Political moderation, education, and intelligence

By Razib Khan | April 22, 2011 10:25 am

After seeing this post up on how high information levels and education may lead to political polarization, I wanted to revisit the GSS data on political moderation and independence in light of educational attainment and intelligence. For the later I used the proxy of a score on a vocabulary test which has a 0.70 correlation with general intelligence. My question was this: what are the different effects of intelligence and education on ideology and partisanship?

To answer this question I looked at two response variables, POLVIEWS and PARTYID, which measure ideology from very liberal to very conservative and partisanship from strong Democrat to strong Republican. I amalgamated “leaners” so that in the middle I had moderates and independents left. For the vocab test I used WORDSUM. The scores have a value from 0 to 10, out of 10. I combined the 0-4 interval because the sample size there was small. Finally, I limited the sample to non-Hispanic whites after the year 2000 to eliminate some background confounds (e.g., minorities tend to be way more Democratic, all things equal).

I generated some area graphs. First, I looked at proportions of each ideology or party in a particular category. For example, the percentage liberal, moderate, and conservative who get a vocab score of 5, or have high school education. Then, I controlled for education and looked at vocab score. Specifically, I limited the sample to those who had only a high school diploma, and then those who had a university degree and higher. These two classes had large sample sizes. Then I looked at how ideology and party varied by vocab score.

MORE ABOUT: Politics
  • Ian

    I find the second-to-last graph the most interesting: among people who graduated high school but not college, vocab score is pretty much uncorrelated with party affiliation. (There’s that surprising downtick in the highest category, but I’m guessing that’s also a smaller group, so it’s probably best not to overinterpret that.) It’s also interesting to compare that graph with the third graph (the same data, presumably, sorted by ideology rather than party affiliation).

    The simplest (and probably simplistic) explanation here is that education makes more intelligent people liberals or democrats. But “whites with only a high school education” are likely to fall into two other (overlapping) groups: working class whites, and older whites. One of the constant themes in Dem politics has been the loss of the white working class by the Democratic party, and the explanation tends to be explained in terms of the culture wars and (dis)comfort with changing demographics.

    If this is correct, I suppose an alternative explanation could plausibly be that not going away to school acts as a damper on ideology. The people who don’t go away to college are more likely to remain bound to the institutions of their childhood (church, extended family, community with deep roots), making them more likely to be socially conservative. Those who go off to school sever many of those ties (Stephen Brookfield use the term “cultural suicide” for this sort of thing) making them more prone to change.

    (Obviously the big picture in these graphs is about moderates/independents. But you’ve already convinced me on that one, so I don’t have much to add there.)

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    Pretty powerful. The nutshell seems to be that education and intelligence turns moderates into liberals, while having a weaker and inconstant effect on conservatives.

    I’d be curious about regional effects. Non-Hispanic whites are overwhelmingly conservative Republicans in the South, but greatly divided on a partisan basis elsewhere. I’d hypothesize that the link between education and vocab score and ideology would be stronger outside the South than in it, for reasons similar to those that caused you to limit the analysis to non-Hispanic whites in the first place.

  • opnyn8d

    I, too, would like to see more research into regional effects, and non-whites. Anecdotally, it seems that increasing education and intelligence cause whites to shift toward the left, but a strong confounding factor is economics. As wealth increases, I tend to see a shift more to the right, especially among those with more average intelligence.

    Working in an area with an extremely diverse racio-ethnic, educational, and economic makeup, I have noticed that less educated or poorer whites lean farther to the conservative side, and similar non-whites lean more to the liberal side. As education increases, I see both groups continuing to the left until their wealth increases sufficiently to create a more conservative leaning. I wonder if that is caused by the money itself, or the tendency to move into wealthy and conservative neighborhoods? But the study seems correct in its findings that education and intelligence appear to be the strongest drivers of political orientation. Fascinating.

  • John Emerson

    Working in an area with an extremely diverse racio-ethnic, educational, and economic makeup, I have noticed that less educated or poorer whites lean farther to the conservative side, and similar non-whites lean more to the liberal side.

    For both parties, ethnic appeals as such are a fundamental part of their politics. (Something like this has always been true; a century ago Protestant vs. Catholic was one of the most important factors). These appeals probably are most effective and most important with the less educated, whereas at higher levels they are mixed with other, more abstract and more policy-oriented appeals. In general Democrats are pro-minority and liberal, Republicans are pro-majority and conservative.

  • Jody

    I HATE these graphs. This needs to be a triple bar graph. I can’t look left and get the percentages, I’ve got to do math every time. Maybe stats people like these, but the rest of us think they are confusing as hell. Also, your color choice is weird. It’s pretty universally used that libs are blue, conservatives red, and moderates…other, usually purple.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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