Steven Pinker is a psychologist who writes on politics. His theories are interesting but are framed too universally to be valid

December 19, 2012
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(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

Psychology is a universal science of human nature, whereas political science is centered on the study of particular historical events and trends. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that when a psychologist looks at politics, he presents ideas that are thought-provoking but are too general to quite work. This is fine; political scientists can then take such ideas and try to adapt them more closely to particular circumstances.

The psychologist I’m thinking about here is Steven Pinker, who, in writes the following on the question, “Why Are States So Red and Blue?”:

But why do ideology and geography cluster so predictably? Why, if you know a person’s position on gay marriage, can you predict that he or she will want to increase the military budget and decrease the tax rate . . . there may also be coherent mindsets beneath the diverse opinions that hang together in right-wing and left-wing belief systems. Political philosophers have long known that the ideologies are rooted in different conceptions of human nature — a conflict of visions so fundamental as to align opinions on dozens of issues that would seem to have nothing in common.

This is all fine—except that attitudes on such diverse issues are not so highly correlated. For a quick check, I want to the General Social Survey website and looked up correlations among attitudes on gay marriage (marhomo), military spending (natarms) and upper-income tax rates (tax rich). The correlations are 0.17, 0.09, and 0.05. These correlations aren’t zero (for example, the people who think we spend too little on the military are the most likely to think that taxes on the rich are much too high), but they’re not huge, either. Before developing a theory of why people’s attitudes on such issues are so highly correlated, we should first measure what correlation is actually there.

That said, correlations among issue attitudes are higher among richer, higher-educated, more politically-involved Americans (see Figures 8 and 9 of my American Journal of Sociology paper with Delia Baldassarri), and perhaps that is the group that Pinker is most interested in. Similarly, Pinker talks a lot about the political differences between “red” (Republican-voting) and “blue” (Democratic-voting) states, and these differences, too, are larger among the rich than the poor.

Pinker continues:

While these theories help explain why the seemingly diverse convictions within the right-wing and left-wing mind-sets hang together, they don’t explain why they are tied to geography. The historian David Hackett Fischer traces the divide back to the British settlers of colonial America. The North was largely settled by English farmers, the inland South by Scots-Irish herders. Anthropologists have long noted that societies that herd livestock in rugged terrain tend to develop a “culture of honor.” . . . The psychologist Richard Nisbett has shown that Southerners today continue to manifest a culture of honor which legitimizes violent retaliation. . . . The historian David Courtwright has shown that there is considerable truth to the cinematic clichés of the Wild West and the mountainous South of Davy Crocket, Daniel Boone and the Hatfields and McCoys. . . . The North and coasts are extensions of Europe and continued the government-driven civilizing process that had been gathering momentum since the Middle Ages. The South and West preserved the culture of honor that emerged in the anarchic territories of the growing country, tempered by their own civilizing forces of churches, families and temperance.

This sounds great, but I think it explains too much! If the current red-blue map, or something like it, had persisted for 200 years, then, sure. But the current division between red and blue America pretty much dates from Clinton’s first election in 1992. Remember, as recently as 1988 (OK, not so recent to some of you, but still alive in the memories of oldsters such as Pinker and myself), Michael Dukakis won West Virginia and lost Vermont. And the election map of 1976 looks nothing like recent maps.

In our book, Red State Blue State, we discuss some reasons that states are so red and blue, in particular why upper-income residents of these states are so red and blue. Some of this arises from increasing differences between the parties on political issues. I have no doubt that the psychological and cultural explanations discussed by Pinker are relevant, but I think it’s necessary to put them in a historical context. Otherwise you can end up overexplaining transient political patterns.



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