Personality, Culture and Economics: The Psychology of Preference Formation in Polarized America

Study by:
Howard Lavine - University of Minnesota 
By all accounts, American politics has become increasingly divisive. To some extent, the current acrimony is a reflection of polarization among political elites—party leaders in and out of government—over the past three decades. However, many observers of American politics argue that the current turmoil also reflects a major reorientation in political competition, in which social issues (abortion, gay marriage, etc.) have displaced economic concerns (taxation, social welfare, etc.) on the public agenda. Though Americans are divided on social issues, evidence indicates that voters continue to attach more electoral weight to taxes and spending than to abortion, gay marriage and school prayer, that social issues matter more now than in the past only among affluent voters, and that references to the economy and economic policy continue to dominate citizens’ evaluations of the parties. These findings cast strong doubt on the claim that social-issue politics has altered the basis of political competition by defusing the impact of social class and economic liberalism. More importantly, these findings buttress an implicit but widely-held normative assumption about the competence of the American electorate: insofar as ordinary citizens hold principled beliefs about the desired size and scope of government intervention, and insofar as they use those beliefs to sort themselves into parties, form policy preferences, and make electoral choices, American democracy rests on a reasonably sound footing. 
The primary goal of this proposal is to advance a novel theoretical framework of mass economic opinion, one in which this normatively upbeat assumption is rendered untenable. Our framework integrates two contradictory but central features of contemporary mass politics: that the current partisan vitriol is rooted in deep-seated differences over emotionally-laden symbolic concerns, and that technical debates about economic redistribution and government regulation—as well as income—remain the decisive factors in shaping presidential elections. Our core argument is that that the rise of cultural division has not displaced economic issues on the public agenda; rather, it has shaped economic preferences by fundamentally altering the basis of partisan sorting, cue-giving, and issue framing. We examine the hypothesis—obscured in past work by untenable assumptions and a lack of interdisciplinary communication and theory—that mass preferences on economic issues are endogenous to a basic cultural division in the electorate, and therefore endogenous to core individual differences in personality. A key component of our analysis is that the nature, meaning, and normative implications of economic preferences depend critically on political engagement, defined as the degree to which citizens are interested in and informed about politics. In particular, we hypothesize that among the engaged, who are regularly exposed to party messages that assign cultural meaning to economic positions (e.g., “Obamacare is socialism”) economic preferences serve a symbolic function; they express partisan and cultural affiliation. By contrast, among the unengaged, who are less likely to receive such messages, economic preferences serve an instrumental function; they reflect the extent to which one desires government protection from the risks associated with free-market capitalism. 
Our approach departs in fundamentally important ways from established perspectives on mass opinion. In contrast to conventional approaches that suggest a direct influence of personality on social issues (but no influence on economic issues), we argue that political engagement plays a key role in determining when and how cultural orientation—defined as individual variation in the value placed on conformity, tradition, and sociocultural uniformity—and personality—defined as individual variation in needs for order, certainty and security—shape economic opinion. In particular, if responses to economic policy conflict among engaged citizens are expressive (i.e., reflecting cultural affiliation), then a closed cultural orientation (one in which individuals prefer conformity to autonomy)—as well as strongly needs for order, certainty and security—should be linked to conservative economic preferences when engagement is high. By contrast, if unengaged citizens view economic policy conflict through an instrumental lens—i.e., as social protection—then these very same cultural and personality orientations should be linked to liberal economic preferences when engagement is low. Moreover, in direct contrast to approaches suggesting that political engagement heightens the empirical connection between self-interest and economic preference, our model predicts that among the white working class—a segment of the electorate that has received a great deal of attention inside and outside political science—engagement will act to diminish the extent to which a disproportionate number of these economically down-scale individuals select economic positions that best reflect their interests. Finally, contrary to the thrust of rational choice theory, our approach implies that cultural orientation and personality should be stronger predictors of economic preferences than either income or perceived personal finances.