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David Weakliem points out that both economic and cultural issues can be more or less “moralized.”

David Weakliem writes:

Thomas Edsall has a piece in which he cites a variety of work saying that Democratic and Republican voters are increasingly divided by values. He’s particularly concerned with “authoritarianism,” which is an interesting issue, but one I’ll save for another post. What I want to talk about here is the idea that the recent rise in political polarization is the result of a rise of “cultural and lifestyle politics” at the expense of economic issues. The reasoning is that it’s easier to compromise on economics, on which you can split the difference, than on cultural issues, which involve principles of right and wrong. The idea that culture has been displacing economics as the main axis of political conflict been around for about fifty years—it was first proposed in response to the developments of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I think it has value (although with some qualifications which I discuss in this paper), but I don’t see how it can explain the rising polarization of the last decade or so. In that time, the single most divisive issue in American politics has probably been the Affordable Care Act. This is basically an economic policy, and a very complicated one involving a lot of technical issues—that is, exactly the kind of issue where it seems you could make deals, offering a concession here in return for getting something there. The second most divisive issue has probably been the combination of bailouts, tax changes, and stimulus spending that gave birth to the Tea Party: another complicated set of economic policies that seemed to offer lots of room for compromise. Meanwhile, some leading cultural issues have faded. For example, same-sex marriage is widely accepted—even people who aren’t enthusiastic about it have mostly given up the fight. Another example involves drugs: a consensus seems to be developing in favor of legalizing and regulating marijuana, and the rise in opioid abuse has been treated as a public health problem rather than producing a “moral panic.”

What I think these examples show is that both economic and cultural issues can be more or less “moralized.” There was a period in the middle of the 20th century when leading politicians of both left and right accepted the basic principles of the welfare state and government intervention to maintain high employment. But that consensus had not been around before then, and it isn’t around now. Now issues that were once part of what Seymour Martin Lipset called “the politics of collective bargaining” are part of the “culture wars.”

This is an excellent point. Weakliem should have a regular column in the New York Times.

25 Comments

  1. Adam says:

    > Weakliem should have a regular column in the New York Times.

    I’ve always found it funny (sad) that Weakliem’s prize for doing solid, non-partisan, non-inflammatory blogging on statistics and politics is few readers and rare mention, while tons of less-accurate, more-biased, and inflammatory blogs get tons of traffic and discussion in the media. If the NYT wanted accurate commentary they’d have already hired Weakliem, but accurate commentary doesn’t get you readers.

  2. Ignoto Fiorentino says:

    How about providing a link to the original Wiekliem post?

  3. Kyle C says:

    It is an excellent point, but I understand there is substantial scholarship suggesting that racism, xenophobia, and urbophobia underlie the right-wing positions on the issues that Weakliem identifies. (That is, suburban whites don’t want benefits to go to urban brown people. Read the comments sections of any metropolitan newspaper. That’s where those folks show their colors.) In this way “economic” issues become “cultural” and thus polarized on identity lines.

  4. Erin Jonaitis says:

    That idea that Weakliem is responding to, that culture displaced economics in political fights, is really fascinating to me. Someone recently linked me to the voteview plot of the current Senate, and what jumps out at me visually from that plot is that the two groups are linearly separable in a way that depends mostly on economics. Like, so much so that you can draw a line at x=xbar that will perfectly separate the groups. Granted that this is very much not my field and I could therefore be missing something big in how these point estimates for individual Senators are generated… but if I’m reading this right, it seems to provide strong support for Weakliem’s idea, to the point of making the other idea look sort of silly.

    This made me wonder what the same plot would have looked like 50 years ago – presumably we are not that much smarter than the political scientists of yore, so perhaps the balance has just shifted. Happily, the site I linked above makes it easy to find that out! And lo and behold, I do see much more vertical separation in the plot for the 1967-1969 Senate. Although… what did “liberal” and “conservative” mean on the social/racial axis, in the late sixties? Something is confusing me about these point clouds.

    • jrc says:

      I looked at them, saw the same discontinuity/separation, and was also surprised. Then I decided that it was probably not so much evidence of political polarization than it was simply evidence that the measure they use discriminates by party on the economic variables but not on the social ones. I’d have to look carefully at the variables and think about how they are similar/different, probably learn the history of their development… G-d knows what else, to say anything really smart about it (one way or the other). So I’m not gonna do that. But I’d say this is probably more a measurement thing* than a true reflection of the values of the underlying population (filtered through the electoral process), without making claims about the nature of the world itself (just the evidence on display).

      * by “measurement thing” I just mean you could probably get a lot of different answers if you used different questions: Garden of Forking Measures

      • Erin Jonaitis says:

        Here is what Wikipedia has to say on this method for estimating ideology quantitatively: DW-NOMINATE It’s not based on survey questions, but on Congressional votes.

        Andrew, any comments on this method? I’m curious what it looks like in practice. Does each Senator’s location on this map depend on his or her entire voting record, or merely the record within a given Congress? When a Senator’s voting history is really sparse, as when they are brand new, how are those data points handled? And especially, do the two dimensions “mean” the same thing over time? It seems to me inevitable that they would not, that there would be a drift, but I can’t quite wrap my brain around how to think about it instead.

        • I also think that the meaning of the DW-NOMINATE dimensions shifts over time, and am doubtful about whether the identification of the first with economics was ever accurate, except in a very rough way. In any case, as jrc suggested, there’s a difference between political elites and the public. With congress, there’s one dominant left/right dimension–if you have a liberal voting record on economic issues, you almost certainly have a liberal record on social issues too. In the public, opinions on “economic” and “social” issues are much more distinct.

          • Erin Jonaitis says:

            Hm. The collinearity you describe isn’t really evident in those plots, though…

            Does DW-NOMINATE force the two latent variables defining the map dimensions to be independent? In that case maybe that explains the lack of colllinearity. On the other hand, then I’m left wondering why in some earlier Congresses (eg 1967-1969) I see what looks like a nonzero correlation. (On the third hand I’m still trying to understand why that nonzero correlation seems to be negative, in any case. Was this before the “Southern strategy” took hold?)

            (and then way down on like the eighty-fifth hand there’s the question of the implicit and obviously false equivalence suggested by the point coloring. What does it mean to talk about “Red” and “Blue” Senators in 1797-1799??)

            “and am doubtful about whether the identification of the first with economics was ever accurate” – Can you say more about this? (again, this is super not my area)

  5. Gordon Danning says:

    I am skeptical of the claim that the Affordable Care Act is largely an economic issue. Proponents of universal health care tend to frame that support in terms of a right to health care, equality, etc. Opponents tend to frame their opposition in terms of concerns of liberty, opposition to “big government,” etc. Those seem to me to be more cultural claims than economic ones.

  6. Dale Lehman says:

    I find this whole economics vs culture/ethics distinction problematic (I guess this is supportive of what Weakliem is saying). I think it is more the result of academic/researcher disciplinary training than representative of meaningful distinctions of principle. Any moral issue has economic dimensions and vice versa. If there has been a change over the past 50 years (a subject that probably needs some discussion and evidence), then I doubt it is a movement in the direction of, or away from, economic considerations. I suspect something deeper. We (the human collective “we”) are tribal – we always have been, though the tribes we belong to keep evolving. I don’t know if we are more or less tribal than we used to be. It seems like our ability to converse/discuss has decreased, but I’m not really sure of that. We had divides (e.g. racial) that prevented discussion long ago, while there was more open discussion among certain groups (e.g. political parties). Now, the latter seem to have stopped meaningful discussion but, arguably, there is more discussion across racial lines than there was 50 years ago. I guess I find the purported distinction expressed by Edsall above to be superficial. I don’t pretend to know what the deeper changes are, but I doubt they are a decreasing or increasing importance of economic considerations relative to cultural or moral ones.

    One thing I think has changed is the nature of public service, and indeed, citizenry in general. Everything seems ruled by self-interest now. I was trained as an economist so I am well aware of the view that it always has been about self-interest, but I think it is different now. There used to be other hats people could wear – or at least try on. Politicians sometimes viewed their roles as public servants. Voters sometimes thought about the principles that different policies articulated. It seems to me that most everything now boils down to “how does this affect me personally?” That inescapable human characteristic needs to be tempered with, or balanced with, more collective or empathetic feelings. I would conjecture that those feelings have increasingly been eroded. I see it in the language used in the media, in normal conversation, pretty much everywhere. “I support X because it will be good for me” – as if there were nothing else to consider.

    • Kyle C says:

      Dale:

      “I only want what’s best for me and my family.”

      I used to think people who said this meant it notionally, or as a first approximation.

      Now I realize they mean every word. Only. What’s best. Me and mine. Which is chilling.

    • yyw says:

      Morals to me are just prevailing preferences of a society. They are changing so much these days and there is so much difference between cultures on what is good/evil, it’s almost meaningless to say who is more moral when comparing across eras and cultures. I would prefer to judge people by how principled they are. By that criterion, I doubt today’s humans are more principled than 50 years ago or any point in history really.

      • if they are not “more principled than … any point in history” then we’re at an all time low for principles?

        perhaps you meant something more like “not more principled than typical historical levels” (ie. somewhere near the median of the distribution)

        or do you really think we’re at a near all time low?

  7. yyw says:

    Moral values have multiple dimensions. Each individual holds multiple beliefs (preferences) and not all of them necessarily align perfectly. Tradeoffs between competing moral utilities are inevitable. And when evaluating any policy, economic considerations are inevitable too, since any policy aiming to distribute resources to increase certain moral utility is self defeating if its economic impact leads to a great reduction of total resources available.

  8. Koray says:

    Opposition to the ACA is not solely on economic grounds. As mentioned by others above, there are people who are really repulsed by the idea of social programs helping certain groups. Even Reagan’s “welfare queens” quote is alleged to be a dog whistle of that sort. (There are also people who oppose it in general for everybody.)

  9. Thanatos Savehn says:

    /hopes we get back to methods soon.

  10. Z says:

    “the combination of bailouts, tax changes, and stimulus spending that gave birth to the Tea Party”

    Isn’t this a controversial assertion?

  11. jrkrideau says:

    It appears that this work gathers information on authoritarianism using an instrument with four questions:

    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/05/opinion/trump-authoritarianism-republicans-contract.html

    which are roughly summarized here

    Did you grow up with a parent who spanked you, or with one who gave you a time-out? With one who encouraged you to be considerate, curious, self-reliant and independent, or one who demanded that you be obedient, well-behaved, well-mannered and respectful toward your elders. How do you feel toward kids?

    I think

    https://www.pri.org/stories/2016-02-25/got-authoritarian-streak-study-says-odds-are-youre-trump

    I copied correctly.

    Can anyone tell me who developed these questions and point me to any technical papers on the reliability and validity of this measure?

  12. jrkrideau says:

    It appears that this work gathers information on authoritarianism using an instrument with four questions:

    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/05/opinion/trump-authoritarianism-republicans-contract.html

    which are roughly summarized here

    Did you grow up with a parent who spanked you, or with one who gave you a time-out? With one who encouraged you to be considerate, curious, self-reliant and independent, or one who demanded that you be obedient, well-behaved, well-mannered and respectful toward your elders. How do you feel toward kids?

    I think

    https://www.pri.org/stories/2016-02-25/got-authoritarian-streak-study-says-odds-are-youre-trump

    I hope I copied that correctly.

    Can anyone tell me who developed these questions and point me to any technical papers on the reliability and validity of this measure?

    • The summary in that story is misleading. The questions are about which qualities are more important in children: independence or respect for elders, curiosity or good manners, obedience or self-reliance, and being considerate or being well-behaved. I don’t know much about the technical issues, but it’s from the American National Election Studies, so there is probably more information at their website. I think it measures something meaningful, but I’d call it something like “traditionalism” rather than “authoritarianism”.

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