I’ve read a lot of history, including American history of the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s interesting to read about the politics of these periods. From a distance across generations and centuries, you can see the distinction between the self interested stances people took and the rhetoric that was used to justify those stances.
An example from the 18th century was the controversy about the new federal government assuming the Revolutionary War debt from the states. Both sides of the controversy had philosophical reasons for their position, such as concern about federal power versus the benefits of establishing faith and credit for the United States. But in general, the states that favored the idea (called “assumption”) still had a lot of war debt, while the states that were against it had paid most or all of their debt already.
This also holds for what was the most controversial issue in early America: slavery. People’s stance on this issue seemed to be heavily influenced by the economy of their state. In northern industrial states, slavery was becoming less economically viable and dying out, and was therefore seen as barbaric. However, in the largely agricultural southern states, slavery remained a major part of the economic system, and was therefore seen as a vital institution.
It’s much more difficult for us to separate the stories we tell ourselves today from the self interested realities. This is probably why some political scientists argue that people aren’t motivated by self interest when they vote. But that idea simply isn’t backed by history or psychology.
In their book, The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind: How Self-Interest Shapes Our Opinions and Why We Won’t Admit It, Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban argue self interest figures heavily into our political positions.
This isn’t something we generally do consciously. Citing psychology research that shows we often don’t understand our own motivations, they argue that our unconscious mind settles on stances that reflect our inclusive personal interests, with “inclusive” meaning that it includes the interests of our friends and family.
We tell ourselves a high minded story, one that we consciously believe, but like the public relations spokesperson for a large corporation, our consciousness is often uninformed on the actual reasons why the Board of Directors of our mind adopt a stance. In other words, our self interested positions feel like the morally right ones to have, and people opposed to our positions seem evil or stupid.
Working from this premise, and using data from the United States GSS (General Social Survey), Weeden and Kurzban proceed to show correlations between political positions and various demographic, lifestyle, and financial income factors. They also periodically glance at broader international data and, although the specific issues and populations vary, find that the general principle holds.
They identify some broad factors that have large effects on our political positions, including things such as sexual lifestyle, membership in traditionally dominant or subordinate groups (religion, race, sexual orientation, etc), the amount of human capital we have, and financial income.
The first factor, sexual lifestyle, generally affects your attitude on a number of social issues such as abortion, birth control, pornography, and marijuana legalization. Weeden and Kurzban break people into two broad groups: Ring-bearers and Freewheelers.
Ring-bearers tend to have fewer sexual partners across their life, generally making a commitment to one partner, marrying them, and having a family with a higher number of children. They often strongly value their commitments (which is why they’re called “Ring-bearers”). A major concern for Ring-bearers is the possibility of being tempted away from those commitments, having their spouse be tempted away, or their kids being tempted away from leading a similar lifestyle.
This concern often makes them want to reduce the prevalence of lifestyles that lead to such temptation, such as sexual promiscuity. As a result, Ring-bearers tend to favor policies that make promiscuous lifestyles more costly. Which is why they’re generally pro-life, oppose birth control and sexual education, and oppose things like marijuana legalization, which is perceived as facilitating promiscuity.
Of course the reasons they put forward for their stances (and consciously believe) don’t reflect this. For the abortion stance, they’ll often argue that they’re most concerned about protecting unborn children. But the fact that they’re usually willing to make exceptions in cases of rape or incest, where the woman’s sexual lifestyle usually isn’t a causal factor, shows their true hand.
On the other side are the Freewheelers. Freewheelers generally lead a more active sexual lifestyle, or aspire to, or want to keep their options open for that lifestyle. They’re less likely to marry, more likely to divorce if they do, and generally have fewer kids.
Freewheelers generally don’t want their life style options curtailed, and don’t want to experience moral condemnation for it. This generally makes them pro-choice, in favor of birth control and family planning, and in favor of things like marijuana legalization.
Like Ringbearers, Freewheelers usually don’t admit to themselves that preserving their lifestyle options is the motivating factor for their social stances. Again, focusing on abortion, Freewheelers usually say and believe that their stance is motivated to protect women’s reproductive freedom. But the fact that pro-choice people are often comfortable with other laws that restrict personal freedoms, such as seat belt laws or mandatory health insurance, shows that personal freedom isn’t the real issue.
Freewheelers also often don’t have the private support networks that Ringbearers typically enjoy, such as church communities, which Weeden and Kurzban largely characterize as child rearing Ringbearer support groups. This makes Freewheelers tend to be more supportive of public social safety net programs than Ringbearers.
The next factor is membership in traditionally dominant or subservient groups. “Groups” here refers to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, immigrant status, etc. In the US, traditionally dominant groups include whites, Christians, males, heterosexuals, and citizens, while traditionally subservient groups include blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Muslims, nonbelievers, females, gays, transsexuals, and immigrants. It’s not necessarily surprising that which group you fall in affects your views on the fairness of group barriers (discrimination) or set-asides (such as affirmative action).
But there’s a complicating factor, and that is the amount of human capital you have. Human capital is the amount of education you’ve attained and/or how good you are at taking tests. Having high human capital makes you more competitive, reducing the probability that increased competition will negatively affect you. People with high levels of human capital are more likely to favor a meritocracy. On the other hand, having low human capital tends to make getting particular jobs or getting into desirable schools more uncertain, so increased competition from any source tends to be against your interests.
For people with high human capital and in a dominant group, group barriers mean little, so people in this category tend to be about evenly split on the fairness of those barriers. But people with low human capital and in a dominant group tend to be more effected by increased competition when group barriers are reduced, making them more likely to be in favor of retaining those barriers.
People in subservient groups tend to be opposed to any group barriers, or at least barriers affecting their particular group. People in subservient groups and with high human capital, once barriers have been removed, tend to favor a meritocracy and to be less supportive of specific group set asides. But people in subservient groups and with low human capital tend to be in favor of the set-asides.
All of which is to say, more educated people tend to be less affected by group dynamics unless they’re being discriminated against, but less educated people are more affected by those dynamics. Less educated people discriminate more, not because they’re uneducated, but because their interests are more directly impacted by the presence or absence of that discrimination.
And finally, Weeden and Kurzban look at financial income. It probably won’t surprise anyone that people with higher incomes are less supportive of social safety net programs, which essentially redistribute income from higher income populations to lower income ones, but that people with lower incomes are usually in favor of these programs.
Most people fall in some complex combination of these groups. Weeden and Kurzban recognize at least 31 unique combinations in the book. Which particular combination a person is in will define their political perspective.
For example, I’m a Freewheeler (relatively speaking), mostly in dominant groups except in terms of religion, where I’m in a subservient group (a nonbeliever), have moderately high human capital (a Master’s degree), and above average income. Weeden and Kurzban predict that these factors would tend to make me socially liberal, modestly supportive of social safety nets, opposed to religious discrimination, in favor of meritocracy, and economically centrist. This isn’t completely on the mark, but it’s uncomfortably close.
But since people fall into all kinds of different combinations, their views often don’t fall cleanly on the conservative-liberal political spectrum. Why then do politics in the US fall into two major parties? I covered that in another post last year, but it has to do with the way our government is structured. The TL;DR is that the checks and balances in our system force broad long lasting coalitions in order to get things done, which tend to coalesce into an in-power coalition and an opposition one.
In other words, the Republican and Democratic parties are not philosophical schools of thought, but messy constantly shifting coalitions of interests. Republicans are currently a coalition of Ringbearers, traditionally dominant groups, and high income people. Democrats are a coalition of Freewheelers, traditionally subservient groups, and low income people. There may be a realignment underway between people with low human capital in dominant groups (white working class) and those with high human capital, but it’s too early to tell yet how durable it will be.
But it’s also worth remembering that 38% of the US population struggles to consistently align with either party. A low income Freewheeler in traditionally dominant groups, or a high income Ringbearer in a traditionally subservient group, might struggle with the overall platform of either party.
So what does all this mean? First, there’s a lot of nuance and detail I’m glossing over in this post (which is already too long).
Weeden and Kurzban admit that their framework isn’t fully determinant of people’s positions and doesn’t work for all issues. For example, they admit that people’s stances on military spending and environmental issues don’t seem to track closely with identifiable interests, except for small slices of the population in closely related industries.
The authors’ final takeaway is pretty dark, that political persuasion is mostly futile. The best anyone can hope to do is sway people on the margins. The political operatives are right, electoral victory is all about turning out your own partisans, not convincing people from the other side, at least unless you’re prepared to change your own position to cater to their interests.
My own takeaway is a little less stark. Yes, the above may be true, but to me, when we understand the real reasons for people’s positions, finding compromise seems more achievable if we’re flexible and creative. For instance, as a Freewheeler, the idea of content ratings and restricting nightclubs to red light districts suddenly seem like decent compromises, ones that don’t significantly curtail my freedom but assuage Ringholder concerns of being able to keep those influences away from them and their family.
And understanding that the attitude of low human capital Americans toward illegal immigrants is shaped by concern for their own livelihood, rather than just simple bigotry, makes me look at that issue a bit differently. I still think Trump is a nightmare and his proposed solutions asinine, but this puts his supporters in a new light. Most politicians tend to be high human capital people and probably fail to adequately grasp the concerns of low human capital voters. In the age of globalization, should we be surprised that this group has a long simmering anger toward the establishment?
In the end, I think it’s good that we mostly vote our self interest. We typically understand our own interests, but generally don’t understand the interests of others as well as we might think. This is probably particularly true when we assume people voting differently than us are acting against their own interests.
Everyone voting their own interests forces at least some portion of the political class to take those interests into account. And that’s the whole point of democracy. Admittedly, it’s very hard to remember that when elections don’t go the way you hoped they would.