Another perspective on political moderates

September 22nd, 2010 by Brad

After reading Ravi Iyer’s posting on moderates, I thought I might have something to add to the conversation.

I’ve recently been spending a lot of time thinking about the idea that we can locate individuals in a moral “space.” If you’ve read much about moral foundations theory, you are probably already familiar with the equalizer metaphor. The basic idea is that individual differences in moral considerations can be thought of as different settings on a metaphorical moral equalizer. Moral foundations theory is based on five dimensions of morality: Harm, Fairness, In-group, Authority, and Purity.

A fully specified spatial model of morality would describe individuals as occupying a particular point in a five-dimensional space. Some of the regions of this five-dimensional space would be sparsely populated. Indeed, research on the moral foundations has found that some of the foundations seem to “go together.” For example, individuals who are high on the Harm foundation also tend to be high on Fairness.

Ravi’s post made me wonder if moderates are more likely to live in these lower density areas of the moral space. Maybe they register as moderates because they have several conflicting considerations. Political scientists long recognized that individuals hold many different opinions in their heads at a single time and have shown that this attitudinal ambivalence has measurable consequences for political activity.*

If we think that political elites in the United States are forced to create a one-dimensional (“left-right”) policy space out of the diversity of value structures that exist in the public, it seems natural that they would, by sheer trial and error, identify the most populous regions of the value space. Due to institutional forces in the United States, there is not always going to be a clear home for individuals who live in the moral hinterlands.

I have a really difficult time thinking in five dimensions, and the dataset I am working with doesn’t have enough cases to support much beyond three dimensions. In the graphs that follow, I’ve collapsed the Harm and Fairness foundations into a single category (labeled HF). Similarly, the In-group and Authority foundations form the IA dimension. I’ve left purity separate.

The figure above shows this hypothetical space. The lower right-hand corner would be the place where individuals who have low scores on all three of my dimensions. As one moves to the right, scores on the HF dimension increase (the place for individuals who value Harm/Fairness). Moving up the vertical axis corresponds with higher purity scores. Moving along the diagonal axis varies the In-group/Authority dimension.

Using fancy statistical techniques** and data from Knowledge Networks (which I’ve described a little elsewhere), I estimated a model of political moderation as a function of these three dimensions. We can then consult the model and see where in the space individuals have the highest probability of identifying as a political moderate. Think of the figures below as cross sections of the 3-D moral space displayed in the figure above. First, let’s take a slice from the middle of the cube. Holding the Purity dimension constant at its mean value, what does the landscape look like?

The shadings on the graph represent the predicted probability of identifying as a moderate given an individual’s coordinates in the moral space. Notice the two peaks in the graph (the darkest shaded regions). These occur in the regions where we would imagine the most conflicted individuals reside. Individuals who are high on the HF dimension and high on the IA dimension (as well as those who are low on both dimensions) are most likely to identify as moderate. When attitudes come into the “right” alignment (high on HF, low on IA or vice versa) individuals are least likely to identify as moderate.

Here is a similar picture looking at the interrelationship between HF and Purity (this time holding IA constant at its mean).

And finally, IA and Purity (holding HF constant):

In each case we see a ridge running through the middle of the space where individuals who don’t “fit” well into the existing value coalitions of American liberals and conservatives reside.

*see, for example, Jennifer Hochschild’s work on ambivalence or Diana Mutz’s work on deliberative versus participatory citizens. Most recently, Shawn Treier and Sunshine Hillygus have shown that ideology falls along two dimensions (social and economic) and conflicted individuals are most likely to identify as “moderate” or give a “don’t know” response to the ideology question.

**I’m using a generalized additive model (GAM) to model moderate ideology as a completely non-parametric function of the scores along the three dimensions. As they are non-parametric, GAMs don’t impose any functional form onto the data. In a normal regression context, the effects of each of the dimensions are constrained to be linear. This is problematic for this kind of analysis.

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3 Responses to “Another perspective on political moderates”

  1. Ravi Iyer says:

    Wow! Very cool, Brad and very quick work if you did this all in one night! Your analyses make perfect sense. One thing I am curious about….do people who identify as “don’t know/not political” in our dataset exhibit the same pattern (existing in these conflicted spaces) as those who identify as “moderate”?

  2. Brad says:

    I’ll have to check it out in the bigger dataset. The reason this went so quickly is that it fit well into the framework that I’ve been working with to explore the effects of the foundations on issue positions (more on this to follow).

  3. joeedh says:

    I define centrism (moderatism) as recognizing that no single way is “right.” No one is ever completely right all the time, and no ideology works in all (or even most) situations.

    Personally, I don’t see how an acceptance of everyone is a mark of being *less* moral then the more ideologically-minded. Yet most non-moderates seem to think this. Or am I generalizing?

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