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Four propositions about conservative voting

Summary:
Here are four propositions about voting behavior which, as far as I can tell, have been true in nearly all democratic countries for at least the past 50 years. Other things equal, people are more likely to vote for conservative parties if: They have higher incomesThey have lower educationThey live in rural areas or small townsThey are members of a dominant racial/religious groupBy contrast, lot of commentary on recent electoral losses for the left seems to start from the presumption that “traditional” left voters have all of these characteristics, except perhaps high incomes. However, since these “traditional” voters are “aspirational”, it is assumed that they will vote in line with the income they wish they had. Given the actual preferences of voters like this, the obvious

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Here are four propositions about voting behavior which, as far as I can tell, have been true in nearly all democratic countries for at least the past 50 years. Other things equal, people are more likely to vote for conservative parties if:

  • They have higher incomes
  • They have lower education
  • They live in rural areas or small towns
  • They are members of a dominant racial/religious group

By contrast, lot of commentary on recent electoral losses for the left seems to start from the presumption that “traditional” left voters have all of these characteristics, except perhaps high incomes. However, since these “traditional” voters are “aspirational”, it is assumed that they will vote in line with the income they wish they had. Given the actual preferences of voters like this, the obvious inference is that the left should adopt the policies of the right.

There are lots of correlations between these variables that make for a complex story. Most notably, education and income are positively correlated and work in opposite directions. Here’s an illustration from the US.

For a long time, income effects were dominant so that more educated voters tended to vote conservative. As culture war issues have become more central, income effects have weakened and more educated voters tend to vote for left parties.

The conservatism of rural and small town voters, even those with low incomes, has been a problem for the left for ever since the term “left” was coined with reference to the seating position of the Jacobins in the French revolutionary assembly.

The same is true of voters who identify, because of shared race or religion, with the dominant group, as with Southern whites and evangelical Protestants in the US. This affiliation becomes stronger when dominance is threatened.

John Quiggin
He is an Australian economist, a Professor and an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland, and a former member of the Board of the Climate Change Authority of the Australian Government.

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