How basic worldview divides Democrats and Republicans

All-around great guy and super scholar, Marc Hetherington (and co-author, Jonathan Weiler) who I’m sure is great but cannot personally vouch for) have a new book out, Prius or PickupGuardian that looks at the fundamental differences dividing liberals and conservatives in the modern world.  Using Kavanaugh as a jumping-off point, they’ve got a great summary of the research in the .  It really is a useful way for thinking about what divides us today:

The antipathy results from a new line dividing Republicans from Democrats. The proper size of government and the importance of free markets used to cleave the two. Today, after decades of intense fights over race, family structure and, more recently, the war on terrorism, Republicans and Democrats increasingly choose their party based on gut-level worldviewsabout how safe or dangerous the world is – whether it is best to explore its possibilities or hunker down against its perils.

Before the 2016 election, a survey asked Americans which came closest to their view – “our lives are threatened by terrorists, criminals and immigrants, and our priority should be to protect ourselves” or “it’s a big, beautiful world, mostly full of good people, and we must find a way to embrace each other and not allow ourselves to become isolated”. About 80% of Trump supporters chose the first. About 80% of Clinton supporters chose the second. Talk about worlds apart.

The result is a zero-sum politics anchored in Americans’ most basic instincts. Our research demonstrates that – of all things – the characteristics people believe children should possess are now central to the political identities they choose. You read that right. We did not ask people whether they were liberal or conservative or want more government or less. We asked them about qualities children should have. They are important because they reveal people’s worldviews. Whereas the answers to these questions had no bearing on Americans’ partisanship in the 1990s, they are a critical element today.

On the Republican side of the worldview divide sit those who prefer children who respect their elders, are obedient, have good manners, and are well-behaved. They have what we call fixed worldviews. Because the world is dangerous to them, traditions and conventions should be fixed in place to maintain order. This worldview sees male authority figures such as Judge Kavanaugh sympathetically because male authority has always stood at the top of the cultural hierarchy. As such, they are concerned about new immigrants and threatened by the prospect of unconventional groups such as transgendered people sharing their bathrooms.

On the Democratic side are those who prefer independent, self-reliant, curious, and considerate children. They have what we call fluid worldviews. Because the world is, to them, safe to explore, challenging old folkways is feasible. Sometimes-discriminatory traditions and hierarchies must be swept away. This worldview sees traditional male authority as an unfair privilege that has allowed men to get away with anything and everything, including sexually assaulting women, without punishment. Fluid types celebrate new approaches and champion those who challenge old norms. [emphasis mine]

Worldviews operate at the gut level, shaping opinions before conscious thought begins. When it comes to the Kavanaugh allegations, specifically, fixed-worldview Republicans reflexively want to believe the man and will search for evidence to support that first impulse. Fluid-worldview Democrats reflexively want to believe the woman and will perform the same biased search for information to buttress their first impulse.

Worldviews also tell us a lot about Americans’ nonpolitical choices – where to live, how long to go to school, whether to worship God, not to mention their everyday consumer choices. They always have and always will.

The fixed prefer to live in outlying areas, tend to be religious, have less formal education, and prefer the tried and true when it comes to both their politics and their consumer goods. They like meatloaf and mashed potatoes, Folgers and Bud Light, not Peet’s or Sierra Nevada. And they’re overwhelmingly Republicans.

The fluid tend to be city dwellers, secular in their approach to religion and prefer the vanguard in both their politics and consumer choices. Biryani and a pinot gris sounds nice. Their grandparents’ coffee is boring to them and light beer is swill. And they’re predominantly Democrats.

What is different about this moment in history is our worldviews point us toward our party identities, imbuing them with increased meaning. Because worldview now provides the foundation for both political and nonpolitical choices, Republicans and Democrats have become walking stereotypes to each other, which intensifies the negative feelings that exist between the two.

I gotta say, from my experience, this captures things pretty well.  Of course, not all the more fixed are Republicans and not all the fluid are Democrats and I imagine there’s some really interesting things to say about those people.  Perhaps that’s in the book.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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