Why do millions of Americans on both the right and the left ignore their own economic self-interest when they choose which political party to support?
Partisan prioritization of cultural and racial issues has, to a notable extent, superseded the economic conflicts that once characterized the nation’s politics, leading to what scholars call a “dematerialization” of American electoral competition.
On the right, millions of working- and middle-class whites have shifted their focus away from the goal of income redistribution — an objective Democrats have customarily promoted — to support the Republican preference for traditional, even reactionary, sociocultural values. At the same time, college-educated white voters have come to support tax and spending initiatives that subordinate their own financial self-interest in favor of redistribution and liberal social values.
Benjamin Enke and Alex Wu, economists at Harvard, and Mattias Polborn, a political scientist at Vanderbilt, capture the rationale underlying this push-me, pull-you cycle in their April paper, “Morals as Luxury Goods and Political Polarization”:
The logic is that when the rich get disproportionately richer, they place a higher weight on moral considerations, which induces some rich moral liberals to swing Democratic. This, in turn, induces the parties to polarize on social issues because their voter bases have now both become more extreme. Faced with such socially increasingly polarized parties, a poor, morally conservative voter may well become more likely to vote Republican, even when his materially preferred economic policy has moved to the left as a result of increased income inequality. In turn, when poor moral conservatives swing Republican, this further pushes the Republican Party position on social issues to the right and the Democratic one further left.
The idea that moral values are, in that sense, luxury goods, Enke, Wu and Polborn write, “is not new but has appeared in different terminology across the social sciences, such as in Abraham Maslow’s (1943) ‘hierarchy of needs’, the influential ‘postmaterialism’ literature initiated by Ronald Inglehart (1997, 2020), or the argument that modernization increases demand for democracy (Seymour Martin Lipset, 1959).”
These trends manifest, the authors continue, “in two ways: first, in any given survey year, rich people report being less materialist than the poor. Second, as average incomes increased over time, the U.S. population as a whole became less materially oriented.”
In a separate 2020 paper, “Moral Values and Voting,” Enke found that
starting in the 1960s, Republicans and Democrats polarized in their moral appeal: for more than 30 years, Democrats increasingly placed a stronger emphasis on universalist moral concepts, a trend that was considerably weaker among Republicans. Thus, today the Democratic Party has a substantially more universalist profile than the Republican Party.
Enke measured the level of support for universalist values by using what he calls “a moral foundation questionnaire” that “elicits respondents’ agreement with moral value statements,” including such “universalist statements” as “Compassion with suffering is a crucial virtue,” “Laws should treat everyone fairly” and “Justice most important requirement for society,” in contrast to such “communal values” statements as “Be loyal to your family even if they have done something wrong,” “Be a team player, rather than express oneself” and “Soldiers must obey even if they disagree with an order.”
Analyzing the speeches of recent presidential candidates, Enke contends that Donald Trump stood apart for his focus on the world of his followers:
Trump’s moral language is less universalist, or equivalently, more communal, than that of any other presidential nominee in recent history. Trump is also more communal than his 2016 primary contenders. Moreover, the difference in moral appeal between Trump and Hillary Clinton is particularly pronounced.
In their paper on morals as luxury goods, Enke, Wu and Polborn contend that it is the most affluent and best-educated citizens who propel the contemporary political emphasis on moral and cultural issues, stressing that “the cultural or moral conflict is between different subsets of the elite. This conflict among elites induces party polarization, which then propagates into changes in voting behavior among the poor.”
In a joint email, Enke and his co-authors elaborated on this process:
As the rich become richer over time, they place a higher weight on their moral values relative to their material incentives. As a result, some voters who are both rich and morally liberal who used to vote Republican swing to the Democrats. The Democratic constituency becomes more morally liberal on average, while the Republican constituency becomes more morally conservative, on average. To make these new constituencies happy, the Democratic Party moves to the left on social issues and the Republican Party to the right.
White voters who are low-income, morally conservative and formerly Democrats, the authors continue,
can now swing Republican because of the change in party positions. Now that the parties are polarized socially, it becomes more relevant for people to vote based on their values, simply because the stakes have increased. As a result, in our model, poor moral conservatives can swing Republican over time even though they don’t become richer and even though economic inequality increased to their disadvantage. In our model, this is all driven by the fact that the parties partly accommodate the changing priorities of the rich, which are now more moral in nature.
In “Identity, beliefs, and political conflict,” Giampaolo Bonomi, a doctoral candidate in economics at the University of California, San Diego, and Nicola Gennaioli and Guido Tabellini, professors of economics at Bocconi University in Milan, make a similar argument:
Economic shocks that boost conflict among cultural groups can also trigger a shift to cultural identity. We offer two examples: skilled biased technical change and globalization. If these shocks hurt less educated and hence more conservative voters, and benefit more educated and hence more progressive voters, they make cultural cleavages more salient and can induce a switch to cultural identity. As a result, economic losers become more socially and fiscally conservative.
In support of their argument, Bonomi, Gennaioli and Tabellini cite the work of David Autor and of Italo Colantone and Piero Stanig to “show that, both in the U.S. and in Europe, losses from international trade foster support for right-wing and conservative parties.”
Their analysis reveals how economic issues mesh with cultural issues in ways that make it difficult to define whether the economic framework creates the moral framework or vice versa.
In an email, Gennaioli noted that their paper “helps explain important real-world phenomena that cannot be understood under the conventional rational choice theory,” which then leads to the question: Why do voters adopt seemingly irrational positions?
This question must be broken down into two. First: why do economic losers identify as “cultural conservatives” as opposed to “working class”? Second: how does the “cultural conservative” identity shape the policies that economic losers do or do not demand?
In answer to the first question, Gennaioli contended that
cultural identity is triggered by shocks of a specific kind: those that amplify the economic conflict between culturally conservative vs. progressive voters. Examples of such shocks are expanded international trade, or introduction of labor-saving technologies. These shocks hurt less-educated workers — who tend to be more conservative — while they often benefit more educated voters — who tend to be more progressive because of their higher education. These shocks thus focus the losers on what they have in common, that they belong to a culturally conservative local community particularly exposed to import competition. Thus, losers of trade and technology shocks tend to view social conflict as “us, the conservatives” vs. “them, the progressives.”
Gennaioli observed further:
On the one hand, as economic losers abandon the working class, they also abandon its very stereotypical idea that fighting income disparities is a social priority. On the other hand, culturally conservative losers do not want the universal redistribution of the left, which may go to progressive people or ethnic minorities they dislike. Instead, they may favor specific policies such as protectionism or subsidies to specific sectors/places/workers.
Edsall also presents more data from several other papers/authors. The whole article (and its source material) are an interesting read.
Does this analysis make any sense to you? The concept that the educated elites drive the mechanisms that polarize/unite the rest of us seems to hit all the right buttons, but is pretty depressing.
Is that a function of a failure to teach history (successfully) and civics (at all) that leaves the hoi polloi at the mercy of the educated, as they actually understand how to twiddle the levers of power?
Or is there more to it than that?
(Score: 1) by khallow on Thursday September 15 2022, @12:50PM
In the paper the authors make a distinction between "communal" and "universalist" - basically the former is more or less a tribal thing. I suggest the near zero sum political ecosystem and the continued stress on the US from global labor competition as starting points for why that's happening - not elite virtue signaling.