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.