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July 30, 2012 10:04 AM Renowned Sociologist Is Utterly Misinformed About American Voters

By Andrew Gelman

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. 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.

[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.