Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Obedient Republicans, Curious Democrats?

A new report by the Pew Research Center has attracted some attention, as it appears to show a big gap between Republicans and Democrats in the values they believe to be important to teach to children. In short, Republicans prioritize teaching religious faith and obedience, while Democrats prefer that children be taught 'empathy for others' and curiosity.

How should we interpret these findings? Are they really meaningful? Or is the relationship spurious?

I would argue that the relationship is valid, but the I think that the Pew report (and subsequent media coverage) has the causal story backwards.

Recent research by Stanley Feldman (gated), Karen Stenner, Marc Hetherington, many others, and, well, myself (gated), has found a relationship between these 'child-rearing values' and political attitudes. But we argue that these child-rearing questions allow us to measure a deeper personality construct called 'authoritarianism.' Authoritarianism describes the extent to which one prefers social conformity over individual autonomy. High authoritarians are willing to endorse various and sometimes harsh measures in order to maintain that social conformity--punishing deviants, delegating power to authority figures, following traditional sources of rules, and maintaining a closed stance against outsiders and sources of change. Low authoritarians are more distrustful of traditional sources of authority and rules, tend to be more embracing of change, and open to outsiders.

An interesting book by Marc Hetherington & Jonathan Weiler argues that, since the 1960s, Democrats and Republicans have increasingly become aligned on a low authoritarian vs. high authoritarian dimension, with Republicans consistently favoring the more authoritarian options (greater emphasis on religious values, tough foreign policy, strict 'law and order' policies, and opposition to immigration) while Democrats have tended to do the opposite.

The real story here is that the child-rearing values measured in these surveys reflect our deeper preferences toward social behavior: should children be taught to follow social rules and respect traditional sources of authority--or should they be taught to be more curious and independent? Those deeper preferences shape our political attitudes. In today's political climate, people who believe in following rules and respecting traditional sources of authority (like religion) are more likely to be Republicans--because of the positions that the Republican Party has consistently adopted in the past 40-50 years? Conversely, those who believe that people should be autonomous and empathetic are more likely to become Democrats.

So the results make sense, but I think the interpretation of them is reversed.

The Meaning of 'Liberal' and 'Conservative'

This brings me to a slightly broader criticism of some research in political psychology and the new 'biopolitics' field. Much of this research tends to be a bit US-centric (treating terms like 'liberal' and 'conservative' in their American meanings), and it tends to treat these concepts as being more fixed than they really are.

In truth, the meaning of 'liberal' and 'conservative' evolves over time as the dimensions of party conflict shift. One of the reasons I really like the Hetherington & Weiler book is that they highlight this process: what is true of authoritarianism and party allegiance today was not true in the 1950s before the Civil Rights movement and countercultural revolution. Research in political psychology and 'bio-politics' needs to be careful about this as well. In many countries, party conflict is still organized much more around class/material interests than deeper value systems. And all the research in the US showing a relationship between various biological/psychological factors (the most recent being how we smell) may just be capturing party affiliations at a relatively narrow point in time.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Normalization of Marine Le Pen?

A poll is out from French polling firm Ifop showing hypothetical presidential vote results in matchups between Front National party leader Marine Le Pen and various candidates from the center-left and center-right. Here is a chart of the results (in French):

The eye-catching result is, of course, Le Pen defeating current President Francois Hollande 54-46.

Contrasting that result to the others tells a bigger story. Three prospective candidates from the center-right (former President Sarkozy, and former Prime Ministers Fillon and Juppe) would comfortably defeat Le Pen. Those results would fit with a fairly standard narrative of Le Pen and the radical right more generally: the core support of such parties has grown (read Matthew Goodwin and Rob Ford's excellent book for an account of who those voters are in the UK), but most mainstream voters still won't vote for such a party. In that sense, these results would be a continuation of the pattern observed in 2002 when Jacques Chirac crushed Le Pen's father in the 2nd round of those presidential elections.

The Le Pen over Hollande result suggests that a substantial number of center-right French voters actually would support Le Pen over a mainstream party. Presumably, Le Pen's 11-18 percentage point gain versus Hollande compared to the center-right candidates is center-right voters 'defecting' to her. Apparently, these voters no longer consider Le Pen to be too extreme; she is now a more palatable alternative than the candidate of another mainstream party. To my thinking, this is a significant development that hints at a 'normalization' of the Front National in French politics. This also possibly hints at her ability to gain support from a different group of voters than the 'left-behind' working-class males that have traditionally formed the base of radical right support (though one would need to see more details from the survey to figure that out).

Several caveats:
--Hollande is about as unpopular as an incumbent president can be presently.
--Support for Le Pen (who is a talented politician) may not necessarily carry over to support for other FN candidates, or the party generally.
--Saying you would vote for Le Pen is not necessarily the same as actually doing it.