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*.