December 2, 2023

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How American politics created a tribal culture on moral issues: ‘40 years ago, if I told you that this person supports abortion, you wouldn’t be able to tell how they felt about taxes, health care and immigration’

New research from Harvard University economists looks at political polarization in response to wealthy Americans prioritizing moral issues, even if these moral issues are split along party lines. The paper was released on Monday, hours before Politico reported that the U.S. Supreme Court may intend to strike down the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which obtained a draft majority opinion of the pending ruling. The high court is expected to announce their decision within the next two months, ruling on a case brought by Mississippi that seeks to ban most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

A group of social scientists developed a theory on wealthy voters after creating a model, based on over 18,000 responses from Americans across the political spectrum, that predicted the emergence of economically left-wing elites and suggested that wealthier people are more likely than economically disadvantaged people to vote against their own financial interests. The model suggested that while rich moral liberals tend to be Democrats, and less wealthy moral conservatives skew Republican, there is more diversity on these issues within the Democratic party than the Republican party.  

In other words, wealthier Americans can afford to prioritize concerns that don’t immediately affect their own personal financial wellbeing. The paper, “Morals as Luxury Goods and Political Polarization,” was distributed by the National Bureau of Economic Research on Monday, and was co-authored by Benjamin Enke, an associate professor at Harvard University, Mattias Polborn, a professor of economics and political science at Vanderbilt University, and Alex Wu, a doctoral student in the Business Economics program at Harvard.

Case in point: A generation ago, studies showed that voters cared less about abortion as a deciding factor in deciding to which party they belonged, Wu told MarketWatch. However, he said it has now become a catalyzing issue in the U.S. that divides the political left and right. “Forty years ago, if I told you that this person supports abortion, you wouldn’t be able to tell how they felt about taxes, health care and immigration. Today, if I told you they supported abortion, you would be able to predict what policy issues they hold and in that way those issues have become more aligned.”

‘We’re trying to understand a lot of patterns that have emerged about political polarization over time.’

— Alex Wu, a doctoral student in the Business Economics program at Harvard, and co-author of a new working paper on money and morals

“Moral values are a luxury good,” Wu told MarketWatch. “We’re trying to understand a lot of patterns that have emerged about political polarization over time. It’s not to say that the poor don’t care about morals and the rich do, it’s that as people get richer they care more about morals.” Or, put another way, wealthier people are more vocal about prioritizing moral values when they vote and/or choose a political party. The model also predicted increasing polarization among political parties, leading to poor moral conservatives swinging Republican even if their relative incomes have fallen.

Rich liberals are moving left and poorer conservatives are moving right, even if it seems to outsiders that they are voting against their own financial interests, Wu said. “How are you going to trade your moral interests with your economic interests? Why does it seem that they have swung towards the moral side? Our story that can explain part of this is that the party positions have actually moved. The Democratic party is more appealing to a poor conservative on economic issues, but the Republican party is more appealing to poor conservatives on moral issues.”

The Harvard researchers aggregated studies to create indicators of economic and social conservatism, and classify issues as economic or moral. They asked multiple-choice questions on a range of issues, including abortion: “(a) By law, abortion should never be permitted. (b) The law should permit abortion only in case of rape, incest, or when the woman’s life is in danger. (c) The law should permit abortion for reasons other than rape, incest, or danger to the woman’s life, but only after the need for the abortion has been clearly established. (d) By law, a woman should always be able to obtain an abortion as a matter of personal choice. (e) Other.”

Wu and his fellow authors cited the 2019 “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s” report, which highlighted that wealthier voters on both the left and the right of the political spectrum are particularly occupied with moral issues such as fairness and/or abortion — especially groups defined as “devoted conservatives” and “progressive activists.” (The other groups are defined as “traditional liberals,” “passive liberals,” “politically disengaged,” “moderates,” and “traditional conservatives.” The report was based on an online poll of 8,000 Americans, 30 hour-long interviews, and six separate focus groups with 8-10 people.)

The results revealed the paradox of polarization: 55% of Americans believe that changing views on marriage and sex are causing a decline in family values, while 51% of Americans say those same changes are making America more accepting and tolerant. “The #MeToo movement, transgender rights, same-sex marriage and abortion are all sources of deep conflict in American politics,” Hidden Tribes says. “Across a wide range of issues, the survey shows strong correlations between core beliefs and views on these issues.”

Forty years ago studies show that voters cared less about abortion as a deciding factor in deciding what party they belonged to.

Putting those deeply emotional issues aside, a society’s moral values and beliefs also play a critical role in how that economy develops, and who receives more priority under that government’s policies. The World Values Survey, which explores people’s values and beliefs, and how they change with time and wealth or lack thereof, gives this broad example of how morality, money and government policies interact: “People’s beliefs play a key role in economic development, the emergence and flourishing of democratic institutions, the rise of gender equality, and the extent to which societies have effective government.” 

Consumers can soften their moral opposition to an issue with more information. Last month, researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the University of Toronto and Universidad del CEMA in Argentina looked at the social disapproval and requests for regulation and price controls among consumers when prices surge. Those surges are not just seen as a sign of scarcity in a product, but also result in strong and polarized moral reactions. When disgruntled consumers are made more aware of, say, the increase in production costs and/or labor costs, however, they are more able to make tradeoffs when deciding to buy that product or not.

But U.S. voters are fickle — and complex, and their opinions on issues like abortion may not exactly jive with their personal standards for who becomes president. For example, a large majority of Americans believe it’s important for the occupier of the Oval Office to lead an ethical and moral life, a poll released in 2020 by the Pew Research Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, found. However, Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters are more likely than Republicans and Republican-leaning voters to say that is “very” important (71% vs. 53%). And yet fewer of the Democratic group (30%) than the Republican group (47%) say it’s “very” important to have a president to stand up for their religious beliefs.

Simone Polillo, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia who teaches a course in money and morality, wrote about the contradictions and misconceptions about how money affects morality, and how money itself is a democratic tool (with a small “d”) given that governments issue money and political communities can decide how it is spent and, indeed, if it should be spent. Polillo recently wrote in the University of Virginia newspaper, UVA Today: “Thinkers as different as Adam Smith, Karl Marx and Georg Simmel all made some version of the argument that whenever money is involved, that’s when morality stops.”

Money, Polillo wrote, is intrinsically related to morality whether it’s a bank manager or a customer. On a personal — rather than political level — he points out how lending is based on algorithms rather than on a handshake at your local bank — and those algorithms are based on policies created by a vast political and social infrastructure. “Consider the arcane, intricate and often-contested practices that constitute tipping culture in the United States — how much, when and who to tip are questions that can be rarely settled through simple quantitative calculations of the kinds Marx was so worried about.”

Price surges are not just seen as a sign of scarcity in a product, but also result in strong and polarized moral responses.

As moral issues such as abortion increasingly become a catalyst for attracting and engaging voters amid heated debate everywhere from Twitter
and Facebook
to cable news, political analysts say parties will continue to bolster their base using hot-button moral issues, even as the country becomes more politically polarized. “The Democratic party has switched more to the left to appeal to these voters, while the Republican party has switched more to the right to maintain their rich voters,” Wu said. “Some of those wealthy voters switched from Republican to Democrat.”

While almost all lawmakers on Capitol Hill agree with their party’s position on abortion, it has not been a straight line, these shifts have also left voters as outliers on moral issues in their own political party of choice.  A sizable minorities of Republicans (35%) and Democrats (29%) said they do not agree with the majority position on abortion of the party they identify with or lean toward, a 2019 poll by the Pew Research Center concluded. Some are more likely to disagree than others: Democrats with less education, for instance, are less likely to agree with that party’s abortion-rights stance.

The current and previous occupier of the Oval Office have also flip-flopped. President Joe Biden has changed his views on abortion over the years. “While he has long supported Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling for a constitutional right to abortion in at least the first trimester, Biden also has often backed curbs on abortion. In 2006 he characterized himself as being ‘a little bit of an odd man out in my party‘ on the issue, Pew said. Former President Donald Trump has also pivoted. In 1999, he said he “pro-choice in every respect.” As president, he said, “Unborn children have never had a stronger defender in the White House.”

Wu and his authors had this to say about the political changes around issues such as abortion, immigration and environmental protection. “Our formulation implies that an agent who believes the morally appropriate economic policy is more conservative also believes that the morally appropriate social policy is more conservative.” As a result, observers say those polarizing forces in U.S. politics — turning abortion into a decades-long political catalyst — further divide a country that seems increasingly unable to agree on everything from foreign adversaries to a global pandemic.