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Religion and social issues as the “opiate of the elites”: conflicting evidence

I spoke on the book at NYU on Tuesday and used the line about religion as the “opiate of the elites,” showing this graph:


Pat Egan was my discussant and presented some data casting doubt on this story. He took poll data from 2004, I think it was, and fit logistic regressions to vote preference, given attitudes on three issues: taxes, abortion, and Iraq. He fit separate models to high, middle, and low-income voters. His hypothesis was, if social issues are truly the opiate of the elites, that the coefficient for attitude on abortion would be higher among the rich than the poor. But this didn’t happen: the coefficient for abortion was slightly higher among the poor–that is, social issues, by this measure, seemed to be more important among lower income voters.

What do I make of this? My quick response was that, in their Purple America paper, Ansolabehere, Rodden, and Snyder put together pretty comprehensive measures of social and economic attitudes, and found social attitudes to be more important among the rich than the poor in predicting vote.

I was thinking more about this and have a few other thoughts. Perhaps Pat or someone else will be interested in looking in to this.

– Measurement is key. Responses to different issues have low correlations, so it can help to use multiple issue questions for each issue domain, rather than simply one question per domain.

– My impression is that, for richer voters, both economic and social issues are more closely tied to party preference and also more closely tied to each other. I’m not sure how this should come out in Pat’s multiple regression analysis. I’m still struggling to see how the “opiate of the elites” story fits in to this.

– Religious attendance, and even religious belief, isn’t the same as social attitudes. Not by a long shot. (Similarly, income is not so strongly correlated with economic ideology.) See the graphs on page 90. A challenge is to fit together our findings on income and religion with what we know about issue attitudes.


  1. Boris says:

    On the measurement issue, see Ansolabehere et al’s recent piece in the previous AJPS. You really really want to do multiple measures, either by simple averaging or by more sophisticated techniques like ideal point estimation, both of which we use in the book.

  2. Andrew says:

    Larry Bartels supports the “opiate of the elites” argument, writing:

    Chapter 3 of UNEQUAL DEMOCRACY reports estimates of the impact of various issue preferences on presidential votes among high-, middle-, and low-income white voters. The estimated weight of abortion from 1984-2004 is twice as great for whites in the top third of the income distribution as for those in the bottom third. The increase in the estimated weight of abortion over those 20 years is substantial for the top third and zero for the bottom third. And in 2004, the estimated weight of a “cultural issues” scale including abortion (along with gay marriage, gender roles, etc.) is twice as great for the top third as for the bottom third.

    If you prefer education as a measure of “elite” status, my 2006 piece in QJPS on “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” reports parallel analyses differentiating white voters with and without college degrees. From 1984-2004, the weight of abortion is twice as great among people with college degrees. The increase in the estimated weight of abortion over that 20 year period is almost twice as great among people with college degrees. And the estimated weight of abortion in 2004 is four times as great among people with college degrees.