Renowned sociologist is utterly misinformed about American voters

Elder statesman of sociology Peter Berger writes:

[New York mayor Michael Bloomberg] resides in his private apartment on the Upper East Side. His co-resident is a woman to whom he is not married—something that he would probably not get away with as mayor in many other American cities. In an international perspective, however, he is in good company—both the current presidents of France and Germany live with similarly non-matrimonial partners. I cannot say whether Bloomberg’s quasi-European lifestyle has anything to do with his idea of New York City as a quasi-European welfare state.

Background here (via Jay Livingston).

This is just pitiful. First off, what’s with this idea that “non-matrimonial partners” is something un-American? Berger is a sociologist; hasn’t he heard about the General Social Survey? The second silliness is the idea that Americans outside of New York and similar places wouldn’t vote for a politician who lives with a woman not his wife. Hasn’t he heard of Newt Gingrich? John McCain? Bill Clinton, for chrissake? Ronald Reagan???

Beyond Berger’s mistakes, I find his attitude annoying. If you want to support traditional family values and the paramount importance of marriage, fine. Put a Santorum sign on your lawn, vote against Bloomberg’s opponent (unless it happens to be Ed Koch, Rudy Guiliani, Anthony Weiner, or Christine Quinn), donate a hundred dollars to Pat Robertson, whatever. But don’t kid yourself that “the great unwashed” (in Berger’s terms) are on your side.

Perhaps the more interesting question, though, is how Berger could get this so wrong. Here I think he is subject to the same fallacies discussed in Red State Blue State, fallacies that afflict commentators on both the left and the right. In this case it’s just particularly ridiculous, first that he thinks that it’s noteworthy that the mayor is not married to his girlfriend, second that he thinks that voters outside of NYC would be bothered by it. I wonder what Berger was thinking during the Monica Lewinsky episode? Perhaps his take on it was that he personally could accept the behavior but that the vast majority of Americans would consider Clinton unfit to be president?

P.S. Some of the commenters below seemed to have missed the point, so let me clarify. Berger is upset by some of the policies of Mayor Bloomberg and describes Bloomberg’s “non-matrimonial” lifestyle as “quasi-European” and unacceptable to Americans in places outside of New York. I find this implausible for several reasons:

1. Lots of Americans live that non-matrimonial lifestyle. Here’s the Pew report from 2011, which begins, “Cohabitation is an increasingly prevalent lifestyle in the United States. The share of 30- to 44-year-olds living as unmarried couples has more than doubled since the mid-1990s.” A sociologist should know to check the Pew report!

2. OK, maybe Americans cohabitate themselves but they are moralistic when judging such behavior in politicians. That claim of moralistic voting seems inconsistent with the popularity and electoral success of Bill Clinton, John McCain, Newt Gingrich, etc., in all sorts of places outside New York City. Non-matrimonial lifestyles may well have hurt these candidates at different times, but recall that Berger’s claim was not simply that being unmarried would lose a candidate some votes, it was that such a candidate “probably not get away with.”

3. As a commenter below pointed out, the mayor of Houston is openly gay. But what about male mayors living with their girlfriends? I googled mayor girlfriend and came up with this story from the Columbus Dispatch, titled “Coleman, girlfriend buy Downtown condo,” which begins:

Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman and girlfriend Janelle Simmons have purchased a condo together for $456,000 in Downtown Columbus.

Coleman, 57, and Simmons, 40, moved into the 1,805-square-foot, three-story condo on N. 5th Street this month, according to documents filed with the Franklin County recorder’s office.

Coleman’s spokesman, Dan Williamson, confirmed that the longtime mayor had been renting an apartment at the Annex at River South along the Scioto River, then moved into the condominium with Simmons.

My search also turned up the mayors of Los Angeles (“LA mayor, girlfriend break up after 3 years”), Atlanta (“Exclusive: Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s girlfriend is Sarah-Elizabeth Langford”), and Hickman, Kentucky (“Kentucky Mayor killed by girlfriend’s son”).

4. As noted above, I think Berger, as indicated by his reference to “the great unwashed,” is making the same “red-state blue state” mistake that has been made by many others, thinking that lower-social-class non-coastal Americans are more conservative in their voting than they really are.

5. In a larger sense, I don’t think Berger’s argument makes sense. As with Freudianism, Marxism, and other completely flexible theories, his reasoning can be used to prove anything. Consider this. Berger wrote of a Bloomberg policy that he didn’t like, then described Bloomberg as “quasi-European” for living with a woman not his wife. But suppose the opposite were the case. Suppose that, instead of being divorced, Bloomberg was a doting grandfather living happily with his first wife. Then Berger could just flip the argument around and say something like this: “Look, Bloomberg acts sooooo moralistic, showing off his oh-so-perfect marriage. Well, Americans outside of New York City are not so foolish as to fall for that. American voters care about policies, not personalities. And, in any case, as the Pew Report discusses, stable marriages are increasingly an upper-class phenomenon in the United States, so by going on about his moral behavior, Bloomberg is showing how he is an out-of-touch elitist once again.” The point is that Berger’s claims about how Americans vote are not just wrong, they’re irrelevant to his argument.

19 Responses to Renowned sociologist is utterly misinformed about American voters

  1. anonymous coward July 27, 2012 at 4:21 pm #

    “His co-resident is a woman to whom he is not married—something that he would probably not get away with as mayor in many other American cities.”

    Nobody tell him about Annise Parker or his head will explode.

    • Andrew Gelman July 27, 2012 at 4:32 pm #

      That’s ok, Berger also thinks he can cure convert gay people and make them straight (follow the links for details). On the plus side, he doesn’t say he wants to do this, just that he could if he felt like it.

      • Thomas July 27, 2012 at 6:25 pm #

        No, he doesn’t say he can “cure” gay people. That’s simply a lie.

        • Jeremy Miles July 27, 2012 at 7:14 pm #

          He uses the word ‘convert’ in conjunction with the word ‘therapy’. That sounds very close to ‘cure’. But in his defense, he says he could convert straight people to being gay as well.

          • Thomas July 27, 2012 at 11:09 pm #

            In his defense, he suggests (foolishly, in my view) that he can convert anyone to almost anything, and, yes, he says he can convert straight people to being gay, and says that in any case he’s morally opposed to converting people in any way, and has no interest in converting people’s sexual orientation. Convert is not very close to cure at all. So, yeah, as I said, what Gelman said is a lie. And his conduct is sufficient to make out a prima facie case of defamation. Maybe he thinks the old guy won’t find out?

            • Wow July 29, 2012 at 1:58 pm #

              What’s the point of trolling an academic political science blog? Professors write it and no one has more experience ignoring insults from the uneducated then someone who deals with undergraduates.

  2. RobC July 27, 2012 at 5:28 pm #

    Professor Berger writes about whether people would vote for a politician who lives with a woman not his wife. You say he’s full of beans and cite Newt Gingrich, John McCain, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. In none of those cases, however, does it appear that they were living with a woman not their wife at the time they were elected. Some of them had extra-marital affairs at some point prior to their election (Gingrich, possibly McCain) or after their election (Clinton), but voters being willing to overlook previous adultery seems different from voters overlooking someone “living in sin.” In the case of Reagan, there doesn’t even appear to be evidence of prior adultery. His first wife filed for divorce in 1948, which was granted in 1949. He met his second wife Nancy in 1949. He was certainly separated at that moment and may have been legally divorced; in any event, we don’t know whether he had sexual relations with Nancy in 1949 prior to the divorce being finalized.

    Berger may be wrong in his surmise about whether voters will accept politicians who reside with persons not their wives, but the electoral history of the four men you cite doesn’t disprove it. Rigor!

    • Andrew Gelman July 27, 2012 at 5:36 pm #


      See the comment above regarding the mayor of Houston. Regarding my examples: Americans were happy enough to elect known adulterer Clinton twice, and I don’t think people were arguing that McCain lost in 2008 because of extramarital affairs. It’s really really hard for me to imagine that Americans think that Bloomberg’s living with his girlfriend is more immoral or European or whatever than Clinton’s serial cheating (not “previous adultery,” he was doing it before and during his presidency and it was no secret) or, for that matter, the mayor of Houston being gay.

      As I wrote, if Berger wants to be a family-values conservative, that’s fine, but he shouldn’t kid himself that American voters outside of NYC can’t handle a mayor who lives with his girlfriend.

      • Thomas July 27, 2012 at 11:03 pm #

        Clinton’s serial adultery was of course strenuously denied before and during his presidency, until the evidence of one extramarital affair was so overwhelming that the denials lost credibility.

        Berger isn’t a family values conservative, as anyone who bothered to read his work with a little bit of attention would see. If you were 84 I’d cut you a break, but this is just sloppy.

    • Erik M. July 28, 2012 at 2:33 am #

      I came to this comments section wondering if anyone made RobC’s point above (which is also Thomas’s below) and how the author of the post would react. After reading Dr. Gelman’s response to RobC I’m still unsure why Gingrich, Clinton, Reagan, and McCain are analogous to Bloomberg. The larger point about Americans’ attitudes toward Bloomberg and people living together may be right, but these examples hardly prove it.

      As for arguments people made about McCain, here is political science professor Andra Gillespie on NPR in August 2008 predicting Americans might decline to vote or volunteer for John McCain because of extramarital affairs:

      “Barack Obama had to admit in front of the evangelical audience [at Saddleback Church] that he supported abortion rights and he supported civil unions, which probably won’t go over with that constituency terribly well. But this is also within the last week where CNN made known that, you know, John McCain committed adultery. So, if you can put people at cross pressures, so that they’re having doubts about John McCain’s trustworthiness, that might actually be able to cause some erosion and the erosion that we would have expect would [not?] necessarily be a wholesale shift to Barack Obama, but it could cause people to volunteer less. And if there’s anybody who’s on the fence who was not a typical voter, that’s the person who’s going to be less likely to be convinced to be able to vote in this particular election.” (source:

  3. Thomas July 27, 2012 at 6:22 pm #

    I wasn’t aware that any of Newt Gingrich, John McCain, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan had ever been elected while living with a woman not his wife (and not otherwise related to him), much less that it had happened for all of them. The things one learns on the internet!

    I was also surprised to learn that Berger, who has described himself as a proponent of civil unions for gays and as “mildly opposed” but “evolving” on gay marriage, who rejects the nomenclature of “traditional” marriage, who believes that the best outcome for “marriage” would be to entirely privatize it, could be compared to Rick Santorum in his attitudes. Berger’s opinion on the Lewinsky scandal is even not as I understood it to be. Again, the things one learns on the internet!

    • idiot July 27, 2012 at 9:02 pm #

      “the best outcome for “marriage” would be to entirely privatize it”

      To be perfectly honest, the position to privatize marriage is a right-wing position, as it ensures that culture (read: religion) still have a say in defining what marriage is, as opposed to the state. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the call to privatize marriage be equated with the call to not recognize gay marriage, because that’s functionally what it is.

      • Thomas July 27, 2012 at 11:04 pm #

        Perhaps you don’t understand Santorum’s views on marriage. That would make at least two people, you and our host, who seems very confused, to say the least, about some pretty basic things.

        • idiot July 28, 2012 at 1:41 am #

          …I don’t really think Santorum’s “true” views on marriage matters at all. Santorum is not FOR gay marriage. Neither is Berger, with his calls to privatize marriage. If you believe that being in favor of gay marriage is a left-wing position, then both Santroum and Berger are right-wing (in an cultural sense), and that was the point of my comment.

          Yes, Santroum and Berger may disagree on the exact DEGREE of opposition, and of how to deal with gays. Right-wing people often time disagree on exact policies, like left-wing people. But they DO agree on the same basic idea.

          • Thomas July 29, 2012 at 12:36 am #

            Yes, I can agree with all of that. And if one were to say that Santorum’s position on marriage–that the state should recognize (and should only recognize) opposite-sex relationships is the right-wing view, and then code everyone who disagrees, we’d see that Berger is left-wing (in the cultural and legal sense), and that you and Berger, while you disagree on your exactly DEGREE of opposition to the right-wing view, agree on the same basic idea, and that’s the point of my comment, which is that you functionally don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.

  4. Silly Wabbit July 27, 2012 at 10:29 pm #

    The U.S. is not unusually low compared to the cohabitation rates of other advanced countries:

    I would be surprised if cohabitation rates had a strong correlation with the generosity of the welfare state. If a dutiful (or bored) social scientist were to stick cohabitation rates into a multivariate regression model I doubt that, controlling for other substantive predictors, it is a strong or statistically significant predictor of welfare state generosity.

    I can’t offer any solid empirical observations about the effect of marital status or sexual history on the success of politicians. As far as I can tell cohabitation is the norm for people in their 20s and 30s. Even folks I know who oppose gay marriage, abortion and are politically conservative cohabitation is not given a second thought. I don’t think my experience is particularly abnormal.

    So I don’t really know what Berger is after here. I hate to say it but everything I read from this once great scholar makes him seem like another old man unable to deal with the changes in the world around him. In other words, he has not allowed his social construction of reality to evolve……..

  5. JoJo July 28, 2012 at 1:06 pm #

    Skimming Berger’s blog, it’s pretty clear he’s not basing his ideas about marriage on evidence. He seems to think there is war against the traditional family/ideal arrangment, and maybe perceives Bloomberg’s relationship to be an attack in this war. From his 1984 “war over the family ” book,

    “We believe that there is no viable alternative to the bourgeois family for the raising of children who will have a good chance of becoming responsible and autonomous individuals , nor do we see alternative arrangements by which adults , from youth to old age, will be given a stable context for the affiirmation of themselves and their values. The defense of the bourgeois family, therefore, is not an exercise in romantic nostalgia. It is something to be undertaken in defense of human happiness and human dignity …”

    I had to stop reading his blog when he starts spouting the idiotic, bigoted idea that gay marriage may lead to people marrying other species.

    • idiot July 28, 2012 at 3:42 pm #

      “I had to stop reading his blog when he starts spouting the idiotic, bigoted idea that gay marriage may lead to people marrying other species.”

      …Idiotic, bigoted…but correct. After all, bestiality is a real thing, and as another comment said, “social constructions of reality” can and must evolve. We may view bestiality as animal abuse today, but after 5 generations, we might not, and then the arguments for banning animal marriage may slowly decay with time. Why must we assume that culture must always stay constant, no matter what, that the current time is always the best, and that history must freeze at this very specific moment?

      Just because the slippery slope is a fallacy doesn’t mean it’s false.

  6. Jim Bach July 28, 2012 at 9:57 pm #

    I live in Columbus Ohio. Most people here don’t care that Mayor Coleman is “shacking up” with his girlfriend, and I suspect that those who complain about it do so as a proxy for other disagreements with him, which are almost certainly partisan in nature.