Stephen Olivier points me to this horrible, horrible news article by Jonathan Haidt, “Why working-class people vote conservative”:
Across the world, blue-collar voters ally themselves with the political right . . . Why on Earth would a working-class person ever vote for a conservative candidate? This question has obsessed the American left since Ronald Reagan first captured the votes of so many union members, farmers, urban Catholics and other relatively powerless people – the so-called “Reagan Democrats”. . . .
Sorry, but no no no no no. Where to start?
Here’s the difference between upper-income and lower-income votes in presidential elections:
Ronald Reagan did about 20 percentage points better among voters in the upper third of income, compared to voters in the lower third. The relation between income and voting since 1980 is about the same as it was in the 1940s.
Oh yeah, Haidt said something about “across the world.” How bout this:
It varies. In most countries where we have the data, richer voters are more conservative, but it varies. So that’s interesting and worth studying. I’m not saying there’s nothing there, it’s just that Haidt’s whack-it-with-a-2×4 approach isn’t helping.
I agree with Haidt that economic policy is not the only driver of political preferences. I don’t agree with his claim that “blue-collar voters ally themselves with the political right.” And, yes, I realize that “blue collar” isn’t the same as “lower third of income”—but that’s part of the point! If someone is blue-collar and makes $100,000 a year, maybe it’s not such a surprise that he is voting for a party that supports upper-income tax cuts. Conversely, a non-blue-collar-worker making $30,000 might have a different perspective. Before getting into the psychologizing, Haidt would do well to get a better grip on the facts that he’s trying to explain.
This is one reason I’m such a big fan of descriptive research. Causal inference is fine, it’s great, it’s even in the title of this blog, but you’re gonna get into trouble if you try to come up with theories to explain purported facts that aren’t actually true.
How does this sort of thing get published?
Look, nobody’s perfect. I’m interested in psychology and have lots of friends who are psychology researchers, but if I tried to write something for the topic for a general audience, I’d probably make some mistakes. Similarly, it’s not Haidt’s job to be more knowledgeable than Tucker Carlson about U.S. politics. (From that standpoint, I’m more disturbed by the errors of David Runciman, who has political science in his job title but still has managed to botch his writings on American politics.) Perhaps Haidt read Thomas Frank’s book and it seemed convincing, he doesn’t keep up with scholarly debates on U.S. political science, so he didn’t know where to look.
B-b-b-but . . . Jonathan Haidt is not just some TV talking head. He teaches psychology at the University of Virginia! I’m sure he’s too busy to read up on the American politics literature, but doesn’t he have some colleagues across the quad whom he could talk with about this stuff?
I think it hasn’t helped Haidt to get this sort of uncritical press treatment. At some point it’s natural for him to start believing the hype and then just spouting off on whatever.
In any case, this sort of thing continues to bug me, that 4 years after our Red State Blue State book came out, that this sort of basic mistake could find its way into a major newspaper.
P.S. Commenter Alan T. makes a good point. Whatever misconceptions Haidt may have about voting patterns, his research on the psychology of variation in political attitudes might be valuable. I imagine it has some useful overlap with the work of John Jost. My irritation above is not intended to be a disparagement of Haidt’s research, only an expression of my frustration that he did not slow down and check the facts before changing gears and moving from research-mode to pundit-mode.
P.P.S. Haidt responds (and very politely, which I appreciate, considering the tone of the title and very first sentence of my post):
You are correct that I was too sweeping in my claim. Main error was not to specify that I was talking only about the white working class, and that I was talking especially about the last 8 years. It’s true that the poorer half of the population do generally vote Democratic. And you’re right that the claims about blue-collar Republicans were greatly overblown in What’s the Matter with Kansas. But if we look at whites only, in the last few elections, then there has been a shift, i believe. I was going by this article by Edsall.
In quick response:
1. I agree that, even as the general pattern of income and voting in America has remained roughly stable for most of the past seventy years, the social and geographic composition of the Democratic and Republican voting blocs have changed a lot. We have a graph of this in Red State Blue State (also I’ve blogged it once or twice) showing professionals moving toward the Democrats, business owners moving Republican, etc. It’s perfectly reasonable to focus on whites with less than college education, as long as we don’t confuse matters by conflating that with “working class” more generally. I have a similar problem with the term “blue collar” as it excludes many low-income working people; it’s a term with an emotional affect that I think can mislead.
2. Whether we’re talking about 30% of a group or 40% or 60%, it’s still interesting to learn about the motivations behind people’s vote choices. Most low-income Americans vote for Democrats and it’s worth understanding that preference; it’s also worth understanding the preferences of the Republican minority. If you’re particularly interested in conservative attitudes, I can see why you’d want to isolate various Republican-leaning white voters. You might want to write your next column on rich whites, as they are very strongly Republican in their voting.
P.P.P.S. Some cognitive psychology research suggests how all this confusion could’ve happened.