’s pledge to strong-arm Mexico into paying for and building a wall to stop undocumented immigrants from crossing into the United States.
Many observers view Trump’s remarks as nothing more than “cheap talk,” aimed at consolidating support during a competitive primary season. But say he gets elected in November. What happens when the public demands action?
A new website by the Comparative Agendas Project, comparativeagendas.net, offers tools to answer this and other questions about how leaders actually govern. In policy areas such as immigration, CAP collects and categorizes policy data and solutions for researchers to analyze. The new online platform — a collaboration by global policy scholars and the University of Texas at Austin — includes a data repository and visualization tool that gives anyone the opportunity to compare previously unavailable policy data across political systems.
Let’s look at immigration to get an example of how the database works. Republican immigration rhetoric might give the impression that immigration is the most important issue on the next president’s agenda. But historically, immigration has taken a very narrow slice of presidential attention.
And that’s true not just in the United States. Despite increasing rhetoric about migration around the world, advanced democracies routinely ignore immigration, at least compared with the attention they give other policy areas.
How do we know this? By analyzing the relative importance of immigration policy in presidential agendas. The Comparative Agendas Project measures executive priorities as expressed in State of the Union speeches. And there, the focus on immigration is pretty small.
Here’s how we do it. The project goes through State of the Union speeches. In each sentence, it codes the policy area being discussed. Researchers categorize policy according to 20 major and 220 minor policy topics. The scheme is consistent across political systems and across the types of policy outputs — whether those be U.S. executive speeches, Belgian news coverage or Danish parliamentary questions. Many countries use executive speeches to highlight the upcoming legislative agenda. Using the project’s Web tool, we chart executive speeches in the United States and the United Kingdom for the period 1982 to 2014.
Immigration, we find, never takes up more than 3 percent of a president’s State of the Union speech. And that’s even in recent years. For long periods from 1970 through the 1990s, immigration wasn’t even mentioned.
The new CAP platform builds off the U.S. Policy Agendas Project, started by Bryan Jones and Frank Baumgartner in 1993 as a way to establish consistent and comparable measures of policy over time. CAP extends their policy-coding scheme beyond U.S. federal analyses to about 20 nations, enabling researchers to measure issues like immigration across a number of countries and governing systems.
Looking at executive speeches across Europe, we find similarly scant mentions of immigration as a priority. Since 1990, immigration has never totaled more than 5 percent of executive speeches in the United States or the United Kingdom. Even so, look at the figure below to note the expansion of the topic during the past 20 years in both countries.
Over a longer timespan, executives in the United States and the United Kingdom alike spend relatively few words on immigration in addresses to the nation. During the first decade of the 2000s, immigration rose dramatically on the agenda, revealing that the topic has grabbed a larger portion of the executives’ agendas. On the other hand, mentions have declined since 2009, perhaps because of the economic crisis.
We can test that speculation by examining the focus on macroeconomics by political executives, but we also find increased interest as a percentage of statements for the United Kingdom, in particular, during the 1980s.
Immigration may be a hot-button issue for U.S. candidates on the campaign trail — it is certainly “sexier” than interest rates or price controls — but in practice, immigration is not a traditional presidential agenda item in the United States or elsewhere. And any researcher who has a hunch or a question about whether some other subject is often more talked about than actually put on the agenda — or vice versa — is welcome to check the CAP project.
Annelise Russell is a government PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin and director of undergraduate research and education for the U.S. Policy Agendas Project.