Do we really know what’s going on? Or do we just see what we want to see?
Larry Bartels, director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics at Princeton, has an op-ed Who’s Bitter Now? which shows us a stereotype of rural voters in action. His argument? “Small-town people of modest means and limited education are not fixated on cultural issues. Rather, it is affluent, college-educated people living in cities and suburbs who are most exercised by guns and religion. In contemporary American politics, social issues are the opiate of the elites.”
Bartels sets out to actually define the “small-town working class,” making less than $60,000, living in small towns or rural areas, never graduated from college. He compares them to cosmopolitan voters, college graduates who live in the suburbs or cities making $60,000 or more. The first group makes up about 16 percent of voters, the second 13 percent.
Small-town, working-class people are more likely than their cosmopolitan counterparts, not less, to say they trust the government to do what’s right. In the 2004 National Election Study conducted by the University of Michigan, 54 percent of these people said that the government in Washington can be trusted to do what is right most of the time or just about always. Only 38 percent of cosmopolitan people expressed a similar level of trust in the federal government.
Do small-town, working-class voters cast ballots on the basis of social issues? Yes, but less than other voters do. Among these voters, those who are anti-abortion were only 6 percentage points more likely than those who favor abortion rights to vote for President Bush in 2004. The corresponding difference for the rest of the electorate was 27 points, and for cosmopolitan voters it was a remarkable 58 points. Similarly, the votes cast by the cosmopolitan crowd in 2004 were much more likely to reflect voters’ positions on gun control and gay marriage.
Bartels finishes by telling us the larger pattern behind it all. “It is true that American voters attach significantly more weight to social issues than they did 20 years ago. It is also true that church attendance has become a stronger predictor of voting behavior. But both of those changes are concentrated primarily among people who are affluent and well educated, not among the working class.”
So why the problem in perception? Is it because he clings to a stereotype, as Bartels seems to suggest?
Nicholas Kristof’s column today, Divided They Fall, offers us better than a yes/no. He wants to take on “how our biases shape our understanding of reality.” Of course the candidate you favor won the debate last time… Or did he or she?
Continue reading “Perception and Politics”