Politically nonpartisan folks are culturally polarized on climate change

I wrote a series of posts a while back (here, here, & here) on why our research group uses “cultural worldviews” rather than political orientation measures—like liberal-conservative ideology or political party affiliation—to test hypotheses about science communication and motivated reasoning. So I guess this post is a kind of postscript.

Drawing on a framework associated with the work of Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky, we characterize ordinary people’s culturalworldviews—their preferences, really, about how society should be organized—along two cross-cutting dimensions: “hierarchy-egalitarianism” and “individualism-communitarianism.”  We then examine having one or another of the sets of values these two dimensions comprise shape people’s perceptions of risk or other policy-consequential facts.

Because they are unfamiliar with this framework (or more likely worry that their readers will be), commentators describing our work sometimes just substitute “liberal versus conservative” or  “Democrat versus Republican” for the opposing orientations that we feature in our studies.

This can obscure insight when the conflicting perceptions at issue can’t be fully captured by a one dimensional measure. That was so, for example, in our recently published paper on perceptions of violence in political protests, which uncovered very distinct patterns of conflict among “hierarchical individualists” and “egalitarian-communitarian,” on the one hand, and between “hierarchical communitarians” and “egalitarian individualists,” on the other.

The cost is smaller, I guess, when “liberal Democrat” and “conservative Republican” are substituted for “egalitarian communitarian” and “hierarchical individualist” in conflicts that do have a recognizable left-right profile. Climate change is like that.

But what’s still lost in this particular translation is how divided even politically moderate people are on climate change and other environmental issues.

In the figure below, I’ve graphed cultural worldviewscores in relation to political orientation scores for members of a nationally representative sample. What these scatterplots show is that “Hierarchy” and “individualism” are positively correlated with both “conservative” and “Republican,” but only modestly.

The “average” Hierarchical Individualist (that is, a person whose scores are in the top 50% on both the “hierarchy-egalitarian” and “individualism-communitarianism” scales) has political orientation scores equivalent to an independent who “leans Republican,” and who characterizes him- or herself as only “slightly conservative.”

Likewise, the “average” Egalitarian Communitarian (a person who scores fall in the bottom 50% on both worldview scales) is an independent who “leans Democrat” and who characterizes him- or herself as only “slightly liberal.”

Say we had no way to measure their cultural outlooks and all we knew about two people was that they were independents who “lean” in opposing directions and who characterize their respective ideological leanings as only “slight.” We’d certainly expect them to disagree on climate change, but not very strongly.

Yet in fact, the average Egalitarian Communitarian and average Hierarchical individualist are extremelydivided on climate change risk. Indeed, they are more polarized than we’d expect two people to be if all we knew was that they rated themselves without qualification as being a “liberal Democrat” and a “conservative Republican,” respectively. (These points are illustrated with my crazy, insane infographic, below, which is based on the regression models to the right! These data are presented in greater detail in the Supplementary Information for our recently published Nature Climate Change article.)

This is just an elaboration—an amplification—of the theme with which I ended part 3 of the earlier series. There I defended what I called the “measurement” over the “metaphysical” conception of dispositional constructs.

We know, just from looking around and paying even modest attention to what we see, that people of “different sorts” disagree about climate change risks. But how to characterize the sorts, and how to measure the impact of being more or less of one than the other?

We could do it with liberal-conservative ideology and “Republican-Democrat” party affiliation. But those are relatively blunt, undiscerning measures of the dispositions in question.

Hierarchy-egalitarianism and Individualism-communitarianism are much more discerning. In statistical terms they explain more variance; they have a higher R2.

As a result, using the worldview measures allows one to locate the members of the population who are divided on climate change with much greater precision.

To observe as much polarization with political orientation measures as one sees with the worldview measures, one must ratchet the political orientation measures way up—toward their extreme values.

But that picture—of intense division only at the partisan extremes—is a gross distortion.

In fact, people who belong to American society’s nonpartisan, largely apolitical middle are in the thick of the cultural fray. Tucked into the large mass of people who are watching America’s Funniest Pet Videos are folks every bit as polarized over climate change as the much smaller number of partisan zealots who are tuning into Maddow or Hannity.

One just has to know where to find them—or with what instrument to measure their motivating dispositions.

It’s silly to argue about what’s “really” causing polarization–“cultural worldviews” or “political ideology.” This metaphysical way of thinking implausibly imagines the two are distinct entities inside the psyche. Instead, they should be understood as simply alternative ways to measure some unobservable (latent) disposition that varies systematically across groups of people and that interacts with their perceptions of risk and related facts.

The only thing worth discussing is how good each is at measuring that thing. They actually are both reasonably good. But I’d say that the worldview measures are generally better than liberal-conservative ideology or party self-identification if the goal is to explain, predict, and formulate prescriptions.

The analysis here illustrates that. Using political orientation measures has the potential to conceal the extent to which even nonpartisan, nonpolitical, completely ordinary folk are polarized on climate change.

And if one can’t see and explain that, how likely is one to be able to come up with (and test the effectiveness of) solutions to this sad problem for our democracy?

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