The most important political identity

Gun ownership.  Okay, really, it’s partisanship.  But damn has gun ownership become an amazing potent political identity.  Great summary of the matter from Vox’s Dylan Matthews:

If only gun owners had voted in the 2016 election, then Donald Trump would have won every single state save Vermont. If only people who don’t own guns had voted, then Hillary Clinton would have won every state, save West Virginia and maybe Wyoming.

SurveyMonkey, which conducted the poll reaching these conclusions, found that the voting divide between gun owners and non-owners was starker than divides between white and nonwhite Americans, between working-class whites and the rest of the nation, and between rural and urban voters. “No other demographic characteristic created such a consistent geographic split,” the New York Times’s Nate Cohn and Kevin Quealy write.

That doesn’t mean that gun ownership is more important in explaining American political behavior than race or class or gender. But it does mean that gun ownership has an extremely strong correlation with conservative, pro-Republican voting. [emphases mine]

Not owning a gun isn’t a particularly powerful identity. But gun ownership is, enough so to drive the gap seen in the map above.

This hasn’t always been the case; gun ownership has not always had such a clear partisan tilt. Indeed, gun control was once embraced by right-wing racists as a tool to disempower black Americans…

Over the course of the past four decades, though, gun ownership has firmly sorted along party lines. In a recent paper, University of Kansas political scientists Mark Joslyn, Don Haider-Markel, Michael Baggs, and Andrew Bilbo found that the impact of owning a gun on presidential vote choice increased markedly from 1972 to 2012.

Gun owner and non-owner voting

But Joslyn and company find that even after you control for gender, race, education, age, rural/urban status, and even party affiliation, gun ownership still correlates strongly with presidential vote choice. Indeed, they find that in their regressions, it “exerts a greater influence on likelihood of voting Republican than gender, education, or rural residence, and rivals age.”

These regressions can’t prove causality — that is, they can’t prove that gun ownership causes people to vote Republican. But they do show that the phenomenon we’re seeing isn’t just an effect of which racial groups or genders are likely to own guns.

Gun ownership on its own appears to matter. Democrats who own guns are likelier to vote for Republican presidential candidates than Democrats who don’t; black Americans who own guns are likelier to vote Republican than black Americans who don’t; women who own guns are likelier to vote Republican than women who don’t, and on and on and on…

The conservative themes that Lacombe alludes to in the gun debate — an individualist spirit, paired with a respect for traditional family values — can be broken down in a couple of ways.

First, there is a divide between an individualist attitude, which places a premium on individual autonomy, and a communitarian attitude, in which the community or nation is in this together and sometimes needs to make individual sacrifices for the greater good.

Second, there’s a divide between a hierarchical worldview, where traditional practices and distinctions between genders, ages, social groups, etc. are viewed as important and justified, and an egalitarian worldview that views such distinctions as fundamentally arbitrary.

Donald Braman, a professor at George Washington University law school who holds a PhD in anthropology, has, with his Yale colleague Dan Kahan, examined the gun debate through these cultural divisions, using an approach known as the “cultural theory of risk.” Pioneered by the late anthropologist Mary Douglas, the theory holds that people’s cultural environments, particularly the groups of which they’re members, help determine what people view as significant risks: Is the more significant threat “insufficient control of concealed weapons, leaving citizens vulnerable to deliberate or accidental shootings”? Or is it “excessive control, leaving citizens unable to defend themselves from attackers”?

This perception, in turn, colors how people interpret empirical evidence and form conclusions about policy.

Gun ownership is a particularly powerful identity, even starting as early as childhood. “We found that growing up in a household where firearms were present and having a firearm in the home was a strong determinant of how dangerous people thought firearms were,” with people growing up with guns perceiving them to be less dangerous, says Braman. Childhood exposure to guns is also a strong determinant of whether people keep firearms to this day…

People with more hierarchical but simultaneously individualistic worldviews are less likely to support gun control, and people of a communitarian, egalitarian bent are more likely. “With the exception of gender, no other characteristic comes close to the explanatory power of cultural orientations,” they write. “Cultural orientations have an impact on gun control attitudes that is over three times larger than being Catholic, over two times larger than fear of crime, and nearly four times larger than residing in the West.”..

What no one seems to know is how to make the debate less about identity and more about evidence — or if such a move is even possible. It might be that the most we can hope for is an ever-escalating clash of identities that somehow results, against all odds, in sensible policy.

What this means as much as anything is that you really difficult to argue policy with gun owners.  Strong identities mean identity protective cognition which means preserving the value of group identity over the value of actually being accurate and comprehending the reality of the situation.  It doesn’t matter how much data and research you show a gun lover about the inefficacy of our current policies for keeping Americans safe, the need to protect the “more guns = better” identity will outweigh the need to have rational discussion of policy.  Of course, the more non-gun-owner become identity, the even harder it will be to actually have rational, empirically-oriented debate and policy.

Also, somehow I missed a terrific Upshot feature largely around this in October as well.  Check that out, too.

And, lastly, I really want to do some political science with “gun owner” and a social identity scale.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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