We tend to underestimate self-image (as opposed to ideology or self-interest) as a factor in our politics. It turns out, we may also be underestimating the reverse:
We generally think of a person’s race or religion as being fixed — and that those parts of identity (being black, say, or evangelical Christian) drive political views. Most African-Americans vote Democratic. Most evangelical Christians vote Republican. But New York University political scientist Patrick Egan has written a new paper showing evidence that identity and politics operate in the opposite direction too — people shift the non-political parts of their identity, including ethnicity and religion, to align better with being a Democrat or a Republican.
Egan used public opinion data collected through the General Social Survey, one of the most reliable measures of Americans’ views of political and social attitudes that we have. The GSS is conducted every two years and surveys a rotating panel of respondents. Some respondents agree to follow-up interviews two years and four years after their initial interview. Egan’s data set was made up of about 3,900 people who were interviewed three times for the GSS surveys, starting either in 2006, 2008 or 2010 (so the most recent data was from people interviewed in 2010, 2012 and 2014). All three times, respondents were asked to rank themselves on a seven-point ideological scale (from “extremely liberal,” to “moderate, middle of the road,” to “extremely conservative.”) They were also asked questions about aspects of their identity that, at least in theory, are non-ideological — questions like: 1) “From what countries or part of the world did your ancestors come?” and 2) “What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion?”