clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Don’t fool yourself about “the other side” — everyone is selfish when it comes to politics

If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

There is no shortage of accusations in politics that the people on the other side are deranged, stupid, selfish liars. Demonic. Big fat idiots. Moochers. Kleptocrats. Never trust the lying liars. And "the other side" isn't even limited to the other party. Within the parties, Tea Party Republicans squabble with establishment RINOs, populist Democrats tussle with Wall Street sell-outs, and so on.

As psychological researchers who've spent a lot of time poring over public opinion data, we've come to a different conclusion: people on all sides are generally sane and smart ... about being selfish. They usually favor policies that help themselves. But they don't have to lie about it, technically speaking, because people deceive themselves skillfully. Their minds concoct clever cover stories about how they're just looking out for everyone. This is a smart thing to do — if a person becomes convinced of such convenient accounts, it makes it easier to convince others.

These can be unwelcome realizations, but we've been looking at the details of how demographics drive issue opinions, and the patterns, once seen, are hard to ignore. What follows are some examples of our findings. These analyses use the most recent six waves of the General Social Survey, which include interviews with thousands of Americans.

You can also try our interactive political calculator, which offers a quick glimpse of how your own and other people's demographics predict issue opinions.

The political calculator

See how demographics affect political views
Keep Exploring Adjust the inputs above to see different agendas

Party Preference


Issue Summaries

Individual Issues

1) People often favor discrimination against other people while opposing it against themselves

When we look at discrimination issues relating to different groups (racial minorities, immigrants, religious minorities, gays and lesbians, etc.), we find that people are often liberal or conservative based on — no surprise — whether one is oneself a member of the groups getting picked on. (Some political scientists will say these are "group interests" and not "self-interest." However, when we're talking about favoring groups that you're a member of, it strikes us as a distinction without much of a difference.)

The most interesting cases are people who are members of a traditionally subordinate group that gets picked on as well as a traditionally dominant group that does the picking. Among immigrants who also are Christians, for example, only 26 percent hold conservative views on immigration but 62 percent hold conservative views on school prayer. Flip it around and look at native-born people who also are not Christians: 47 percent are conservative on immigration but only 30 percent on school prayer.

2) The better people are at meritocracy, the more they tend to want meritocracy

Some readers might start feeling satisfied at this point because they're liberal on school prayer even though they're Christian, or liberal on immigration even though they're native-born. But such people are reading an article by academic researchers on, which probably means they're nerds.

The thing about nerds — well, the thing about people who test well and have lots of education — is that they're routinely pretty opposed to group-based discrimination. Why? Because they prefer meritocracy. Why do they prefer meritocracy? Because meritocracy sets ground rules that allow good test-takers and highly educated people to obtain disproportionate success and social influence, regardless of their race, religion, and so on.

People on all sides are generally sane and smart ... about being selfish. They usually favor policies that help themselves.

For example, here are some numbers on heterosexual women. When they have bachelor's degrees, they tend to be liberal on discrimination against other groups — so, only 35 percent are against same-sex marriage even though they're heterosexual. But they're also usually conservative when it comes to helping other people in their own groups who might need a leg up — so, 76 percent oppose affirmative action for women in the workplace. On both issues, they favor meritocracy, which is typically a beneficial set of rules for educated people.

Get less nerdy and look at heterosexual women who never completed even a year of college, and these results flip. These women are typically conservative on same-sex marriage — 65 percent oppose it — but more liberal than the college-educated on affirmative action for women — only 54 percent (rather than 76 percent) oppose it. People with less education often prefer group-based outcomes to meritocracy because meritocracy doesn't favor people with less education.

3) People typically want lifestyle policies that favor their own lifestyles

Consider Sex and the City, a television show that featured the lives of people who were mostly unmarried and childless, cruising bars and hooking up. If lifestyle conservatives were to impose their agenda — moralizing casual sex, maintaining harsher penalties for partying, limiting the availability of family planning — would it be bad for people with a Sex and the City lifestyle? Probably.

But, of course, not everyone is living these lives. Now consider the Andersons of Father Knows Best. Stable marriage; three kids; comfortable middle-class life. If a lot of their neighbors and co-workers were single folks who party and hook up, could that create greater tensions in the Anderson home? If the sexual revolution's rise in divorce rates is any guide, then yeah, probably.

And, in fact, among married people who have kids and hardly ever go to bars, lots support policies that make casual sex and partying less appealing. For example, 63 percent oppose legal abortion in most cases and 75 percent want marijuana to be illegal. But when we look at the demographic profile of Sex and the City — unmarried, childless, sexually active people who go to bars — only 37 percent oppose legal abortion in most cases and only 38 percent oppose marijuana legalization.

The typical explanation for differences of opinion surrounding sexual lifestyles is religion and church attendance rather than interests. Yet while it's certainly true that church attendance has a strong correlation with lifestyle politics, our studies have suggested that people's lifestyle differences have a lot to do with whether they decide to start or continue attending church. It's not actually clear that church attendance is typically a cause rather than an effect of lifestyle differences and related political views.

4) The employed and wealthy tend to like polices benefitting the employed and wealthy, and vice versa

Sometimes political scientists say that self-interest doesn't matter on everyday economic views. One chestnut claims that the unemployed aren't more likely to favor help for the unemployed. But when we looked at the data, we found that 74 percent of the unemployed but only 46 percent of those working full time think that it's the government's responsibility to provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed.

More broadly, when we look at survey items on income redistribution or helping the poor, we see solid relationships with family income. Who opposes the idea that the government should be helping the poor with money from the rich? Only 25 percent of people with incomes in the bottom fifth, but 54 percent of people with incomes in the top tenth.

Of course there are exceptions to all the data patterns we're talking about. But just as last winter's bone-chilling temperatures in the Northeast shouldn't make you ignore evidence of global warming, Warren Buffett's request to have his taxes raised shouldn't make you ignore evidence of political interests.

5) Party affiliations combine various kinds of issues, demographics, and interests

In the 2012 election, Obama won those with incomes under $50,000 by 22 points while Romney won those with incomes of $100,000 or more by 10 points. Still, some look at these numbers and wonder why income isn't a stronger factor in elections. If they were simply voting their interests, wouldn't poor people overwhelmingly vote Democratic and wouldn't rich people overwhelmingly vote Republican?

To us, though, it seems unnecessarily narrow to equate a person's interests only with short-term economic interests. Issues relating to discrimination, law enforcement, and the availability of family planning services, for example, surely have big impacts on some people's everyday lives.

The links between demographics and politics are usually strongest at the level of particular kinds of issues

While income is relevant to party affiliations, so are other interest-based demographic items. Democrats do well among the poor, but also do well among people who worry about discrimination — racial minorities, immigrants, gays and lesbians, non-Christians, and highly educated women, for example. Democrats also do well among those who don't go to church much and have those Sex and the City lifestyles. Republicans do well with the other sides of these coins — white, native-born, heterosexual Christians who are higher in both income and church attendance.

The parties, then, end up cobbling together demographic coalitions that differ not only with respect to the other party, but also within the parties. Republicans, for instance, attract some who are wealthier and less religious, and others who are less wealthy but more religious. The former typically have views that are strongly right-leaning on economics but left-leaning on lifestyles; the latter often lean left on economics but strongly rightward on lifestyles. So you shouldn't be surprised if one wing thinks that cutting taxes for the wealthy is very important and that social issues should be downplayed, while the other thinks social issues are paramount and that, if we cut anyone's taxes, it should be for those with lives like Father Knows Best — that is, middle-class people with lots of kids.

Political patterns become much clearer when one avoids the tendency to group people broadly into liberal and conservative camps. The links between demographics and politics are usually strongest at the level of particular kinds of issues. We think that a focus on interests helps illuminate these links.

In The Devil's Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defined politics as "a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles." This is snark, of course, but insightful snark — the sort of thing that's funny because, deep down, in calmer moments, when we're not in the middle of important fights, it basically rings true.

You can learn more in our book, The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind.

Read more

Editor: Eleanor Barkhorn
Developers: Yuri Victor and Nate Weiss
Designer: Warren Schultheis

The South Carolina primary was a joke. It tells us something deadly serious.


Shane Gillis’s SNL hosting gig is an unearned rehabilitation


Netflix’s live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender is everything fans hoped it would be

View all stories in The Latest

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.