Are Liberals Smarter Than Conservatives?

Tom Ball writes:

Didn’t know if you had seen this article [by Jason Richwine] about political allegiance and IQ but wanted to make sure you did. I’m surprised the author hasn’t heard or seen of your work on Red and Blue states! What do you think?

I think the article raises some interesting issues but he seems to be undecided about whether to take the line that intelligent Americans mostly have conservative views (“[George W.] Bush’s IQ is at least as high as John Kerry’s” and “Even among the nation’s smartest people, liberal elites could easily be in the minority politically”) or the fallback position that, yes, maybe liberals are more intelligent than conservatives, but intelligence isn’t such a good thing anyway (“The smartest people do not necessarily make the best political choices. William F. Buckley once famously declared that he would rather give control of our government to “the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.”). One weakness of this latter argument is that the authorities he relies on for this point–William F. Buckley, Irving Kristol, etc.–were famous for being superintelligent. Richwine is in the awkward position of arguing that Saul Bellow’s aunt (?) was more politically astute than Bellow, even though, in Kristol’s words, “Saul’s aunt may not have been a brilliant intellectual.” Huh? We’re taking Richwine’s testimony on Saul Bellow’s aunt’s intelligence?

Richwine also gets into a tight spot when he associates conservativism as “following tradition” and liberalism with “non-traditional ideas.” What is “traditional” can depend on your social setting. What it takes to be a rebel at the Columbia University faculty club is not necessarily what will get you thrown out of a country club in the Dallas suburbs. I think this might be what Tom Ball was thinking about when he referred to Red State, Blue State: political and cultural divisions mean different things in different places.

I do, however, agree with Richwine’s general conclusion, which is that you’re probably not going to learn much by comparing average IQ’s of different groups. As Richwine writes, “The bottom line is that a political debate will never be resolved by measuring the IQs of groups on each side of the issue.” African-Americans have low IQ’s, on average, Jews have high IQ’s on average, and both groups vote for the Democrats. Latinos have many socially conservative views but generally don’t let those views get in the way of voting for Democrats.

17 thoughts on “Are Liberals Smarter Than Conservatives?

  1. It would actually be surprising if Republicans in America didn't have higher average IQs than Democrats in America, given how big the correlation between income and IQ is, and of course how big the correlation between income and voting Republican is. There'd have to be an impressively strong negative correlation between conservative views and IQ to overcome the effects of those correlations on the data.

  2. Is it meaningful that the brains are shown backward in the article's picture? The frontal lobes are back where the occipital lobes should be, and vice versa. Perhaps a hidden measure of the author's thesis?

  3. "African-Americans have low IQ's, on average, Jews have high IQ's on average, and both groups vote for the Democrats."

    I love your courage, and yet I cringe for you.

    This is the type of analysis that I would never encourage someone to do non-anonymously.

    As a point, the faculty of Harvard and expert intellectuals generally have IQ's way above any ethnic population that numbers in the millions, jews included. It brings to mind the recent derision of Sarah Palin in some blog or publication as an example of government by the governed.

    I wonder how more narrow band issues segment by education, such as whether cost-benefit analysis should be applied to healthcare funding.

    Also, I wonder whether higher iq people tend to be more moderate within parties, movements and ideologies than lower iq people (are liberal republicans and conservative democrats higher iq than liberal democrats and conservative republicans).

  4. In some unpublished work with my colleague Orla Doyle we find for the UK that higher cognitive ability is fairly robustly associated with voting Conservative over Labour. This isn't that surprising: the Labour party tends to be less laisser-faire/more in favour of re-distribution to those with lower endowments. So if you are not smart, the smart thing is to favour a more egalitarian party. Assuming you are not really really dumb and can't work this out, that is.

  5. Be careful when talking about a group having greater IQs and therefore being more intelligence. Intelligence can't be described by one number.

    @kevin denny:

    Your explanation of UK voting patterns doesn't quite work today, as since the New Labour project, I don't think we can really say that Labour are less laissez-faire/more redistributive. However, a lot of "working class" people still vote Labour despite it not necessarily being in their interests, as a kind of party loyalty ("I've been Labour all my life"), so that probably saves your analysis i.e. they vote Labour because they perceive them as being egalitarian, even though they gave up any semblance of being egalitarian a long time ago.

  6. There was a popular hoax chart on the Internet that was read millions of times by Democrats after the 2004 election claiming that Blue States had much higher average IQs than Red States (e.g., CN 113, UT 87!) It was promoted earlier by the young Matthew Yglesias, and even made The Economist, who had to retract it after I pointed out that it was just made up.

    It was all a hoax, of course.

    If you look at average years of education in the Presidential exit polls, you'll see tiny advantages among Republicans in 2000 and 2002, and a small Democratic advantage in 2004.

  7. Steve:

    The relation between education and vote preference is nonmonotonic (or, as they say in the popular press, "nonlinear"), and so you end up with very small differences if you look at averages.

    See here for the graphs. I haven't figured how to publish these (that is, how to put them in a broader context) neyond blogging them.

  8. Right, white liberals are a little better educated than white conservatives, and white v. white rivalry is what white liberals carry about. Minorities don't count as real people in the white liberal mental universe.

  9. Steve: When I tell people about voting patterns by income, people ask about education. And when I show them voting patterns by education (for example, the 2008 exit polls have McCain getting 35% among voters with no high school education, 46% among high school grads, 47% among those with some college, 48% among college grads, and 40% among postgraduates), everybody asks me to break it down by race. It's not a liberal or conservative thing, everybody is interested in comparing whites with whites, blacks with blacks, etc. I don't think it's that "minorities doin'g count as real people" to white liberals (or to white conservatives); people just like to see these comparisons broken down by race. Also, given the time trends in education, I thought it would be helpful to break things down by age; hence the graphs I posted.

    TGGP: Yes, there's a tension between (a) wanting to believe that people who disagree with us aren't so smart or successful and (b) wanting to believe that our opponents are successful because of external factors such as wealth, social status, and rhetorical ability. Liberals as well as conservatives can be torn, I think, between (a) thinking of their political opponents as pitiful losers, and (b) resenting the other side for having all sorts of unearned advantages.

  10. "I wonder how more narrow band issues segment by education, such as whether cost-benefit analysis should be applied to healthcare funding."

    This should have read "by IQ", though I'm interested in both.

    "It's not a liberal or conservative thing, everybody is interested in comparing whites with whites, blacks with blacks, etc."

    "people just like to see these comparisons broken down by race."

    I don't see this as a stopping point. I think answering why could help understand the deeper mechanics of identity and subpopulation interaction in the USA, as well as the psycho/micro bridge with the macro.

    I think the mechanics of you giving details to somebody of how a trait distribution affects voting, and then their follow up questions is worth more study, in a neat, fool the subject, experimental psychology type way … to tease out nontransparent preferences and motivations.

    I feel you're rushing to an explanation where experiment and play with the dynamic might be more revealing.

  11. Dear Andrew:

    I think liberals have an even harder time thinking straight about IQ-related facts that conservatives because A) They care more about IQ and B) They care more about appearing not to care about IQ, and thus not knowing anything about IQ because it automatically verges on Crimethink.

  12. Education, race and voting is interesting, but I think the fourth variable should be income, not age. Here's why I think so:

    It's true that age is strongly related to both education (younger people are, on average, more educated) and race. BUT the relationship between age and education is, I think fairly straightforward. The relationship between education and income and vote is, I think, more complex: College professors tend to be very highly educated (nearly all have PhDs) but not so high income, and (I am guessing) pretty liberal; CEOs also tend to be highly educated (many with MBA or JD or something) and very conservative; MDs, JDs etc.

    Of course, it's all complex – there are some very very rich liberals out there – George Soros, for instance

  13. If you look at Republican vote versus income along, you get the humpback pattern Prof. Gelman showed in his graphs on July 8. However, if you control for income, you get a straight line negative correlation between education and voting Republican. Higher levels of education have two effects: they make people tend to vote Democratic, but they also are associated with higher incomes, which is associated with voting Republican. The tension between these effects is pretty interesting. The income effect is greater at low levels of education, producing a Democratic vote because of the low incomes, and the education effect is greater at the post-graduate level, again producing a Democratic vote because the high incomes are overpowered by the high education levels. The converse is also true: the most conservative group around are those with high incomes but limited education: Joe the Plumber.

  14. I would say correlation between political ideologies and intelligence certainly does exist, but individual priorities and demographics also need to be taken into account. For instance, well-educated high-income college professors tend to be liberal and, therefore, more supportive of social programs to benefit the poor. Meanwhile, the poor people also gravitate towards ideologies that promote social justice, which makes low-income voters more liberal. Obviously, it would be ridiculous to assume that low-income earners are college professors are equally intelligent.

    The same goes for conservatives. Highly educated wealthy business owners tend to be conservative. On flip side, deeply religious low-income individuals are conservative as well. But are they the same types of conservatism? (We have to keep in mind there several kinds of conservatism; e.g. social conservatism, fiscal conservatism). Of course, it would also be laughable to assert that wealthy businessmen and low-income religious people are equally intelligent.

    So, we can't really claim with absolute certainty whether or not one political group is smarter than the other.

    I am note sure if it's true or not. But I heard that liberals tend to have higher verbal IQs, while conservatives tend to have higher quantitative IQs. If it's true, it makes perfect sense because professionals in social studies and humanities fields are more liberal, while engineering and business professionals are more conservative.

  15. Do you really think the majority of Americans are rich? Because the majority of Americans lean toward conservatism as oppose to liberalism. There are plenty of middle class Republicans who are so because their Christian religion identifies more with Republicanism (pro-life, anti-gay)
    This is exactly why studies show conservatives tend to be less educated; they don't understand how exactly the Republican platform affects them.

    Studies have shown that liberals are the most educated ideological demographic. 49% of them are college graduates, and 41% of them have incomes greater than 75,000. These rich liberals are still liberals because they believe in equal opportunity for the poor.

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