New Study: Political Polarization In American Presidental Elections Is Indeed Fueled By The Culture War

New study: political polarization in American presidental elections is indeed fueled by the Culture War

"Democratic Donkey & Republican Elephant" by DonkeyHotel, flickr (CC BY 2.0)
“Democratic Donkey & Republican Elephant” by DonkeyHotey, flickr (CC BY 2.0) ## If you can, hire DonkeyHotey for caricature work! ##


As an interested student of American politics, it almost seems like a truism to me that the culture war is driving the current political polarization in American elections. Social liberals usually vote for Democrats while social conservatives usually vote Republican. Yes, there are of course also libertarians who are economically conservative and socially liberal. But they fall somewhere in between the two camps on the simplified left-right one-axis model of the political spectrum.

The wedge issues are well-known: the separation of church and state and the connected conflicts around abortion and LGBTI rights, regulation of firearms, taxes and how they should be spent (healthcare, social safety net in general), but also civil rights and immigration. Or, to put it bluntly, ‘god, guns, and gays’.

But now there is more empirical evidence for this wide-spread assumption of the culture war’s influence on electoral politics. In a recent study, economist Stefan Krasa and economist/political scientist Mattias Polborn—both from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, examined voter behavior since the late 1970s “by combining a theoretical model of voters’ decisions with data from the American National Election Survey.

Their research confirms that cultural issues are of greater significance in American politics today than they were back in the late 1970s, when Carter campaigned against Ford in 1976.

In fact,

[i]n 1976 [. . .], a voter’s social liberalism or conservatism played only a minor role for his vote choice [. . .].

Three decades later, a very different picture would emerge:

In 2004, however, [. . .] social and economic preferences play an approximately equal role in determining the vote [emphasis mine].

Krasa and Polborn are also able to assign a number to the growing importance of cultural issues in American electoral politics. And is it quite staggering:

The cultural policy differences between Democratic and Republican are about 300 percent larger for the elections in the 2000s than they were in 1976. In contrast, economic policy differences in the 2000s increased only by between 15 and 45 percent relative to 1976 [emphasis mine].

Who went from voting Democrat to voting Republican since 1980? The Reagan Democrats—”disproportionately white, low-to medium skilled workers, and considerably more religious than the average.”

Vice versa, those who went from voting GOP to voting Democrat were “disproportionately well-educated, secular and non-white.”

Read more:

“Party realignment on cultural issues is responsible for increased political polarization in presidential elections.” (Stefan Krasa and Mattias Polborn, USAPP Blog, London School of Economics and Political Science, 2014/03/03)