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By John Ray

Keith Burgess-Jackson forwarded me a copy of the following email that he received: "Your recent article, "Expiating Liberal Guilt" seems to make two empirical claims. 1. There is a correlation between growing older and a predisposition to conservative politics. 2. There is a correlation between being brought up in a wealthy or at least middle class family and being liberal. I would have thought a scholar who describes himself as "anal" would have at least done a Google search to see if any statistics back up these claims. I found some exit poll data from the 2000 election that suggests you are dead wrong on both claims. I hope you will post a true mea culpa on your blog regarding this. If you do not, I question whether you are a philosopher who is interested in the truth. Here is the link".

The writer makes the common mistake of confusing the leaders and the led. There is a huge amount of research in the psychological literature showing that the two can be quite different. Keith was talking about those who preach "liberalism" rather than those who vote for the Democrat candidate in Presidential elections. The two are far from the same. Far more people vote Democrat than are committed to "liberalism". Only 20% of U.S. voters self-identify as "liberal". So why do so many others vote for Democrat candidates?

In part it is because ALL successful Presidential candidates (Democrat or Republican) are in fact centrists. They have to stay pretty close to the political centre (regardless of what their real, personal views might be) in order to maximize their appeal. No candidate can hope to win unless he appeals to a lot of centrist or "floating" voters and both candidates will try to offer something to everyone. The candidate can only be Right-leaning or Left-leaning rather than truly Rightist or Leftist. And there could be no clearer demonstration of that than John "flip-flop" Kerry. He carries the attempt to be everything to everybody to a ludicrous degree. And GWB too wooed "liberal" voters by stealing Leftist rhetoric and campaigning as a "compassionate" conservative. Another sign of how centrist successful Presidential candidates have to be is that there is a quite respectable case for arguing that Clinton was more conservative than GWB is. Work for the dole took off under Clinton and Clinton balanced the budget whereas GWB oversaw a major welfare expansion (prescription drug benefit) and ran the budget into deficit. So in those respects the two men did exactly the opposite of what the ideologies normally attributed to them would lead one to expect. Both have been conservative on some things and "liberal" on others.

So while it would be extremely odd indeed if conservative-leaning candidates were not preponderantly backed by conservative people, the differentiation is rarely strong (the strongest correlation I have found in my surveys was a correlation of .5 -- implying only a 25% overlap between ideology and vote). So GWB would have got votes from all sorts of people for all sorts of different reasons: For instance, as well as getting votes from Christians and committed conservatives, GWB would have got votes from centrists who liked his balance of "compassion" (i.e. being pro-handout) and caution about social change and from some genuinely compassionate "liberals" not because they liked his views in general but because they thought he would be most likely to bring about economic betterment for all (through economic growth etc.). A vote for GWB was, then, only only on some occasions an indicator of real voter conservatism.

Secondly, S.M. Lipset pointed out decades ago that vote is determined more by perceived economic self-interest (what in Australia we call the "hip-pocket nerve") than by ideological affinity -- so that you can have socially conservative working-class people (particularly blacks in the U.S. case) voting for Leftist candidates solely because they believe Leftist promises that the Left will give them personally a better deal. They might want to castrate homosexuals but they want bigger welfare cheques even more. See here.

So the fact that wealthier people were slightly more likely to vote for GWB is in fact good proof of Keith's contention. Wealthier people in general obviously saw GWB's policies as better for them but how come so many wealthy people voted against GWB? Obviously there was a big ideological pull among wealthy people that was influencing them to vote against economic self-interest. It shows that once you are well-off yourself, you are more likely to put money worries aside and concentrate on other goals -- such as telling the "peasants" what to do.

It has often been noted too (see again here) that it is education rather than occupation which is the major social class influence on ideology. Exposure to the educational system is a Leftist influence. And the Gore/Bush election results do show that. Gore's strength was among both those with the lowest level of education (for economic reasons) and those with the highest level of education (for ideological reasons). Just why education is a Leftist influence is set out at some length again here.

Economic self-interest matters a lot to older people too. The Democrats are big advocates of welfare and older people are big consumers of wefare so it was no surprise at all that GWB's share of the elderly vote was well-down. It was of course to help reverse his anti-welfare image among the elderly that GWB sponsored the prescription drug benefit initiative. Aging as such, however, is very strongly associated with conservative thinking. There is a list of some of the beliefs here that strongly differentiate the old and the young. You will see that what old people tend to believe is in fact rather amazingly Right-wing. Older people were likely to believe, for instance, that "Patriotism and loyalty to one's country are more important than one's intellectual convictions and should have precedence over them" and "Treason and murder should be punishable by death". They rejected views such as "Our treatment of criminals is too harsh: We should try to cure them, not punish them" and "People should be allowed to hold demonstrations in the streets without police interference".

So vote is the outcome of many influences and for most people ideology is not the crucial influence (remember that 25% maximum mentioned above). Ideology is important to party leaders and activists, however, so is still an important thing to study and analyse -- which Keith and I both have the habit of doing. I in fact have had over 200 papers reporting on aspects of it published in the academic journals.

As something of a footnote to the above, it may be worth noting that even self-identification as a "liberal" (etc.) may be misleading and unreliable. Not only vote but even self-identification may correlate poorly with ideology. Some recent Pew Research survey data (summarized again here) shows that the views held by so-called "moderates", for instance, can in fact be very Leftist. And there are no doubt many conservatives who regard themselves as moderate too. In other words, what people see as conservative, liberal etc varies widely. If GWB and Clinton are in fact both mostly centrists but are widely described as being of the Right or the Left, it should be no surprise that such confusions arise. It is only by asking questions about particular issues (as I did above in looking at the beliefs of the elderly) that one can have some hope of placing people realistically on an ideological spectrum. And it may be worth noting that when one does that, most people fall around the middle (in statisticians' terms, political ideology approximates a normal distribution) -- which is why successful politicians head in that direction too.

And some people reading this (particularly libertarians) will no doubt want to argue that the very idea of a Left/Right ideological spectrum is simplistic and wrong. To answer that, however, I will have to refer readers elsewhere.

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