Education and the hardening of political attitudes

Henry presents another example of more educated voters being more ideological:

Graph of inequality by political information

The above graph (from Larry Bartels) shows the probability that liberals or conservatives agree with the statement that income inequality between rich and poor people has increased. The two groups diverge in their attitudes as they get more information.

Democrats can get things wrong, too

The above is an example where conservatives with high information levels get things wrong. Just as balance, here’s an example (also from Larry Bartels) where Democrats are the ones in error. The example is in chapter 8 of our forthcoming red state, blue state book:

Even objective features of the economy are viewed through partisan filters. For example, a survey was conducted in 1988, at the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term, asking various questions about the government and economic conditions, including, “Would you say that compared to 1980, inflation has gotten better, stayed about the same, or gotten worse?” Amazingly, over half of the self-identified strong Democrats in the survey said that inflation had gotten worse and only 8% thought it had gotten much better, even though the actual inflation rate dropped from 13% to 4% during Reagan’s eight years in office.

The data on perceptions of inflation come from the 1988 National Election Study, as reported by Larry Bartels in his article “Beyond the running tally: Partisan bias in political perceptions,” published in Political Behavior in 2002. It was not just Democrats who misperceived or misremembered economic statistics—even among strong Republicans, only half thought inflation—but the gap between the parties is disturbing.

Another mysterious pattern in these surveys is that respondents of both parties thought more favorably about trends in unemployment than inflation. For example, among strong Democrats, 30% thought that unemployment had improved, but less than 25% said this about inflation; among strong Republicans, the corresponding numbers were 85% for unemployment and only 70% for inflation. Actually, though, unemployment declined only slightly during Reagan’s time in office (from 7.1% to 5.5%), compared to inflation falling by more than two thirds.

P.S. Here’s the graph I posted earlier showing divergence of attitudes on climate change:


4 thoughts on “Education and the hardening of political attitudes

  1. There are three unknowns in that statement: "income inequality", rich, and poor, which gives plenty of room for differential interpretation. For example, "income inequality" could be taken as a strict numerical interpretation ($5>$3) or as a "got what they should have for the effort expended" (e.g. a high-paying academic job versus an industrial job).

  2. There is evidence that, as political attitudes become central to our self-concept, we tend to selectively expose ourselves to, process, and even (!) recall information. (cf. bit on preference for exposure to attitude-congruent information in: On the Relationship Between Attitude Involvement and Attitude Accessibility – Lavine, Borgida, Sullivan

  3. Indeed, it seems that the study with Democrats is plotting correctness versus political affiliation, while the one in Bartels is correctness versus information level.

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