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Demography Is Not King, or Why David Brooks Is a Hedgehog, Not a Fox

- May 6, 2008

In this recent piece, David Brooks sees a nation divided:

bq. …some social divides, mostly involving ethnicity, have narrowed. But others, mostly involving education, have widened. Today there is a mass educated class. The college educated and non-college educated are likely to live in different towns. They have radically different divorce rates and starkly different ways of raising their children. The non-college educated not only earn less, they smoke more, grow more obese and die sooner…

bq. …The ensuing segmentation has reshaped politics. We’re used to the ideological divide between Red and Blue America. This year’s election has revealed a deep cultural gap within the Democratic Party, separating what Stuart Rothenberg calls the two Democratic parties.

bq. In state after state (Wisconsin being the outlier), Barack Obama has won densely populated, well-educated areas. Hillary Clinton has won less-populated, less-educated areas. For example, Obama has won roughly 70 percent of the most-educated counties in the primary states. Clinton has won 90 percent of the least-educated counties. In state after state, Obama has won a few urban and inner-ring suburban counties. Clinton has won nearly everywhere else.

What is wrong with this characterization? First, Brooks uses aggregate-level data (from counties) to infer the individual-level behavior of voters. This is the ecological fallacy. When you look at actual exit polls from some recent primaries, the results are far less stark. In Pennsylvania, voters without a college degree favored Clinton, 58-42. Voters with a college degree favored Clinton too, 51-49. (See also Ohio.) Somehow I don’t see the “deep cultural gap.”

Second, more systematic data show that the education “divide” within the Democratic party is at times non-existent and, when it exists, has not “widened” over time. Using the National Election Studies, I will compare the views of Democratic respondents with and without a college degree. Below is the percent among each group who voted for the Democratic nominee for president:

educpres.PNG

Democrats have grown more loyal over time (as discussed briefly in this post). Moreover, any education “gap” is miniscule as of 2004, and certainly hasn’t grown over time.

More data, and more on Brooks-as-hedgehog, are below the fold.

Below, in order, are graphs of Democratic opinion on whether to increase or decrease government services and spending, whether to give more or less government aid to blacks, and whether to have more or fewer restrictions on abortion. (Question wordings are here, here, and here.) These items tap the potential lines of cleavage (e.g., economic, racial, and social issues) and also allow over-time comparisons.

educgovt.PNG

educblack.PNG

educabort.PNG

These graphs show that, while college-educated Democrats tend to be more liberal than other Democrats on two of these items, the gap between these two groups is not growing over time. There is no evidence whatsoever of a “widening” divide within the Democratic party based on education. Moreover, what divide does exist doesn’t really seem to matter much on Election Day: Democrats are highly loyal regardless of their level of formal education. Which is, by the way, why we should expect current divisions among Democrats to be pretty much mended by November.

Why does Brooks make mistakes like this? Hedgehogs, in Berlin’s famous characterization, know one big thing. Brooks knows one big thing: that the world can be easily divided into groups (preferably two) and these groups are really, really different from each other. That is, of course, the thrust of his original piece on “red” and “blue” states (despite some post-9/11 caveats at the end). Brooks also desperately wants to infer political divisions from sociological divisions. If divorce rates and obseity and child-rearing and smoking and mortality are associated with education then certainly some political outcome is too? Right? Right?

Unfortunately, Brooks’ mode of pop sociology obscures far more than it reveals, and forces him to bend the facts to suit this thesis. See also Sasha Issenberg’s famous take-down of the red/blue state piece.

The sad thing is, David Brooks actually appears to read and enjoy social science, and can even talk about it reasonably well (see this earlier post). But in columns like this, he seems content to ignore the data, or else fail to examine it closely.

If it’s asking too much for Brooks to spend half an hour with the National Election Studies before writing a column like this, then consider this my job application. David Brooks, I will make pretty graphs and easy-to-read cross-tabulations for you. Just say the word. (David Park is ready to run your regressions.) Give us a call.