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March 26, 2012 9:12 AM Same Old Story on Political Leanings

By Andrew Gelman

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.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.