Five Americas

A lot is made of regional divides. Urban vs. rural. Interior vs. coasts. North vs. South.

Yet, when I look at political data, these regional divides are rarely where the serious action is. Instead, the big political divisions involve factors such as race, religion, education, income, and gender. Once these kinds of basic demographics are taken into account, there may still be some additional differences based on living in a city or living in the South or whatever, but typically not very large ones.

This isn’t to say that regional differences are trivial. It’s just to say that most of the political differences between different U.S. places are a function of more basic demographics. And, indeed, there are enormous demographic differences between different places within the U.S.

Most people have a broad sense of some of these differences, but I wanted to take a more systematic look. So I used my large file of Pew datasets from 2013 to 2016—containing over 97,000 individuals—and had a go at it. In short, I loaded in, for each state: urban/rural proportion; the basic racial composition of its urban, suburban, and rural areas (white vs. black vs. Hispanic/Asian/other); the basic religious composition of white folks in its urban, suburban, and rural areas (not Christian vs. non-evangelical Christian vs. evangelical, which I define to include Mormons); and the percentage of white folks who have 4-year college degrees in its urban, suburban, and rural areas. I then did a cluster analysis on the states and was most happy with the one that produced five groups.

Keep in mind that, in lumping the states into coherent clusters, I didn’t tell my stats program where the states are; I just told it what sorts of folks are in those states. Nonetheless, there was a good deal of recognizable regional clustering—no surprise, it turns out that lots of neighboring states are demographically similar to one another. But there were also a couple of non-contiguous groups.

The map below shows the five clusters. You can see various southern states grouped together (shaded red), various northeastern states grouped together (shaded blue), and various western and southwestern states grouped together (shaded brown). These were easy enough to name: South, Northeast, and WXSW (that is, West by Southwest). But the other two groups are messier. These, for reasons I’ll explain below, I named Homogena (shaded white) and Contrastia (shaded green).

In general, the South and WXSW groups stand out for their racial diversity, the former containing relatively high numbers of blacks and the latter containing relatively high numbers of Hispanics/Asians/others. Lots of urban areas outside of these states also have high racial diversity, but these two groups have pretty high numbers of non-whites in their suburban and rural areas as well.

The stand-out feature of the Northeast group is primarily that its white population is less Christian and particularly less evangelical. In addition, its white population contains a higher percentage of college graduates. Like racial diversity, these features—having less-religious and better-educated whites—are common in lots of urban areas. But in the Northeast states this is also true of their suburban and rural populations.

The group I’ve labelled Homogena is, well, homogenous. This is a cluster that is largely white, and where whites are relatively more religious and less educated. This is true of lots of rural areas—whiter, more religious, less educated—but in these Homogena states it’s also true of their suburban and urban areas.

And, lastly, the group I’ve labelled Contrastia has a big contrast between urban and rural areas. Its urban areas look a lot like those in WXSW—racially diverse and with less-religious and better-educated whites. But its rural areas look like Homogena—lots of whites, most of whom are more religious and less educated. (Think, e.g., of the old quip about how Pennsylvania is Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, and Alabama in between.)

And then, of course, there are differences in the relative sizes of urban and rural populations across these state groups. Homogena is the most rural—according to Pew’s categories, there are around 1.35 rural folks for every urbanite. The South group is balanced at 1 to 1. Contrastia has almost 2 urbanites for every rural resident. And in both the Northeast and WXSW, urban dwellers far outnumber rural folks (at 3.5 to 1 and 4.7 to 1, respectively).

I’ll show some details. The first chart below gives racial percentages. Two big themes are apparent. First, urban areas tend to be more racially diverse than rural areas. And, second, the South and WXSW regions are more racially diverse while Homogena is particularly white—indeed, urban Homogena has a higher percentage of whites (78%) than rural South and WXSW (both at 67%).

The next chart shows white religious percentages. I’m focusing here on whites because whites show by far the biggest political differences as a function of religion (see, e.g., here). The primary religious divisions among whites are non-Christians vs. non-evangelical Christians vs. evangelicals, so that’s what the chart shows. Again, there are two big trends. First, whites tend to be less Christian and less evangelical in urban areas than in rural areas. Second, whites in the Northeast group are just a lot less Christian/evangelical than whites in the South and Homogena groups—so, for example, whites in rural Northeast are substantially less Christian/evangelical than whites in urban South and urban Homogena.

The last chart shows the percentage of whites who have 4-year college degrees. Again, I’m limiting this to whites because of education’s particular political salience for whites (e.g., the great widening of the degreed vs. non-degreed split among whites was the Big Thing in the 2016 election, showing up in both the exit polls and in stave-level shifts). And, once again, we see an urban-rural theme and a state-group theme. Urban whites are substantially more likely to have college degrees than rural whites. And then the Northeast group of states has particularly high white education levels, such that whites in the suburbs there look more like other places’ urban whites, while whites in rural Northeast look more like other places’ suburban whites.

So, you can see how the basic demographics of different places account for most of their largescale political differences these days. Democrats tend to do especially well in cities, the West Coast, and the Northeast (and these categories, as I mentioned, are themselves related, because the West Coast and the Northeast contain far more urbanites than rural folks). These are places that have various combinations of more racial minorities along with less-religious and better-educated whites. Republicans tend to do especially well in rural areas, central states, and the South (which, again, are related categories). These are places with various combinations of more whites and/or more-religious and less-educated whites. In short, for example, the political differences in party affiliation or on racial issues between white evangelicals, on the one hand, and minorities and college-educated white non-Christians, on the other hand, are very substantial pretty much everywhere you look. But the political differences within white evangelicals (or within blacks, or within college-educated white non-Christians, etc.) tend not to be all that large from place to place, though there are some differences at the margins.

All this relates to the parties’ current national consistency, something that certainly wasn’t always the case. A half century ago, there were markedly different kinds of Democrats and markedly different kinds of Republicans from region to region. But over the past few decades the parties have become thoroughly sorted and polarized on a range of issue positions. This has led to bigger splits on the basic demographics (race, religion, education, etc.) that relate to these issue opinions, and thus to regional differences driven primarily by these demographics.

Vaguely interesting (Feb 14)

(1)  “So, if Millennials are less hampered by spouses, houses and kids, why are they moving less than previous generations did at their age?”

(2)  “[T]he decoupling of sex and marriage was underway well before the so-called ‘sexual revolution’ of the late 1960s and early 1970s.”

(3)  “In many areas — college education, two-parent families, employment — black families made progress toward closing the gap with whites from 1989 to 2013. But the wealth gap ended up larger than ever.”

(4)  “According to the exit poll data for Colorado, Clinton won the Latino vote 67 percent to 30 percent. However, according to polling firm Latino Decisions, Clinton won 81 percent to 16 percent. … Our analysis [of precinct-level outcomes] indicates that Clinton won 83 percent of the Hispanic vote in Colorado to 14 percent for Trump.”

(5)  “Important public health successes, including HIV treatment and smoking cessation, have contributed to declining premature mortality in Hispanic individuals, black individuals, and Asians and Pacific Islanders. However, this progress has largely been negated in young and middle-aged (25–49 years) white individuals, and American Indians and Alaska Natives, primarily because of potentially avoidable causes such as drug poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis.”

(6)  The most religious state? Mississippi. The least? Vermont.

(7)  The lowest percentage LGBT? South Dakota (2%). The highest? Vermont (5.3%).

Economic issues vs. lifestyle issues

In our current sorted and polarized age, it’s tempting to slip into one-dimensional thinking when it comes to issue opinions. Most people, it can seem, are either liberals/Democrats, moderates/independents, or conservatives/Republicans, all lining up neatly on a single left-to-right axis. It’s become such an ingrained notion that lots of political psychologists see their primary job not as explaining the sources of particular issue opinions, but rather the sources of generalized liberal and conservative orientations—orientations they suppose might arise from basic personality features, or moral foundations, or negativity bias, or whatever.

And then, if you hang out in certain circles, you might add an exception to the general one-dimensional rule for libertarians. These are folks who are conservative on economics but liberal on many social issues. So that’s apparently the world we live in: Lots of liberals, moderates, and conservatives, plus some libertarians.

Given the pervasiveness of this kind of framework, the actual patterns of public opinion become a bit surprising. The most potent contrast is between rich-poor redistributive economic issues on the one hand and religious lifestyle issues (abortion, gay rights, marijuana legalization, and so on) on the other. These are both central matters in modern political fights, but their relationship in the general public is complex.

As Kurzban and I reported using U.S. General Social Survey data, positions on economic issues and on religious issues were essentially uncorrelated as recently as the 1980s, though they’ve become increasingly correlated over the years since. What this tells you is that liberal-conservative alignment in these areas isn’t the product of some deep or ancient feature of human nature, but instead is the product of some contingent, recently arisen factor. It’s not hard to guess what that factor might be. Starting in the late 1970s and accelerating through subsequent years, the U.S. political parties increasingly came to align economic conservatives and religious conservatives against economic progressives and secular liberals. The recent correlation between economic opinions and religious opinions has plausibly arisen primarily as a result of contingent coalitional psychology.

And we further found that the new correlation between economic and religious opinions is not uniformly distributed in the population. In particular, college-educated whites have become uniquely likely in recent years to bring their economic and religious issue opinions into left-right alignment, while for the remaining (large majority) of the population, ideological alignment on these issues has remained much lower.

Now, this has all had a further effect that undermines the typical story about how people mostly divide into liberals and conservatives and libertarians. This gets a little complicated, but it’s an important point. Think of the 4 quadrants when simultaneously considering economic and religious issue opinions. There are liberals (liberal on both) and conservatives (conservative on both), and there are also libertarians (conservative on economics but liberal on religious lifestyle issues) and communitarians (liberal on economics but conservative on lifestyles). One way to think about what it means to say that economic and religious opinions used to be uncorrelated is just this: it used to be the case that the combined number of liberals and conservatives was about equal to the combined number of libertarians and communitarians.

These days they’ve become more highly correlated. What this means is that the number of liberals and conservatives has increased relative to the number of libertarians and communitarians. But we also know that it’s mostly college-educated whites who have abandoned libertarian/communitarian positions in favor of liberal/conservative ones. And here’s the thing. Libertarianism is most prevalent among less-religious, wealthier whites. Communitarianism is far more common among religious, lower-income racial minorities.

So the abandonment of libertarian/communitarian positions has happened mostly among college-educated whites, who are far more likely to be libertarian than communitarian. Indeed, in a past post I showed how there’s been an utterly remarkable transformation since the 1970s in the economic opinions of wealthier white non-Christians. Despite their longstanding social liberalism, these folks used to be as economically conservative as wealthier white Christians. And now they’ve just completely switched sides on economics on average. Indeed, what should have been an increasingly favorable demographic environment for libertarianism over the past few decades has instead actually seen a relative decline in folks with libertarian opinion combinations.

The “relative” qualifier here is important. Public opinion generally has shifted quite dramatically to the left on gay rights and marijuana legalization (though not on abortion). So in that sense there are more liberals and libertarians these days relative to conservatives and communitarians. But, as the lifestyle baseline has moved, we’ve also seen a relative shift toward liberals and conservatives and away from libertarians and communitarians.

But there remain, in fact, quite a few communitarians in the general public. It’s just that they’re not prevalent among the people researchers normally hang out with, nor among the folks you’d usually pick up in either a college-student sample or an internet volunteer sample.

So let’s take a look at some recent data. Here, using my aggregate file of Pew surveys from 2013 to 2016, I used demographic information to find various splits in views on rich-poor economic issues and religious lifestyle issues. (The economic opinion measure is the one I described here, and the lifestyle opinion measure is the one I described here.)

I ended up with over 20 separate groups; the chart below shows the 12 groups with the most liberal and most conservative views on economic issues and lifestyle issues. Groups that tend to be liberal on both are toward the upper-left blue corner. Groups that tend to be conservative on both are toward the lower-right red corner. The communitarian groups (i.e., liberal on economics and conservative on lifestyles) are toward the upper-right corner. The libertarian groups (i.e., conservative on economics and liberal on lifestyles) are toward the lower-left corner.

Notice that there really aren’t any solidly libertarian demographic groups these days. This isn’t to say that there aren’t solidly libertarian individuals; of course there are. But while, say, group 4—these are non-Christian white men with college degrees—would have been squarely in the libertarian corner 30 or 40 years ago, they’ve now become left of center on economics.

But there still exist predominately communitarian groups, including non-evangelical Christian immigrants with lower incomes (group 5, who are mostly Hispanic Catholics), black evangelicals (group 6), and Hispanic/Asian/other evangelicals (group 7). (Not coincidentally, these are among the folks that epistocracy proposals tend to hammer hardest, as libertarians seek to make the voting public more libertarian on average by diminishing Democratic communitarian representation.) Unlike college-educated whites, these are largely folks who simply haven’t brought their views in different opinion domains into widespread ideological alignment.

Whenever you hear about how general forces of human psychology inherently push people into being liberals and conservatives (and in exceptional circumstances libertarians), you should imagine this enormous segment of the public giving a polite *ahem*.



White nationalism vs. lifestyle issues

Often you’ll see political researchers and commentators divide the issue landscape into “economic” issues on the one hand and “social” or “cultural” issues on the other. However, this isn’t a great way to think about things, mainly because there’s only a loose relationship among many of the social/cultural issues.

The primary divide within social/cultural issues is between those that relate strongly to race and those that relate strongly to church attendance. Examples of the former are items such as affirmative action, immigration, the death penalty, and gun control. Examples of the latter are items such as abortion, same-sex marriage, marijuana legalization, as well as views on premarital sex, having kids outside of marriage, and pornography.

These are all issues one typically has in mind when talking about social/cultural issues, but in fact racial items are often not very strongly correlated with lifestyle items. There are plenty of folks with liberal racial views but conservative lifestyle views, and vice versa. Further, various racial issues actually correlate pretty strongly with opinions on redistributive economics whereas lifestyle issues typically have more modest correlations with economic issues.

For the analysis in this post, I combined a bunch of racial items into a single white nationalism measure (it’s the same one I used in a previous post on white nationalism vs. economic conservatism, which is mostly about immigration, but also has items on blacks, guns, and Middle Eastern conflicts) and also combined a bunch of church-correlated items into a single lifestyle issues measure (these were items on homosexuality, abortion, marijuana legalization, and having children outside of marriage; I give further details at the bottom of this post). I then started splitting the sample based on the biggest demographic predictors of these two measures, ending up with over 20 distinct demographic groups.

The chart below shows the 12 groups with the most liberal and most conservative averages on white nationalism and/or lifestyle issues. Some are pretty conservative on both—mainly groups with white evangelicals who are older and/or regularly churchgoing (i.e., those in the lower-right red corner). Some groups are pretty liberal on both—mainly groups that have some combination of being less religious, more educated, and/or younger (i.e., those in the upper-left blue corner).

(Note: “Evangelical” means non-Catholic Christians who either self-identify as “born again or evangelical” or are Mormon. “White” means non-Hispanic white.)

But there are also groups with pretty substantial gaps between their white nationalism positions and their lifestyle issues positions. The key one is group 7 (i.e., evangelicals who are non-white immigrants). On average, they’re rather liberal on white nationalism but also rather conservative on lifestyle issues. Turns out that not that many immigrants think immigrants are threatening, and not that many self-described evangelicals are pro-gay, pro-choice, and so on. Other groups that skew in this direction include group 6 (i.e., immigrants who are younger non-evangelical Christians), who tend to be liberal on white nationalism but centrist on lifestyle issues, and group 11 (i.e., white evangelicals who are churchgoing and young), who tend to be conservative on lifestyle issues but just right of center on white nationalism.

On the other side are groups that are more conservative on white nationalism than on lifestyle issues. These include group 8 (i.e., white non-evangelical Christians who are younger, don’t attend church regularly, and don’t have 4-year degrees), who tend to be pretty conservative on white nationalism but centrist on lifestyle issues. It also includes groups 2 (i.e., atheists and agnostics without 4-year degrees) and 4 (i.e., other non-Christians without 4-year degrees who are white and young), both containing folks who are on average very liberal on lifestyle issues but not as liberal on white nationalism.

Taking a broader view, here’s what we’re looking at. With all political issues these days, there are pervasive themes and varying domain-specific themes. The pervasive themes are the liberalism of non-Christians (particularly when college-educated) and the conservatism of white evangelicals (particularly when not poor). These patterns will show up in pretty much any widely debated partisan issue these days.

But there are also domain-specific themes. On economic issues, wealthier whites are more conservative and poorer minorities are more liberal. On white nationalism, low-education whites are more conservative and the various targets of white nationalism—immigrants, blacks, Muslims, and so on—are more liberal (especially on issues specifically impacting themselves, e.g., blacks on racial issues, immigrants on immigration issues, etc.). On lifestyle issues, low-education churchgoers are more conservative and high-education secular folks are more liberal. Sometimes these domain-specific themes create interesting ideological divergence.

Some details on sample and measures

I’m working off my recently updated aggregate Pew file that I described in a prior post. The white nationalism measure is the same one I described in that post, combining 58 individual survey questions (mostly on immigration, but also items on race, gun control, and military/Middle East/Muslims).

The lifestyle measure combines 27 items, of which over 74,000 respondents were asked at least one. The main items include: whether homosexuality should be accepted or discouraged, whether same-sex marriage should be allowed, whether abortion should be legal or illegal in all or most cases, whether more people having kids without getting married is a change for the better or the worse, whether society is better off if people make marriage and having kids a priority, whether pot should be legal, and so on.

OK, so I’ve compared white nationalism with economic issues in my prior post and white nationalism with lifestyle issues in this post. I’ve got one more to go—comparing economic issues with lifestyle issues.

Vaguely interesting (Feb 4)

(1)  “[I]n 2016, 66% expressed opposition to church endorsements of candidates, which is roughly stable with other readings taken over the past eight years.”

(2)  “If you look at how far most of them, from Fox News to Ted Cruz to the Wall Street Journal, have come in Trump’s direction since they all mocked and defied him just a year ago, they may have to keep moving towards him, especially if their constituencies are already there.”

(3)  Special issue of Science on prediction and its limits.

(4)  “[I]mmigrants commit fewer crimes, on average, than native-born Americans.”

(5)  “Among those aged 20–24, more than twice as many Millennials born in the 1990s (15 %) had no sexual partners since age 18 compared to GenX’ers born in the 1960s (6 %).”

White nationalism vs. economic conservatism

One of the key things to watch over the next months and years is how Republicans advance the Bannon/Trump white nationalist agenda alongside the usual Republican economic agenda. Any sense that white nationalism was a mere election tool that would remain ultimately neglected in policymaking is being shaken by recent events; and while some congressional Republicans have raised objections, it doesn’t seem to be at a level that’s likely to translate into actual attempts to restrain the White House’s plans. Similarly, it’s still an open question whether the occasional elements of economic populism in Trump’s campaign will actually translate into White House resistance to congressional plans to combine large tax cuts for the wealthy with benefit cuts for poorer folks and seniors.

In this post, I’ll take a look at the demographics of views on white nationalist issues (immigration, race, Muslims, etc.) compared with views on rich/poor economics (government aid to the poor, the role of corporations and Wall Street, etc.). Which demographic groups are relatively aligned such that they tend to have consistently liberal or moderate or conservative views on both sets of issues on average? Which demographic groups are more likely to diverge such that they tend to hold views on one set that are to the left or right of their views on the other set?

This tells us something about the voters who might find different balances between white nationalism and economic conservatism either appealing or disappointing. Which in turn tells us something about how the parties in future elections might deal with different demographic slices.

I’ll give further details down below, but the short version is that I combined a large number of Pew datasets and created a couple of opinion mega-items, one of which combined lots of questions about immigration, race, Muslims, the Middle East, the military, and guns, and the other of which combined lots of items about government benefits, the poor, corporations, Social Security, and so on. I then took a set of demographic items (race, religion, gender, education, income, etc.) and began dividing and subdividing the sample, stopping when I reached 24 groups.

I’ve split the results into two charts to make the main point easier to spot. The first chart includes the 12 groups whose views on white nationalism and redistributive economics are in closest ideological alignment—that is, their liberalism or conservatism on one (on average, relative to the population as a whole) roughly matches their liberalism or conservatism on the other (again, on average, relative to the population as a whole). So, for example, group 1—non-white immigrants who’ve never been to college—are, on average, quite liberal on white nationalism and quite liberal on economic opinions. And group 12—white evangelical men without 4-year degrees and with household incomes above $40k—are quite conservative on both on average.

So those are the 12 groups that are most aligned. Now we get to the more interesting ones, the 12 groups that are most divergent. The chart above was pretty straightforward—the groups ran from most liberal in the upper-left corner to most conservative in the lower-right corner. The chart below is more complex because, for these divergent groups, now you’ve got to think about what it means to trend towards the upper-right corner and the lower-left corner. Because white nationalism runs from liberals at the top to conservatives at the bottom while economics runs from liberals on the left to conservatives on the right, the upper-right corner would hold a group that is liberal on white nationalism but conservative on economics (i.e., a kind of multiculturalist libertarianism) while the lower-left corner would hold a group that is conservative on white nationalism but liberal on economics (i.e., a kind of white nationalist populism).

As you can see in the chart below, these 12 divergent groups form two lines. One line (groups 1 through 6 on the chart below) includes groups that tend to be more conservative (or less liberal) on white nationalism than on economics. These are mostly groups that have less education and less income. The other line (groups 7 through 12 on the chart below) includes groups that tend to be more conservative (or less liberal) on economics than on white nationalism. These are mostly groups with college graduates.

Here’s how to think about it. For these two opinion domains, race and religion operate as powerful drivers of liberal-conservative alignment. The conservatives tend to be white evangelicals and, to a lesser extent, white non-evangelical Christian men. White non-evangelical Christian women tend to be in the middle. And the liberals tend to be either white non-Christians or non-whites.

But then layered onto those powerful trends are the roles of education and income, which cause ideological divergence rather than ideological alignment. College-educated folks tend to be more liberal on white nationalism than on economics; poor folks tend to be more liberal on economics than on white nationalism.

These two patterns—the left-right ideological role of race and religion, and the divergence-driving role of socioeconomic status—combine to create the patterns in relative support for white nationalism and economic conservatism. For example, white evangelicals tend to be quite conservative on the whole. But, in addition, white evangelicals with 4-year degrees tend to be significantly more conservative on economics than on white nationalism, while white evangelicals who are poor tend to be significantly more conservative on white nationalism than on economics. (And, as shown on the first chart, the white evangelicals who tend to be about equally conservative on both are those who don’t have 4-year degrees, but who also aren’t poor.)

Other patterns are similar. Blacks who aren’t poor are liberal on both opinion domains, but poor blacks are significantly more liberal on economics than on white nationalism (e.g., they’re less supportive of immigration). Or, while white non-Christians without 4-year degrees tend to be on average roughly equivalently center-left on white nationalism and economics, degreed white non-Christians are significantly more liberal on white nationalism than on economics.


There’s already been a lot of early advice on how Democrats should make demographic adjustments to improve their performance in future elections. Much of this advice has encouraged Democrats to reconnect with low-education and low-income whites through an emphasis on economic populism and a de-emphasis on multiculturalism.

But the answer will depend to a degree on how Republicans manage to balance white nationalism against economic conservatism. If Republicans neglect white nationalism and instead focus on economic changes—cutting taxes for the wealthy, substantially diminishing ACA subsidies, making long-term cuts to elderly entitlements, and so on—then the downscale white strategy probably would make the most sense.

On the other hand, if Bannon/Trump manage to make policy changes that lean heavily towards white nationalism but not economic conservatism—banning Muslims, deporting DREAMers, building the wall, and so on, but not doing much to diminish current safety net programs—then the best new Democratic opportunities might come from college-educated whites.

The operative assumption has been that of course they’re going to pay lip-service to white nationalism while implementing substantially regressive economic changes. But the early days of the new Republican order have made this assumption less obvious. We’ll have to wait and see.

Some details on sample and measures

The sample I used for these analyses combines the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape sample with all publicly available Pew political samples from the beginning of 2013 to the most recently released. The aggregate sample is almost 98,000 folks (sweet!). Because not all opinion items were asked to all respondents, I combined whichever were available for a given respondent. Around 90,000 were asked at least one relevant white nationalist item and around 74,000 were asked at least one relevant economic opinion item. So, even when splitting up the sample into the 24 groups that I did, each group is still awfully big (around 1,500 to 5,000 each—super sweet!). I love Pew.

The white nationalism measure combines responses on 58 items. The main items (i.e., those asked to the most people in the sample) include: whether the growing population of immigrants is a change for the better or for the worse, whether immigrants strengthen the country, whether peace is best kept through military strength or diplomacy, whether undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay in the country, whether racial discrimination is the main reason why many blacks can’t get ahead, whether overwhelming force is the best way to defeat terrorism, whether immigrants threaten American values, whether the country needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights, whether gun control is important, whether Islam encourages violence more than other religions, and so on.

The economic measure combines 29 items. The main ones include: whether government aid to the poor does more harm or more good, whether a smaller government with fewer services would be preferable, whether corporations make too much profit, whether poor people have easy or hard lives, whether the government should do more to help the needy, whether Wall Street helps or hurts the economy, whether the government should play a major role in helping people get out of poverty, whether the government should be responsible for making sure people have health care, whether Social Security benefits should be reduced, whether people are poor because of lack of effort, and so on.

So this was fun for me. I’ll keep going with similar analyses. Next up: Comparing views on white nationalism with views on lifestyle issues (same-sex marriage, abortion, marijuana legalization, etc.).

God, race, and party

Pew’s 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study (the datafile was recently made public) presents a good opportunity to dig more deeply into how religion and race relate to political party affiliation. It’s a big sample (over 35,000) that not only has unusually detailed variables on religion, but also has racial and religious information on the respondents’ spouses and partners.

First I’ll cut to the chase. The chart below shows party affiliation averages for discrete groups based on race and religion. I’ll explain the details of the race and religion measures below the chart, but the short answer is that the racial categories are largely (but not exactly) what they appear to be and the religion measure combines information on Christian and Evangelical identity, belief in God, and religious service attendance. The size of the circles is based on how many individuals are in each group (e.g., you can see that there are lots of whites with middle-of-the-road religion numbers, few blacks with low religion numbers, and so on). And the left-to-right position is average party identification.

The main story is that Republicans are prevalent among more-religious whites, while Democrats are prevalent among blacks and less-religious whites and Hispanics/Asians/others. One way to look at it is to notice that religious differences are a very big deal for whites, a modest deal for Hispanics/Asians/others, and just not a deal for blacks (if anything, more-religious blacks are even more solidly Democratic than less-religious blacks). Another way to look at it is that, at low religion levels, racial differences in party affiliation are trivial; but at high religion levels, racial divisions are simply enormous.

OK, now the gory details. The race and religion measures are cobbled together from various bits of information. On race, I found that information regarding spouses/partners made important contributions to party affiliation. So, for example, Hispanics/Asians/others with white partners look more like whites in party affiliation, while Hispanics/Asians/others with black partners look more like blacks. Further, whites with black partners and blacks with white partners look a lot like Hispanics/Asians/others in party affiliation. So, the chart makes those adjustments: (1) “White” means (a) non-Hispanic whites who don’t have black spouses/partners plus (b) Hispanics/Asians/others with white spouses/partners. (2) “Black” means (a) non-Hispanic blacks who don’t have white spouses/partners plus (b) Hispanics/Asians/others with black spouses/partners. (3) “Hispanic/Asian/other” means everyone else.

The religion measure involves a point system; I just poked around and found a particularly efficient way to get at the main party differences. Basically, add 1 point for each of the following that apply: The respondent is either Evangelical or Mormon (where “Evangelical” means a non-Catholic Christian who self-identifies as “born again or evangelical”); the respondent has a spouse or partner who they characterized as either Evangelical or Mormon; the respondent believes in God and thinks of God as a person (rather than an impersonal force); and the respondent attends religious services at least once a week. And then subtract 1 point for each of the following that apply: The respondent is not Christian, but excluding “nothing in particular” or non-responders (i.e., the respondent gave some affirmative identity that was not Christian, e.g., atheist, agnostic, Jewish, Buddhist, and so on); the respondent doesn’t believe in God (either as personal or impersonal); and the respondent has a spouse or partner who they characterized as either atheist or agnostic.

I’ll unpack a few of the religion numbers. When you look at the religion values on the chart, the super-religious 4s are all folks who are Evangelicals/Mormons, and have spouses/partners who are Evangelicals/Mormons, and believe in a personal God, and go to church at least once a week. The 3s are folks who lack one of these characteristics, but for whom none of the negative indicators apply—many are Evangelicals/Mormons who believe in a personal God and go to church weekly, but who aren’t married/partnered (or who have partners other than Evangelicals/Mormons or atheists/agnostics).

At the other extreme are the negative 2s (which actually combine -2s and -3s, because there just aren’t very many -3s)—these are overwhelmingly non-Christians (but excluding the “nothing in particular” folks) who don’t believe in God. The negative 1s are almost all not Evangelicals/Mormons, or partnered with Evangelicals/Mormons, or believers in a personal God, or weekly churchgoers; as for what they are, many are specified non-Christians (Jews, Buddhists, etc.) who believe in an impersonal God and many are “nothing in particular” folks who don’t believe in God. (But keep in mind that about three-quarters of those who say they’re “nothing in particular” also say they believe in God; the believers are split pretty evenly between personal/impersonal views of God.)

As for the rest—the 0s, 1s, and 2s—they’re, of course, somewhere in between. The 1s, for example, include lots of people who are mainstream Christians or “nothing in particular” folks, who are unmarried or have similar middle-of-the-road spouses, and who believe in a personal God but who don’t go to church weekly.

So that’s the chart. It uses racial and religious information, including information on spouses and partners. The race categories are pretty straightforward when thought of as a kind of family measure rather than an individual measure. The religion categories are based on a multifaceted scale, combining information on religious identities, belief in God, and frequency of service attendance. Put them together and you get a really powerful starting point in predicting party affiliation.

A key lesson here for me is that our understanding of the demographics of politics can often be improved with better measures. In this case, adding information about spouses/partners doesn’t change the fundamentals of how race and religion predict partisanship, but certainly picks up additional variance. The challenge for survey designers is to balance that extra explanatory power against the costs of asking more detailed questions.

Vaguely interesting (Jan 27)

(1)  “In sum, while it is often said that self-interest is of minimal importance to issue attitudes, the case is weak. Such claims rely on a narrow definition of self-interest and on viewing what are surely closely related phenomena (like demographic effects and group interest) as irrelevant or even as evidence against self-interest. In addition, the list of exceptions is substantial, growing, and seems to cut to the heart of the narrowed definition of self-interest. And, further, when we look at self-interest-minimizing examples on their face, accepting for purposes of the exercise the narrow definition of self-interest, many of the specific supporting claims are arguably misleading.” (That’s me and Kurzban in the latest Advances in Political Psychology (edited by Howie Lavine), which also has new papers from Dan Kahan, Felicia Pratto, Brendan Nyhan, and others.)

(2)  “Americans are more upbeat about their personal finances today than at any time in the past 10 years.”

(3)  “American history, contemporary demographics, and any philosophy that pretends to care about human equality all reject the proposition that issues important to white men are neutral, while issues important to women and minorities are ‘identity politics.’”

(4)  “Leading up to the November election, AP worked with GfK Custom Research and the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago to examine new ways to survey voters.”

(5)  “[I]ntergenerational fertility associations strengthen late in the fertility transition, due to the alignment of the education-fertility relationship across generations. As fertility approaches the replacement level, the strengthening of these associations reweights the population to raise aggregate fertility rates, pushing back against aggregate fertility decline.”

The Big Overlap

What are the basic things that drive the electorate? Is it identities? Demographics? Partisanship? Ideology? Issues? Interests?

Opinions differ. So, for example, two books from 2016 gave plainly contrasting answers. In Democracy for Realists, Achen and Bartels say that voters are motivated by social identities but not really by issues or ideology. In Asymmetric Politics, Grossmann and Hopkins take the side of issues and ideology, arguing that Democrats are motivated by specific issues but Republicans by ideology.

Sometimes we hear that partisanship is the big driver of individuals’ issue opinions; and other times we hear that parties are made up of coalitions of diverse policy demanders (i.e., that individuals’ issue positions drive partisanship). Sometimes we hear that people are seeking to advance their self-interest (e.g., when rich people want tax cuts for rich people); other times we hear lamentations for their foolish lack of self-interest (e.g., complaining about downscale Kansans helping rich people cut taxes for rich people); and yet other times political researchers claim that self-interest just isn’t really a big motivating force at all in public opinion, but rather group interest is. Sometimes we’re told that ideology trumps interests; and other times we hear views such as those in the seminal book, The American Voter: “We have no quarrel with the view that ideological position is largely determined by self-interest.”

Here’s the thing. Most of these claims are right in their own ways when they say “Explanatory Category X is a big deal in understanding the electorate.” But most are wrong when they say “and Explanatory Category Y doesn’t really matter much.” What’s going on here is a big overlap in the various kinds of explanations. There are plenty of theoretical distinctions, but as a practical matter they all have strong relationships with one another.

Connecting dots

Social identities and demographics are obviously closely related. Sure, we can draw distinctions between people in a given group who closely identify with that group and people who don’t. For some purposes these are interesting splits. But as a practical matter researchers and commentators often just use a given demographic feature as the very thing that defines a social identity.

And it’s clear that such identities/demographics are a big deal in predicting voting, party affiliation, ideology, and a variety of issue positions (on racial issues, immigration, income redistribution, marijuana legalization, and so on). And, of course, it has become increasingly true in our sorted and polarized era that issue opinions and ideology and party affiliation and voting all tend to align. As a result, various distinctions—saying that politics is about identities but not issues or ideology, or that it’s about issues for these folks but ideology for those folks, or other similar sorts of contrasts—might have useful points to make about relative impacts, but are hardly ever true when stated too strongly.

Kurzban and I have also pointed out that there are connections with self-interest throughout these categories. Sometimes the connections are obvious—for example, noticing that wealthier and poorer people have different interests when it comes to income redistribution, and in fact on average tend to have contrasting opinions on economic issues. This is a pretty clear set of links among demographics, issues, and interests. But we’ve also noted other interest-related connections in the case of discrimination and meritocracy—it would be in some individuals’ interests to minimize different facets of group-based discrimination, but also in other individuals’ interests to maintain or increase (at least some forms of) discrimination. And we’ve argued that sexual and reproductive politics also involve strong interest-based connections. For example, abortion rights tend to be supported by those with Sex and the City lifestyles, for whom family planning is particularly important as a practical matter, but opposed by those with Father Knows Best lifestyles, for whom others’ lax sexual patterns are a threat to marital stability.

Further, we’ve argued that the academic contrast between group interest and self-interest doesn’t really hold up. “Group interest” often ends up meaning “personal interest that arises by virtue of being identified with a certain group,” which isn’t cleanly distinguishable from self-interest. And when the self/group terms are actually made distinct, it no longer makes much sense to say that group interest is a strong thing that matters more than self-interest.

(In fact, we have a brand new article in Advances in Political Psychology. Some parts are basically a summary of our book, but it also has some new and expanded points aimed specifically at an academic audience (the book was aimed at a more general audience). We hope this new article helps clear up some of the misunderstandings we’ve seen in reviews of the book, and it also provides a shorter version that would be easier to assign in upper-level-undergraduate or graduate courses.)

So, when it comes to identities, demographics, issues, partisanship, ideology, and interests, making this-matters-but-that-doesn’t kinds of claims is tricky. These days, to a substantial extent, to speak of one is to speak of the others.

Dogs and tails

Some of the ruckus in these areas comes down to competing views on causality. For example, researchers sometimes view issue opinions primarily as effects of partisanship, so that individuals take their issue cues from party leaders. But researchers also sometimes view partisan affiliations as importantly driven by issue positions, such as when African Americans in the mid-20th century aligned with the Democratic coalition in response to a series of events, including prominently LBJ’s championing of the Civil Rights Acts, or when white Catholics and evangelicals became more strongly identified with Republicans after the party’s alignment in the late 1970s and early 1980s with pro-life conservatives. (Achen and Bartels argue that these examples are more about identities than issues, but when I checked their abortion-related claims, it was clear that they were on shaky empirical ground.)

When it comes to party-issue causality claims, a key mistake is to find a clear example of one or the other directional process and then draw sweeping, general conclusions. Finding cases in which some individuals’ partisan allegiances drive particular issue opinions in particular circumstances simply isn’t evidence that there aren’t also cases in which some individuals’ prior issue opinions affect their partisan affiliations. And vice versa. Both can happen. Both do happen. The hard part is figuring out the dividing lines of when the causal flows work in different ways—when, with whom, on what issues, in what coalitional circumstances, and so on.

The new article contains a long section on causality, primarily explaining why Kurzban and I are fans of demographic predictors—because it’s typically the case that it’s safe to assume they’re acting as causes and not effects of political variables. So, for example, when we find that wealthier white men are more likely to be Republicans and to have especially conservative views on income redistribution, at least we know something general about the direction of causality—it’s just not plausible that adopting left-leaning political positions would turn wealthier white men into poorer minority women. Yet some demographics are harder to nail down than others. This is especially true with religious variables. Despite the frequent assumption that people tend to adopt the religious identities and church patterns of their parents, there’s actually a great deal of movement. (I sometimes notice political scientists analogizing party identification to religion, claiming that both are mostly just inherited from parents—e.g., in Achen/Bartels’s 2016 book and in Sniderman/Stiglitz’s 2012 book. My hunch is that the folks who say this have never taken a long look at the individual-level stability of religion, and are greatly overestimating it.)

Political psychology

Kurzban and I are psychologists, and our approach begins with a general view of what human minds are up to. Most basically, we think that minds are designed to seek tangible advantages across various domains—getting more stuff, yes, but also achieving social status, mating, forming coalitions, getting other people to do what we want them to do, and so on. And many of the most salient political issues track these kinds of fundamental concerns—issues about economic redistribution, about discrimination and privilege, and about sexual and reproductive lifestyles. And then there’s plenty that involves coalitions that seek opposing tangible outcomes, coalitions that are complex and always changing.

One of the most important and poorly understood design features of the human mind—something we talked about at length in the book but don’t say much about in the new article—involves the role of conscious speech. We humans are chatty apes, often describing to others our introspective insights involving our own motives and intentions. But our self-descriptions are strategic. Our speech systems aren’t designed primarily to reveal to other people things that are true; they’re designed primarily to issue utterances that advance our tangible agendas—utterances that make us sound reasonable and competent and generous, that encourage others to agree with us and do the things we want them to do, and so on. Consciousness doesn’t typically lie about its motives, but is systematically self-deceived about them. (Kurzban’s earlier book—Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite—was primarily about modularity and self-deception. It’s good stuff.) In short, people believe many of the things they believe about themselves because those are the things it would be most advantageous to say to other people. Minds are designed to seek tangible advantages—conscious speech is part of that design.

Indeed, one of the most striking features of political psychology is the extent to which people are often fairly obviously seeking concrete advantages for themselves, their families, and their coalitions, and yet typically refuse to acknowledge it (even to themselves). That’s what our book title is getting at—The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind: How Self-Interest Shapes Our Opinions and Why We Won’t Admit It.

To note the key role that interests often play, though, isn’t to deny the importance of other fundamental explanatory categories—identities, demographics, partisanship, ideology, and so on. Again, there’s a big overlap. Demographics are often rough indicators of how interests are likely to be affected by competing issue outcomes. A central function of parties and ideologies is to coordinate diverse interest groups. Coalitional efforts often involve folks with an interest in a certain set of outcomes aligning their views with other sorts of folks on other sets of issues. These coalitional efforts might involve elite coordination, virtue signaling, and so on.

People taking self-interested issue positions is one of the big things going on in public opinion. It has been a real mistake for some political researchers to deny it. But I’ve also tried to be careful not to make the opposite mistake of claiming that self-interest is an explanatory category that excludes or subsumes all others. Individual differences in issue positions are complex, and there’s a lot going on at once.

Vaguely interesting (Jan 20)

(1)  “What exactly, then, is the ‘right’ story for how Trump won the election? … First, the background conditions were pretty good for Trump. … Second, demographics gave Trump a big advantage in the Electoral College. … Third, voter preferences varied substantially based on news events, and the news cycle ended on a downturn for Clinton.”

(2)  “[B]y getting everyone to think in Econ 101 terms — perfectly competitive well-functioning markets, rational well-informed consumers and so on — free-marketers were able to redefine the terms of the national debate to favor their own interests.”

(3)  That thing you’ve heard about working class whites dying more is not true generally, and complex in its details.

(4)  “[T]he statistical probability of Trump winning over 20% of the Latino vote in New York, as was reported by the Edison exit poll, is virtually zero. The Latino Decisions poll, which relies on random sampling and bilingual interviewers and found that Clinton won New York Latino voters by an 88% to 10% margin over Trump, appears to be much closer to the true outcome of the election.”

(5)  “Trust in institutions has evaporated…. This has been a slow-motion meltdown, an angry delayed recognition of permanent decline in economic and social status by those who have not kept pace with globalization and dramatic technological change.”

Social science for the pleeps