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Opinion | If Your Demographics Can Predict Your Politics, Are They Really Yours?

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If you’re trying to guess whether people are Republicans or Democrats, knowing a few basic facts about them will take you a long way. What’s their race and gender? How far did they get in school? What part of the country do they live in and is their community urban, suburban or rural?

Between 2016 and 2020, for example, white Americans without college degrees favored the Republican Party by nearly 24 percentage points. Strike up a conversation about politics with such a person in rural central Maine, near where I live, and chances are that his or her sympathies will lie with the G.O.P.

Or consider gender and attitudes about crime and public safety: Men are about 10 percentage points more supportive than women of the death penalty and 10 percentage points less supportive of gun control. Or how about ethnicity and views on illegal immigration? Relative to Latino Americans, non-Latinos endorse “increasing deportation” as a partial solution by a 22-point margin.

Although there are certainly people whose politics defy generalization, the underlying demographic tendencies are powerful predictors of belief — powerful enough that elections have become as much a turnout game as an exercise in persuasion.

But this raises an important question. If our political views and behavior can be so easily predicted by characteristics like race (over which we have no control) or by factors like education (where our choices may be highly constrained by other things such as the social class of our parents), then when it comes to politics, are any of us really thinking for ourselves?

The accusation that people on the other side of the political divide have abandoned critical thinking and moral reasoning is now commonplace in American political discourse. Many on the left interpret the political tendencies of white voters without college educations as evidence that the Republican Party’s core constituency is ill informed or even unintelligent. Who else could fall for the lies of Donald Trump? Republicans, for their part, regularly invoke the idea of “liberal groupthink,” using it to make sense of how some of America’s ostensibly brightest minds could champion simplistic, unworkable policies like defunding the police.

These accusations form part of the broader phenomenon of partisan stereotyping, which has flourished as the country has pulled apart. Alongside the charge that those in the opposite political camp don’t think for themselves, Democrats in 2022 were considerably more likely than they were in 2016 to say that Republicans were closed-minded, dishonest and immoral. Republicans felt pretty much the same way about Democrats.

Yet the possibility that our own political views may reflect something other than our intellectual or moral virtue barely seems to register. College-educated professionals too seldom acknowledge, for example, that they may feel an affinity for the Democrats in part because the party has been more supportive than Republicans of both higher education and claims to expertise (and remuneration) based on educational credentials. Instead they recast their class interests as altruism, imagining that they believe what they do solely out of concern for the future of the country.

Similarly, when evangelical Christians back Mr. Trump because they expect him to appoint more pro-Christian judges to the federal bench and enact educational policies favorable to religious schools, they view themselves as patriots, not maximizers of their group’s standing. None of us want to admit that our most cherished political opinions may be largely a function of our position in society and the associated social pressures, not the end result of a process of intellectual, moral or spiritual inquiry.

There are many situations, of course, in which it is permissible, even beneficial, for people not to think for themselves. Whatever cognitive losses accrue when we let our phones navigate for us in unfamiliar cities are probably offset by the gains in driving safety and efficiency. When we fall ill and trust a doctor to give us a diagnosis and tell us how to regain our health, we’re letting that doctor (and the broader medical system) think for us, to some extent. Our outcomes will be far better on average than if we acted from our lay knowledge, as higher death rates among Covid vaccine deniers attest.

On most political matters, however, it is an abdication of personal responsibility to allow our opinions to be unreflectively determined by our social position. It may be inevitable that our group identities, interests and experiences shape our political inclinations. But it’s up to each of us to scrutinize the beliefs we’ve absorbed from our social milieu to ensure that our values and political commitments are what we truly think they should be — that our beliefs are based on sound reasons rather than brute social forces.

Regrettably, a hyperpartisan society does little to reward such independence of thought, even as both progressives and conservatives claim its mantle.

If nothing else, reflecting on the social roots of your political opinions and behavior should prompt some humility. Even if you hold the “correct” political beliefs, you may not deserve to congratulate yourself for them; your moral righteousness could be an accident of birth or a product of good social fortune. So on what grounds are you permitted to feel snidely superior to your peers who — simply because of their different life circumstances — wound up on the other side of the political aisle?

This doesn’t imply moral relativism, but it does suggest that we should take greater care when assigning praise or blame. The contingency of our own positions also raises the distinct possibility that others’ opinions contain overlooked elements of truth.

By all means, let’s duke it out in the public sphere and at the ballot box. You’ll fight for your interests and values, I’ll fight for mine. That’s democracy in a big, diverse, boisterous nation. But if we could bear in mind that we sometimes stumble into our most passionately held beliefs, the tenor of our discourse might be a bit saner and more cordial. The fact that we are all deeply social creatures, in politics and otherwise, underscores our shared humanity — something that we would be wise to never lose sight of.

Neil Gross is a professor of sociology at Colby College, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center and the author, most recently, of “Walk the Walk: How Three Police Chiefs Defied the Odds and Changed Cop Culture.”

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