Is Voting a Behavior or an Identity?

 

Perhaps we got it all wrong.

Since 1964, black voters migrated to the Democrat Party and never looked back. At this point, they support Democratic presidential candidates at rates anywhere between 90-94%. Why?

One approach is to say that black voters are on the Democratic plantation and are unwilling to consider alternatives for a variety of unflattering reasons. I’m with Kevin Williamson in not buying this argument and being a bit repulsed by its condescension. Plus, it’s a bit counter-productive to persuade people to agree with you after you tell them they’ve been duped all along.

However, I’m not with Williamson when he says it’s simply because they prefer the policies of the Democrats to Republicans. Here, we know that blacks are not monolithic in their views, even though they’re monolithic in their voting behavior. I think of the many blacks I know who are religious and very much conservative in their views about economics and welfare, among other issues. Even though they agree with Republicans when it comes to their most deeply held convictions, they still vote for Democrats who disagree with them. But, as a researcher, I know that correlation doesn’t necessarily imply causation.

To bring it back to my opening point, maybe we’ve been going about it the wrong way. As I think about the black voters I know of, it’s apparent to me that voting Democrat is the default option. When everyone you know votes Democrat, it’s only natural that you will also act accordingly, and I’ve heard people tell me as much. So, to me, while black voters may have gone to the Democrats for historical reasons back in the ’60s/’70s, today I think it’s mainly inertia. But it’s so strong that it seems to be more of an attribute than a behavior. That is, Democrat is who we are rather than how we vote. It’s like one’s ethnicity or religion.

What I like about this hypothesis is that it is simple, elegant, and yet explanatory. It explains cognitive dissonance that so many black voters are in when they support candidates who push an agenda they do not believe in at all. I think it also shows that discussions about what the GOP can do to win over black voters are usually exercises in vanity. It’s far too convenient to say the GOP repels black voters when they have no real interest in considering supporting the party.

Now, I should be clear that I’m not arguing the GOP should write-off black voters. I’m a good enough student of politics to know that no trend is ever permanent. It’s possible that black voters will become more polarized than they are now but I don’t know how that will happen, or when. But thinking of black voting as an attribute rather than a behavior can possibly help the GOP figure out ideas to increase their support or, at the very least, eliminate bad ideas that won’t work.

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There are 70 comments.

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  1. Arahant Member

    Bereket Kelile: What I like about this hypothesis is that it is simple, elegant, and yet explanatory. It explains cognitive dissonance that so many black voters are in when they support candidates who push an agenda they do not believe in at all.

    I knew white folks like that. Their granddaddy voted for Democrats, and so would they. Identity, not an easily changed choice.

    • #1
    • August 22, 2019, at 10:51 AM PDT
    • 18 likes
  2. Susan Quinn Contributor

    Bereket Kelile: o, to me, while black voters may have went to the Democrats for historical reasons back in the 60s/70s, today I think it’s mainly inertia. But it’s so strong that it seems to be more of an attribute than a behavior. That is, Democrat is who we are rather than how we vote. It’s like one’s ethnicity or religion.

    This is a fascinating idea, Bereket.To vote other than Democrat would be like converting to another religion, or denying a part of who you are. Thanks for finding a creative way to look at black voting habits.

    • #2
    • August 22, 2019, at 10:57 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  3. DrewInWisconsin, Thought Leader Member

    And then there’s this:

    https://www.nationalreview.com/2018/08/president-trump-approval-rating-with-black-voters-increasing/

    An August 7 NAACP poll found that 21 percent of black registered voters approve of Trump’s job performance. Even more impressive, in Wednesday’s Rasmussen tracking survey, 36 percent of black voters gave the president thumbs-up, compared with 19 percent a year ago.

    These are not landslide numbers. And Trump’s disapproval ratings — 79 percent in the NAACP’s study and 64 percent in Rasmussen’s — are daunting. Still, the fact that Trump enjoys the support of one-fifth of black voters in one poll and more than one-third in another is astonishing for someone routinely smeared as a white supremacist. These statistics should trigger klaxons at Democratic headquarters.

     

    • #3
    • August 22, 2019, at 11:04 AM PDT
    • 10 likes
  4. Goldgeller Member

    Voting seems more like an expression of an identity in some sense. At least when it comes to partisanship. Since the major studies in the 60s we know your propensity to vote is a function of your parents’ party ID and how long you have been either D or R. Structural factors like blacks’ living in large cities and being still largely segregated by residence also probably decreases the variation in their voting behavior due to cohort effects and city life (which does tend to predict more liberalism).

    Republican outreach to blacks has been terrible so that is one reason why blacks don’t often vote R. But why are blacks liberal and democratic? Evidence, and Schickler has done good work on this, suggests that around reconstruction southern blacks republicans were closer to northern dems than northern republicans in terms of support for a whole host of social policies. Additionally, in terms of the civil rights movement, it made more sense for blacks to compete against southern dems from within the democratic party. Most blacks, like most people, actually are able to find their preferences, to the extent that people have stable preferences. And like I said earlier, Republican outreach to blacks isn’t very good, when it is not non-existent 

     

     

    • #4
    • August 22, 2019, at 11:04 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  5. Bereket Kelile Member
    Bereket Kelile Post author

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Bereket Kelile: o, to me, while black voters may have went to the Democrats for historical reasons back in the 60s/70s, today I think it’s mainly inertia. But it’s so strong that it seems to be more of an attribute than a behavior. That is, Democrat is who we are rather than how we vote. It’s like one’s ethnicity or religion.

    This is a fascinating idea, Bereket.To vote other than Democrat would be like converting to another religion, or denying a part of who you are. Thanks for finding a creative way to look at black voting habits.

    I think it’s easier to convert a Muslim in Mecca to Christianity than it is to persuade a black voter to support a Republican

    • #5
    • August 22, 2019, at 11:10 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  6. Goldgeller Member

    Bereket Kelile (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Bereket Kelile: o, to me, while black voters may have went to the Democrats for historical reasons back in the 60s/70s, today I think it’s mainly inertia. But it’s so strong that it seems to be more of an attribute than a behavior. That is, Democrat is who we are rather than how we vote. It’s like one’s ethnicity or religion.

    This is a fascinating idea, Bereket.To vote other than Democrat would be like converting to another religion, or denying a part of who you are. Thanks for finding a creative way to look at black voting habits.

    I think it’s easier to convert a Muslim in Mecca to Christianity than it is to persuade a black voter to support a Republican

    If we are talking “on average” then perhaps. But blacks do move in small numbers to the Republican party in certain elections. Look at Florida. Rick Scott improved his performance with black voters in the race against Crist and Ron DeSantis improved compared to Rick Scott. Is it positive turnout or the opposition staying home? I don’t know. Being directly canvased to vote is important. If Republicans aren’t doing it then things won’t change.

    • #6
    • August 22, 2019, at 11:15 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  7. tigerlily Member

    Northern Blacks began voting in large numbers for Democrats long before the 1964/65 Civil & Voting Rights Acts. In 1936, FDR got 71% of the black vote (of course at the time very few southern Blacks were able to vote) . Before FDR, Blacks gave their vote overwhelmingly to the Republicans, although I can’t find detailed breakdowns for the vote totals.

    • #7
    • August 22, 2019, at 11:22 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  8. Hang On Member

    Which is more difficult to change: identity or behavior?

     

    • #8
    • August 22, 2019, at 11:49 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  9. Susan Quinn Contributor

    Hang On (View Comment):

    Which is more difficult to change: identity or behavior?

     

    Now THAT is an interesting question! I think behavior. The reason is that it’s not difficult to change your behavior if you have the motivation. For instance, if I am careless chopping food and keep cutting my fingers, I’ll change how I cut (at least my husband begs me to be careful!) Behavior is easy to describe and identify. But identity is tricky, and even harder to change. Some of my identity is easy: I’m a woman, a wife, a Jew, a friend, and so on. But changing those would be stressful! Not only that, I can be misguided in my identity; I may think I’m a compassionate person, but I’m really a pain-in-the-neck and don’t even realize it. Anyway, those are my two cents. What do you think, @hangon?

    • #9
    • August 22, 2019, at 11:59 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  10. Arahant Member

    Hang On (View Comment):

    Which is more difficult to change: identity or behavior?

    I would say identity. If you are really invested in being X, it’s hard to one day say, I’m not X anymore. Think of Roman Catholics who have nothing in common with church doctrine, who support abortion and so many other policies against church teachings, yet they want the church to conform to them, because they are Roman Catholics.

    Also think of Elizabeth Warren’s supposed Cherokee heritage. It was something she was told as a little girl and latched onto as part of her identity. It has taken a lot to disabuse her of that bit of identity.

    Behavior may not be easy, but compared to identity, it’s a snap.

    • #10
    • August 22, 2019, at 12:01 PM PDT
    • 10 likes
  11. Arahant Member

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):
    I think behavior. The reason is that it’s not difficult to change your behavior if you have the motivation. For instance, if I am careless chopping food and keep cutting my fingers, I’ll change how I cut (at least my husband begs me to be careful!) Behavior is easy to describe and identify. But identity is tricky, and even harder to change.

    So, which is it? First you say behavior is harder, then identity.

    • #11
    • August 22, 2019, at 12:06 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  12. Spin Inactive

    I remain 100% convinced that two things are true.

    First: I think most voters want to vote the way the people they know think they should vote. I refer to this as the water cooler effect, though I recognize I didn’t invent the term. The day after the election, they don’t want to be the outlier. They don’t want to be the person, standing around the water cooler, who voted for the other guy.

    Second: I think most voters do not vote based on any sort of nuanced, informed ideological view. they want things fixed, and they vote for whomever they think will fix it, whether or not they actually know how it is that the individual or party will fix whatever it is that needs fixing. 

    So, yes, I think it is largely about identity.

    • #12
    • August 22, 2019, at 12:11 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  13. Goldgeller Member

    My answer is mixed. I’ll say behavior but for a weird reason.

    In terms of behavior/identity I think it depends on what you want to call “identity.” Some identities can’t be changed (race, gender). But if we consider identities as the “hats” people wear then they can be changed. We can be made to identify as a variety of political and social constituencies, which is why politics works. From there, all that needs to happen to get a certain action is an incentive to behave in a way predicted by that identity.

    That is what some observers miss when they talk about people “voting against their interests.” Of course sometimes people often do but mainly due to lack of information. Researchers/observers often fail to forget that people wear lots of different hats or identities and that the behaviors that stem from those identities are actually far more fixed than they (researchers) tend to believe. You can get a lot of people to “go against their interests” as long as you don’t let them identify with said interest.

    • #13
    • August 22, 2019, at 12:16 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  14. Arahant Member

    Goldgeller (View Comment):
    Some identities can’t be changed (race, gender).

    Heh, someone has not been paying attention.

    • #14
    • August 22, 2019, at 12:22 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  15. Henry Castaigne Member

    Dennis Prager explains,

    The answer lies in emotion. For many non-leftist Democrats, it is emotionally impossible to vote Republican.

    I can illustrate this best with a personal example that I often use in speeches to Jewish audiences.

    I was raised both as an Orthodox Jew and a liberal Democrat. In my early 20s, not wanting to practice religious laws solely out of habit or fear, I experimented with religious non-observance.

    I remember well the one time this yeshiva graduate ate ham. It was emotionally difficult.

    I also well remember the first time this lifelong Democrat voted Republican. And it, too, was difficult. In fact, it was actually more emotionally difficult to vote Republican than to eat the ham.

    Now, how could that be? How could it possibly have been more emotionally trying for a lifelong Democrat to vote Republican than for a lifelong observant Jew to eat ham? Isn’t religion a far deeper conviction than politics?

    The question implies the answer.

    Liberalism and leftism are religions. While I felt I would be sinning against God when I tasted ham, I was certain I was sinning against both God and man were I to vote Republican.

    That is how liberals, not to mention leftists, think: It is a grievous sin to vote Republican (unless the Republican is a liberal). One is abandoning their faith, values, community and very identity.

    But it is more than that. What keeps most non-leftists voting Democrat (and calling themselves liberal) has been the spectacularly effective saturation of virtually all media and all educational institutions with the message that the right is mean spirited and dangerous.

    • #15
    • August 22, 2019, at 12:23 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  16. DrewInWisconsin, Thought Leader Member

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):
    What keeps most non-leftists voting Democrat (and calling themselves liberal) has been the spectacularly effective saturation of virtually all media and all educational institutions with the message that the right is mean spirited and dangerous.

    This.

    The brainwashing is so omnipresent that it’s almost too big to see.

    • #16
    • August 22, 2019, at 12:35 PM PDT
    • 10 likes
  17. Max Ledoux Admin

    Bereket Kelile: while black voters may have went to the Democrats for historical reasons back in the 60s/70s, today I think it’s mainly inertia.

    I think you’re probably right about why so many black Americans vote for Democrats. And the same is true for plenty of Democrats I know, who are not black. It’s just what they’ve always done and what their families do. It’s why I registered as a Democrat at the age of 18 and voted for Al Gore six months later.

    Thomas Sowell and others have written about how black Americans began shifting their votes to the Democrats in the 1930s over economic issues, well before the 1960s. So the inertia is probably pretty strong.

    • #17
    • August 22, 2019, at 12:44 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  18. Stina Member

    Bereket Kelile: It’s possible that black voters will become more polarized than they are now but I don’t know how that will happen, or when

    Maybe getting inside their system (locally) and creating the division inside “Democrat”?

    People fracture inside their identities all the time, but typically present a united force to outsiders. If the GOP is the outsider, and policies are really the most important, then maybe stalking horses in local Democrat politics would have a better effect.

    • #18
    • August 22, 2019, at 12:48 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  19. The Great Adventure! Member

    I still look at politics as a huge sporting event. I always support my team but, more importantly, I NEVER support the other team. I don’t care if my team consists of a bunch of drug dealing sex offenders and the other team is all choir boys – I still support my team and never the other.

    I would go so far as to say that a large majority of the population – on both sides, of any color, faith, or creed – at least acts this way if not thinks this way.

    • #19
    • August 22, 2019, at 12:58 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  20. Susan Quinn Contributor

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):
    I think behavior. The reason is that it’s not difficult to change your behavior if you have the motivation. For instance, if I am careless chopping food and keep cutting my fingers, I’ll change how I cut (at least my husband begs me to be careful!) Behavior is easy to describe and identify. But identity is tricky, and even harder to change.

    So, which is it? First you say behavior is harder, then identity.

    I’m sorry. I answered my own question: behavior is easier to change!

    • #20
    • August 22, 2019, at 12:59 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  21. Bob Thompson Member

    DrewInWisconsin, Influencer (View Comment):

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):
    What keeps most non-leftists voting Democrat (and calling themselves liberal) has been the spectacularly effective saturation of virtually all media and all educational institutions with the message that the right is mean spirited and dangerous.

    This.

    The brainwashing is so omnipresent that it’s almost too big to see.

    This happens and reputations develop. I can remember hearing, after my two daughters were adults, about conversations they had when they were children. The oldest was compliant and rule-oriented while the younger one was adventurous and pushed the envelope. So after some boundary challenging event, the older one said ‘Dad will be mad’ and the younger one replied ‘Dad’s always mad’. Made me feel as if I got the job done right.

    • #21
    • August 22, 2019, at 1:03 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  22. Bob Thompson Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Bereket Kelile: What I like about this hypothesis is that it is simple, elegant, and yet explanatory. It explains cognitive dissonance that so many black voters are in when they support candidates who push an agenda they do not believe in at all.

    I knew white folks like that. Their granddaddy voted for Democrats, and so would they. Identity, not an easily changed choice.

    I know that place.

    • #22
    • August 22, 2019, at 1:06 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  23. Mark Camp Member

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    Dennis Prager explains,

    The answer lies in emotion. For many non-leftist Democrats, it is emotionally impossible to vote Republican.

    I can illustrate this best with a personal example that I often use in speeches to Jewish audiences.

    I was raised both as an Orthodox Jew and a liberal Democrat. In my early 20s, not wanting to practice religious laws solely out of habit or fear, I experimented with religious non-observance.

    I remember well the one time this yeshiva graduate ate ham. It was emotionally difficult.

    I also well remember the first time this lifelong Democrat voted Republican. And it, too, was difficult. In fact, it was actually more emotionally difficult to vote Republican than to eat the ham.

    Now, how could that be? How could it possibly have been more emotionally trying for a lifelong Democrat to vote Republican than for a lifelong observant Jew to eat ham? Isn’t religion a far deeper conviction than politics?

    The question implies the answer.

    Liberalism and leftism are religions. While I felt I would be sinning against God when I tasted ham, I was certain I was sinning against both God and man were I to vote Republican.

    That is how liberals, not to mention leftists, think: It is a grievous sin to vote Republican (unless the Republican is a liberal). One is abandoning their faith, values, community and very identity.

    But it is more than that. What keeps most non-leftists voting Democrat (and calling themselves liberal) has been the spectacularly effective saturation of virtually all media and all educational institutions with the message that the right is mean spirited and dangerous.

    Between the original post and this one, I think I now understand this voting anomaly clearly. It isn’t really anomalous at all–most Democrats are voting against their basic beliefs because they view voting Democrat as a religious obligation, part of who they are.

    • #23
    • August 22, 2019, at 1:14 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  24. namlliT noD Member

    Great points, all.

    I’ll throw in a curve ball… Most of this talk is somewhat abstract, let’s look at something more concrete. This is a very specific time right now, where something very concrete is available. Maybe take advantage of it.

    A substantial fraction of black poverty and crime is located in the inner city. And most of those inner cities have been under Democrat control for 50 years now, uninterrupted.

    Wikipedia presents this really well… look up the list of US cities with the highest crime rates (I’ll suggest homicide as the most significant and well documented) and look up the history of mayors for those cities. The highest crime cities are all dems for the last 50 years, uninterrupted.

    Thus we have a 50 Year Experiment. And we can examine the results.

    @bereketkelile , my man… you have statistical skillz, data, and resources… What can you do with this?

    What is a good statistical metric of survival/success for a black person in a city that is, over a period of 50 years, significantly Republican vs. Democrat?

    • #24
    • August 22, 2019, at 1:21 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  25. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… Thatcher

    I agree with you that default ideas of identity and community are as or more powerful than policies. Growing up in a firmly Democrat (but not Left) family the thought of being a Republican never entered my mind and I voted for every Democrat on the ballot from 1972 thru 1978.

    In 1980 I voted for Reagan and it was very hard for me to do so and even then I voted D for every other office. Even though I gradually began to vote R for offices other than president during the 80s I still thought of myself as a D and it wasn’t until the mid-90s I changed my registration from D to Independent.

    The key for me in voting for Reagan was getting comfortable with the man even though I agreed with him on many policies. I just liked the guy and his temperament and was willing to take a chance with him. In contrast in 1980 I could never have been persuaded to vote for Donald Trump no matter that I agreed with many of his policies because I don’t like the guy. I voted for him in 2016 because I’d already crossed the bridge.

    Over the years, I’ve had a number of conversations with friends in which I’ve pointed out that there actual political views align more with R than D but they usually give me a sheepish look and say “Yeah, but I’m a Democrat” and shrug their shoulders because they simply can’t conceive of voting R.

     

    • #25
    • August 22, 2019, at 1:40 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  26. Mark Camp Member

    namlliT noD (View Comment):
    Most of this talk is somewhat abstract, let’s look at something more concrete. This is a very specific time right now, where something very concrete is available. Maybe take advantage of it.

    Most of this talk has been an attempt to understand the causes of the problem so that we can know what action to take to solve it.

    Is that what you mean by “abstract talk”?

    • #26
    • August 22, 2019, at 1:43 PM PDT
    • Like
  27. Mark Camp Member

    I can’t personally relate very easily to people who vote their identity, rather than their beliefs. The idea remains abhorrent to me, though not quite as shocking as it was when I first encountered it at the age of 9 or so.

    I will say that I’m much more sympathetic to blacks who do, because they have a good reason to vote according to their emotions. I’ve struggled to be sympathetic to whites who do that. When I decided a few months ago that I was suddenly (after reading one WSJ column) a Trumpist, it was not a change of ideology (I’m still not a statist), but a sudden sympathy with the core Trump supporters. That Noonan column gave me an understanding of why they hate me and insult me, a fellow patriotic American, and others of my beliefs.

    But I have come to understand, slowly but steadily, that this irrational behavior is what actually determines the outcome of American elections today. I am becoming more and more disillusioned about self-government, and more and more resigned to the idea that it is impossible.

    If the American electorate could have remained at the same educational level they had from 1776, through the 19th century, we could have kept the American Dream alive. But that level began a steady but ultimately catastrophic decline around 1900.

    Because I have so little in common with people who act this way, I am not one to ask about what to do about it. Ronald Reagan succeeded electorally because he understood the American people in a way that I don’t.

    We need another Reagan. All I can do is vote for him or her when he or she gets here, and for Trump till then.

    • #27
    • August 22, 2019, at 2:05 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  28. Bereket Kelile Member
    Bereket Kelile Post author

    Stina (View Comment):

    Bereket Kelile: It’s possible that black voters will become more polarized than they are now but I don’t know how that will happen, or when

    Maybe getting inside their system (locally) and creating the division inside “Democrat”?

    People fracture inside their identities all the time, but typically present a united force to outsiders. If the GOP is the outsider, and policies are really the most important, then maybe stalking horses in local Democrat politics would have a better effect.

    I’d say there already is division. Blacks are not monolithic in their opinions, just in their partisan affiliation. We saw that in 2016 in how they tended to support Hillary over Bernie, or this time around getting behind Biden. But it takes a bigger sacrifice to cross the aisle and actually “come out” as a Republican. Now, I think over the long term any change will take persistent exposure to conservative thinking and that can help soften the battleground in advance of persuasion.

    • #28
    • August 22, 2019, at 2:57 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  29. Mark Camp Member

    Bereket Kelile (View Comment):
    I’d say there already is division. Blacks are not monolithic in their opinions, just in their partisan affiliation. We saw that in 2016 in how they tended to support Hillary over Bernie, or this time around getting behind Biden. But it takes a bigger sacrifice to cross the aisle and actually “come out” as a Republican. Now, I think over the long term any change will take persistent exposure to conservative thinking and that can help soften the battleground in advance of persuasion.

    (Emph. added.)

    Amen.

     

    • #29
    • August 22, 2019, at 3:40 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  30. E. Kent Golding Member

    Maybe we should run candidates in Black districts, campaign there , and ask for their votes.

    • #30
    • August 22, 2019, at 3:49 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
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