In their new book, “Prius or Pickup: How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide,” University of North Carolina political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler set out to explain what really causes the extreme political polarization seen today. Fortunately, they miss their mark.
Equipped with reams of Big Data such as voting preferences, lifestyle choices, child rearing attitudes and demographic stats in the service of Big Glittering Generalizations, they mistakenly conclude that, for white Americans, it’s not political ideology but underlying worldviews, expressed by what cars they buy or even which styles of coffee they prefer, that determine their political affiliations.
At least for myself, and I’m sure for millions of other “white” Americans, their analysis is simply too simple. See if you can guess which characteristic they assign to liberals and which to conservatives.
Do you — or if you could, would you — own a Prius or other hybrid (not a chance) or a pickup? Drink Starbucks’ or Dunkin’ Donuts’ coffee? (Never been in a Starbucks in my life and don’t even consider a Caramel Cocoa Cluster Frappuccino to be coffee.) Do you own a dog or cat? (Indifferent about one, allergic to the other.) Do you watch tennis or football? (How about both and occasionally passionately.)
Then there are these four questions regarding children’s behavior, again expecting a liberal or conservative response: Do you want a child to be independent or respectful of their elders; self-reliant or obedient; curious or well-mannered; considerate or well-behaved? Why not just “yes.”
As a progressive, according to the authors, I obviously flunk.
But I think they flunk when they try to explain how even our smallest choices speak volumes about us and provide the psychological key to America’s deadlocked politics, showing that we are divided not by ideologies but something far deeper; personality differences.
Really? They really think that we don’t get along because conservatives supposedly love pickups and dogs and liberals supposedly love hybrids and cats?
They’re on more solid footing when they stick to settled psychology by defining and discussing two recognized and opposing worldviews, which they call “fixed” and “fluid.” The first is more parochial and fearful of outsiders, change and uncertainty while the second is more welcoming of complexity, nuance and diversity. But the authors go off the rails by assigning the first as politically conservative traits and the second as politically liberal as I tried to show above.
If I were to relate them to anything it would be along the lines of station in life issues such as background, age, job, income, location, upbringing. And that goes for those who pull the Democratic lever as well as the Republican one.
Another book, “Hidden Tribes,” identify seven political “tribes,” but only two, Progressive Activists and Devoted Conservatives, totaling about 14 percent of the nation, meet the polarization standard Hetherington and Weiler describe. Most Americans are neither strident nor base their politics on what they prefer for a morning wakeup.
Besides, some of my best friends own dogs.