Differences between white male liberals and white male conservatives

I was recently forwarded a question about the differences that exist between Democrats and Republicans amongst white men.  The question was framed by the fact that white men appear to be leaving the Democratic party at fairly high rates and it would be useful to pinpoint the variables that lead some white men to desert the Democratic party while others remain.

Individual researchers have individual answers to this question.  David Pizarro might focus on the emotion of disgust. At YourMorals, we’ve focused on moral opinions.  Others might focus on approach-avoidance or on basic physiological differences between liberals and conservatives.  Jon Jost does a wonderful job summarizing the importance of ideology in helping organize our beliefs to satisfy motivational needs, and then focuses on two organizing principles, resistance to change and acceptance of inequality.  All of this research is well done and true, but I think we all suffer (my group included) from an over reliance on our particular perspective.  I believe that Jost is correct in pointing out how ideology allows us to make sense of conflicting beliefs, and I would extend that more explicitly to our feelings, intuitions, and goals.  Having conflicting beliefs or feelings (e.g. I believe in abortion, but it disgusts me) leads to unpleasant dissonance, and ideology represents a narrative that we can use to resolve this dissonance, as relayed by Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann.

From that perspective, there is no one answer to what causes some white men to grativate toward the Republican party and not others.  Rather, it might be useful to look at the bigger picture.

To do this, I created the below table of effect sizes (the mean difference between liberals and conservatives, divided by the standard deviation), using only US white male respondents, sorted from those characteristics that are most characteristic of liberals to those that are more characteristic of conservatives.  We have better data on liberal-conservative identification than party identification, so we have to use this as a proxy, but we will have analyses in the future concerning party identification specifically.

There is too much here to really address in one post.  I did the same thing for women and the pattern is very similar, so it doesn’t appear there are many gender interactions, though maybe someone will point something out.  My main reaction is that it confirms my initial idea that all researchers are finding very real differences, but that no line of research has a monopoly on explaining differences.  There is replication and support for a number of lines of research on ideological differences.  Rather, ideology is a network of ideas, beliefs, and dispositions that encompasses all these findings.

Finding out what made white male liberals vote for McCain might be an even more interesting question, and perhaps I’ll do that analysis next as we do have some of that data.  I did this previously to examine supporters of Obama vs. Clinton within the Democratic party and feel that examining within party psychological (as opposed to demographic) differences is a vast untapped area for political psychologists.  Indeed, if I had to point out one interesting thing in the above graph, it would be the relatively small effect sizes of demographics like age compared to personality variables like neuroticism.  It might make just as much sense for Obama to target the “empathic” vote as it does to target the “youth” vote.

- Ravi Iyer



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