Same old story

by Andrew Gelman on March 25, 2012 · 11 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Public opinion

In a review of psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s recent book, “The Righteous Mind,” William Saletan writes:

You’re smart. You’re liberal. You’re well informed. You think conservatives are narrow-minded. You can’t understand why working-class Americans vote Republican. You figure they’re being duped. You’re wrong. . . .

Haidt diverges from other psychologists who have analyzed the left’s electoral failures. The usual argument of these psycho-­pundits is that conservative politicians manipulate voters’ neural roots — playing on our craving for authority, for example — to trick people into voting against their interests. But Haidt treats electoral success as a kind of evolutionary fitness test. He figures that if voters like Republican messages, there’s something in Republican messages worth liking. He chides psychologists who try to “explain away” conservatism, treating it as a pathology. Conservatism thrives because it fits how people think, and that’s what validates it. Workers who vote Republican aren’t fools. In Haidt’s words, they’re “voting for their moral interests.”

Hmmm, conservatism fits how people think . . . Republicans are voting for their moral interests . . . it makes you wonder how the Democrats get any votes at all. Presumably it has something to do with economic policy, which, as we have discussed, has a moral dimension.

I have not seen Haidt’s book; my earlier comments on his statements are here. (Before you go out and criticize me for reviewing a book I haven’t read, let me emphasize that (a) this blog post is not a book review, and (b) nobody sent me a copy.)

So, without disagreeing with Haidt (whose book I have not seen) or with Saletan (who may simply be reacting to things he read in Haidt’s book), let me just point out two facts that might clarify the above-quoted discussion:

1. Most working-class American voters vote for Democrats, not Republicans.

2. Richer people are more likely to vote Republican, in the country as a whole, within each racial group, and, among whites, within each level of education (except possibly at the lowest education level, where low sample sizes leave the pattern unclear).

How does this relate to Saletan’s discussion? Those conservative moral interests seem a lot more compelling to people who make a lot of money than to people who are just getting by. Or, to flip it around, liberal moral interests seem much more salient if you’re making less than $75,000 a year.

This is not economic determinism; it’s poll data. Our research, as well as that of Steve Ansolabehere and others, has consistently found that economic ideology—-attitudes, not necessarily self-interest—-predicts voting better than social ideology. Social attitudes are more important than they used to be.


John Guidry March 25, 2012 at 6:11 pm

Could you give us some aggregate examples of this poll data. I do not doubt that the data trends the way you claim, but I also know that there are plenty of people who make less then $75,000 a year who consider themselves republicans as well as many who make more than $75,000 a year who consider themselves democrats. How much is most? 51%? 95%? While I am not convinced of Haidt’s hypothesis, I believe that your rebuttals are just as suspect, because they both seem to be propped up by generalizations and oversimplifications.

Andrew Gelman March 25, 2012 at 6:22 pm


1. Follow the link for some graphs.

2. I think you’re confused about my post. It’s not a rebuttal to Haidt, whose book I have not read. What I am doing is stating some facts. No generalizations (beyond the standard generalization from sample to population in a survey) and no oversimplifications.

E March 25, 2012 at 10:15 pm

I think that when conservatives complain of a liberal “elite,” what they are thinking of is a political, rather than economic, elite. I realize many kinds of class analyses assume that those who have the money exercise absolute, total control over politics and culture, but I’m not sure I’m buying it. After all, formal elections are just one form of political participation. Corporate donations from “right-wing” sources like the fossil fuel industry contend with union donations (not inconsiderable) from “left-wing” sources (not to mention trial lawyers, etc.) It is also reasonable to consider that the left-wing dominance of bureaucratic institutions (outside of the “military-industrial complex”) can exert long-term influence. The fact that wealthy industry seeks to influence policy is no reason to pretend that left-wing counterparts are scrappy underdogs with virtually no influence in public policy.

Nonetheless, I do think it’s important to dispel the myth of poor people flocking to the Republicans because (1) it’s not true and (2) that distorted picture not only hurts the general understanding of political behavior but also (if they buy into it) hurts conservatives by providing bad political advice (“We can win poor whites with guns and gay marriage!” or “We can win Hispanics with amnesty and family values!”).

P.S.: It’s not just some conservative pundits sick of being identified with the “party of the rich,” but a number of liberal commentators (George Packer, Jonathan Chait) who seem to be enjoying a sort of revenge fantasy of imagining their political opponents as “poor and ignorant” (and whose opinions are therefore not legitimate to even discuss)

P.P.S.: Dr. Gelman, in fairness to Michael Barone, I recently viewed an interview with him on a Ricochet video with Peter Robinson where he acknowledged the reality of wealthy conservative voters (like in the Dallas area). I think he got your message, even if he didn’t mention your name!

Lorenzo from Oz March 26, 2012 at 2:28 am

Conservative intellectuals complain of liberal elites because that is what they experience in their work-and-social milieu. Liberals (and folk further left) DO dominate academe (and the mainstream media), the data is quite clear.

Now, generalising from this to the wider society is not legitimate: the data is clear on that too, as this blog keeps reminding us. But if you think of the social context in which intellectuals live and operate (academe and the media), then the rhetoric of conservative intellectuals makes much more sense.

John March 27, 2012 at 5:18 pm

Just curious, but how is the “data clear?” In college, I had no idea of my instructors’ political leanings, whichever way they were. In Calculus class, we studied calculus. In Data Structures class, we covered using data structures to write program code. It’s not like in the middle of some technical class, our instructor starts spouting out his political beliefs.

I hear a lot of talk from conservatives about liberals in college and university, but having been there myself, I have no idea what they’re talking about. I suspect that more educated people tend to be more liberal, thus conservatives are making the logical leap that higher education instructors must churn out liberals.

John March 26, 2012 at 10:03 am

Would love to hear your opinions on how the Affordable Care Act will go in the Supreme Court this week.

Wonks Anonymous March 26, 2012 at 3:00 pm

Haidt has collected lots of data on the moral opinions of people. Some people are liberals, in his terms they place most of their emphasis on “harm” and “fairness”, and relatively little on “purity”, “authority” and “in-group loyalty”. Most people around the world are more like conservatives, liberals are found among the W.E.I.R.D. If they just vote their pocketbook, that may not matter.

Glenn Wright March 26, 2012 at 4:31 pm

I’ve read Haidt’s stuff in detail, and I think you’re dismissing it a little too quickly. Haidt isn’t concerned so much with voting behavior as with self-identification as “liberal” or “conservative”, and I think his empirical research actually sheds quite a bit of light on why there’s a portion of the Democratic electorate that self-identifies as “conservative” — they favor many redistributive policies, but the overall structure of their moral beliefs is somewhat different from what you find among people who self-identify as “liberal” or “very liberal.” Anyway, I encourage you to check it out — it’s not just a new spin on the “What’s the Matter With Kansas” genre.

F. Penski Jr March 27, 2012 at 4:21 pm

I am not arguing that one should bow to someone’s opinion simply because of their standing or purported merit. However, I would like to point out that you opinion is rooted in contradiction. You argue that he lacks justification for a position that he details through 419 pages in this book which stands on a body of work that includes numerous other works, critical analysis from peers and continued relevance in his field through praise and criticism while you attack his position with this as your foundation for your opinion:

“I have not seen Haidt’s book; my earlier comments on his statements are here. (Before you go out and criticize me for reviewing a book I haven’t read, let me emphasize that (a) this blog post is not a book review, and (b) nobody sent me a copy.)”

I am all for critique. I am sure you are a talented individual. However, when I am presented with what you have written above, I am disappointed that you are discredit yourself with such a childish blunder. With that I would like to simply say, (a) how is this not a book review when the two primary points of contention for you are critiques of positions from his book and (b) why is it just assumed that someone should send you this book? Are you incapable of purchasing reading material or unable to get a library card? Please, for the sake of your own reputation, do not demand the ear of others when you so brashly spurn those who request it and have earned it.

Andrew Gelman March 27, 2012 at 4:49 pm


I do not “argue that [Haidt] lacks justification . . .” I think you’re confused about my post. It’s not a rebuttal to Haidt, whose book I have not read. What I am doing is stating some facts. I hope these facts are useful to you and others in processing the discussion that I quote above.

F. Penski Jr March 27, 2012 at 4:23 pm

I wrote this quickly, I apologize for the following errors.

“disappointed that you are discredit yourself…”

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