The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind: How Self-Interest Shapes Our Opinions and Why We Won't Admit It

The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind: How Self-Interest Shapes Our Opinions and Why We Won't Admit It

by Jason Weeden, Robert Kurzban


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When it comes to politics, we often perceive our own beliefs as fair and socially beneficial, while seeing opposing views as merely self-serving. But in fact most political views are governed by self-interest, even if we usually don't realize it. Challenging our fiercely held notions about what motivates us politically, this book explores how self-interest divides the public on a host of hot-button issues, from abortion and the legalization of marijuana to same-sex marriage, immigration, affirmative action, and income redistribution.

Expanding the notion of interests beyond simple economics, Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban look at how people's interests clash when it comes to their sex lives, social status, family, and friends. Drawing on a wealth of data, they demonstrate how different groups form distinctive bundles of political positions that often stray far from what we typically think of as liberal or conservative. They show how we engage in unconscious rationalization to justify our political positions, portraying our own views as wise, benevolent, and principled while casting our opponents' views as thoughtless and greedy.

While many books on politics seek to provide partisans with new ways to feel good about their own side, The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind illuminates the hidden drivers of our politics, even if it's a picture neither side will find flattering.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691173245
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 09/06/2016
Pages: 376
Product dimensions: 5.75(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Jason Weeden is a senior researcher with the Pennsylvania Laboratory for Experimental Evolutionary Psychology (PLEEP) and a lawyer in Washington, DC. Robert Kurzban is professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of PLEEP. He is the author of Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind (Princeton).

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The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind

How Self-Interest Shapes our Opinions and Why We Won't Admit It

By Jason Weeden, Robert Kurzban


Copyright © 2014 Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-5196-6


Agendas in Action

Mitt Romney was defeated by self-interest. Not his own, but the self-interested voting of poor minorities and those meddling kids.

At least that's how he saw things in the week after his 2012 election loss to the incumbent, President Barack Obama. On a conference call with disappointed fund-raisers and donors, Romney offered his post-game analysis: "What the president's campaign did was focus on certain members of his base coalition, give them extraordinary financial gifts from the government, and then work very aggressively to turn them out to vote, and that strategy worked."

Romney and his strategists listed the policy gifts and the beneficiaries. Obama bestowed "amnesty" on certain young immigrants by executive order, a move that "was obviously very, very popular with Hispanic voters." The president passed Obamacare, "which basically is ten thousand dollars a family," a good price for the votes of poorer Americans. As for those meddling kids, they got to stay on their parents' health insurance plans, received cuts in student-loan interest rates, and got "free contraceptives," something that was "very big with young, college-aged women." Romney's summary: "It's a proven political strategy, which is give a bunch of money to a group and, guess what, they'll vote for you."

Romney surely could have added other "gifts" to his list. In the spring of 2012, not long before Obama issued his new directive for young immigrants, he announced his support for same-sex marriage, something that, along with his administration's earlier repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, pleased another solid Democratic group, gays and lesbians. The Obama administration's support for General Motors and Chrysler probably improved his standing with union workers and Michiganders. His support of payroll tax cuts and extended unemployment benefits particularly helped poorer people struggling through the Great Recession. His appointment of a Jewish woman and also of a "wise Latina" to the Supreme Court showed his support for abortion-rights and civil-rights policies so popular with feminists and lefty Ivy Leaguers.

Liberal columnist Clarence Page, among others, responded to Romney's "gifts" analysis with the inevitable charge of hypocrisy: "That President Obama sure is a clever fellow, giving so many Americans what they want. I wonder why that notion apparently didn't appeal to Romney? Oh, right. It did. He promised seniors, for example, that he'd restore President Obama's $716 billion in Medicare cuts.... Romney looked like Santa Claus to upper-income earners with his promises to protect them from Obama's proposed income tax hikes. He also promised Wall Street that he would roll back the Dodd-Frank financial regulations that were legislated to rein in the abuses that led to the 2008 financial crash."

From the right, in a piece for the libertarian website, Ira Stoll condemned such hypocrisy charges as further hypocrisy: "[T]here's a double standard at work. When reporters suggest that donors to Republican causes are motivated by self-interested desire to keep their taxes low and their businesses unhampered by environmental or labor regulations, that's groundbreaking investigative journalism.... Yet when Romney suggests that Democratic voters might have been motivated by self-interest, his comments are condemned."

Perhaps more peculiarly, even some of Romney's supposed Republican allies were as critical as his political opponents. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal said: "If we want people to like us, we have to like them first. And you don't start to like people by insulting them and saying their votes were bought." Even Newt Gingrich called Romney's comments "nuts."

In certain respects, these strong reactions from both left and right might seem surprising. Elected officials' job, after all, is to advocate policies, and different policies usually work in favor of some people's interests and against others'. The major supporters and opponents of different policies frequently include those most helped or most hurt by the policies. Immigrants tend to prefer immigrant-friendly policies. Lesbians and gays tend to prefer LGBT-friendly policies. Poorer people tend to prefer robust government assistance with health care. Students tend to prefer lower college costs. Those on birth control tend to prefer cheaper birth control. Rich people tend to prefer lower taxes on rich people. Wall Street executives tend to prefer relaxed financial regulation. Of course the respective campaigns emphasized how their favored policies would help people. Of course different policies appeal to some but not to others. That's sort of the point of elections.

Indeed, as Stoll noted, the hubbub over Romney's comments calls to mind journalist Michael Kinsley's fitting observation: "A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth—some obvious truth he isn't supposed to say." Romney's "gifts" phrasing may have betrayed an unseemly bitterness over his recent loss, but his comments were largely on target: Campaigns try to turn out different groups of voters based on the particular policies those voters favor, and, often, the policies voters favor have a lot to do with their interests. Why is it such a big deal to say this out loud?

In this book, our goal is to explain why people hold the political positions that they do—why, that is, different people hold different views on areas like immigration, government spending on health care and the poor, same-sex marriage, abortion, and so on. A large part of the answer will be found in the kind of (unpopular) explanation Romney offered: it's about people's interests. Identifying where people's interests lie is, in some cases, pretty easy. Sure, as Romney pointed out, people who have less money have an interest in the state moving money from the richer to the poorer.

However, in other cases, while the key issue is still interests, identifying how particular policies advance people's interests can be trickier. Are some people really better (or worse) off under different policy regimes about "cultural" issues surrounding sex and religion? As we'll see, the answer is "yes," and once we figure out who is better off under which regime, we'll have gone a long way to figuring out who favors, and who opposes, different policies.

Looking for where people's interests lie will lead us to many of the familiar demographic features political analysts and pollsters have been looking at for decades. It will lead us to some lesser-known features as well.

By the time we're done, we hope to have provided an explanation—or, at least, a big part of the explanation—for people's political issue positions across the American spectrum. Along the way we'll also explore some key features of the modern coalitional alignments of the parties, and the perplexing reality that it's taboo to talk truthfully about the fact that politicians try to appeal to voters' interests.

To do all that, however, we have to take a careful look at data.

A lot of data.

Slicing and Dicing

As election night unfolded, NBC's Chuck Todd, analyzing incoming returns and exit polls, expressed the emerging conventional wisdom on Obama's impending victory: "The story of this election is demographics. The Republican party has not kept up with the changing face of America.... It's the growth of the Hispanic communities in various places.... [T]hey look like core Democratic voters tonight. Again, the story of this election is going to be demographics when all is said and done. The Obama campaign was right.... They built a campaign for the twenty-first century America. The Republican party has some serious soul-searching to do when you look at these numbers."

Looking at the numbers isn't just for the pros anymore. On election night, the public has access to huge amounts of information from exit polls. Anyone with an Internet connection and a hint of interest in politics can get online and follow along as the commentators slice and dice a deluge of demographic data.

Overall, Obama won 51% of the popular vote to Romney's 47% (with the other 2% going to third-party candidates)—a 4-point win for Obama. But this 4-point margin masks wildly lopsided demographic splits revealed by the exit polls.

By far the biggest deal in American party politics these days is the difference in voting patterns by race and ethnicity. Obama won African Americans by 87 points. Obama won Latinos and Asians by around 45 points. Romney won whites by 20 points.

Another fundamental set of differences involves religion. Romney may have won whites overall by 20 points, but Obama won Jews by 39 points and whites with no religious affiliation by 32 points. Romney cleaned up with his fellow Mormons, winning them by 57 points. Romney also won white Protestants by 39 points and white Catholics by 19 points. Across racial groups, Romney won those who go to church more than once a week by 27 points and weekly churchgoers by 17 points; Obama won people who never go to church by 28 points.

Lesbians, gays, and bisexuals were also huge Obama supporters, favoring the president by 54 points. In fact, according to the exit polls, had the election only included heterosexual voters, the popular vote would have been pretty close to a tie.

Obama took big cities by 40 points (these populations, after all, contain lots of minorities, lots of less religious whites, and relatively more lesbians, gays, and bisexuals). Romney won rural areas by 24 points (these populations, after all, contain lots of white, heterosexual Christians).

Poorer people tended to support Obama and richer people tended to support Romney. For example, Obama won those with incomes under $30,000 by 28 points while Romney won those with incomes above $100,000 by 10 points. These income results obviously relate in part to racial differences, with minorities typically being poorer than whites.

On education, the story starts off in a way that looks consistent with the income differences we just saw: Obama won among those without high school diplomas by 29 points. Those in the middle were pretty evenly distributed, with Obama barely eking out people with high school diplomas but not bachelor's degrees and Romney winning those with bachelor's degrees but not graduate degrees. But then there's a noticeable outlier: Obama, not Romney, won among the most educated group (those with graduate degrees) by 13 points. By the end of the book, we'll see why—why, that is, high income tends to lead to Republican support while high education tends to lead to Democratic support—but it'll take a while to put the pieces together.

The marriage gap shows up: Obama won unmarried people by 27 points; Romney won married people by 14 points. The age gap shows up, too: Obama won young adults (ages eighteen to twenty-nine) by 23 points; Romney won seniors (ages sixty-five and higher) by 12 points. And, of course, the gender gap: Obama won women by 11 points; Romney won men by 7 points.

These last differences, though, aren't in the same ballpark as those we started with for race, religion, and sexual orientation. In fact, despite persistent media talk of the liberalness of young people, note this nugget from the 2012 exit polls: If the election had only involved white voters between ages eighteen and twenty-nine, Romney would have won by 7 points.

Political professionals think of voters in terms of coalitions, the key point being that members of various demographic groups tend to respond in different ways to different issues. Groups such as whites with no religious affiliation and African Americans may vote mostly for Democrats, but this doesn't mean they share the same policy views or have the same issue priorities. For example, 70% of whites with no religious affiliation support the Supreme Court's ban on school prayer; only 26% of African Americans agree. When it comes to government spending on African Americans, in contrast, while 73% of African Americans think there should be higher spending, only 30% of whites with no religious affiliation agree. These two groups have different reasons for voting for Democrats.

With ever increasing, data-driven sophistication, political professionals analyze not "the public," generally, but (increasingly smaller) segments of the public. Sasha Issenberg's book, The Victory Lab, provides a fascinating glimpse into the modern development of "micro-targeting" and other efforts to group the voting population into coherent clusters with shared policy concerns. In his 2004 book, The Two Americas, veteran Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg described in detail more than twenty overlapping demographic categories, some solidly in the Republican coalition, some solidly in the Democratic coalition, and some up for grabs. The book was a detailed example of demographic political analysis, flowing from various demographic features, to groups' different policy priorities and positions, to party allegiances and voting patterns that ultimately reflect demographic-driven coalitions of diverse policy preferences.

In discussing Latino Americans, for instance, Greenberg stated that they have tended to be attracted to Democrats because of shared support for civil rights for immigrants and policies providing greater economic security for people with lower incomes. In other words, the Democratic pollster in 2004 gave practically the same analysis as the Republican candidate in 2012, who described on his postelection conference call how Latinos had been wooed by Democrats primarily through Obama's "amnesty" efforts and the economic subsidies in Obamacare. Romney wasn't, then, out on a political limb; he was expressing a widely held view of pollsters and strategists in both parties.

Sometimes the demographic labels of pollsters make their way into the public's political conversation. Often the focus is on various groups of swing voters—soccer moms, office-park dads, Walmart moms, NASCAR dads, and a host of others. Our own approach will be to look closely at how and why different demographic features relate to different kinds of political issues. Someone who goes to church regularly, for example, is likely to be more conservative on abortion and related lifestyle issues, but how much people go to church doesn't have much at all to do with being conservative on immigration or affirmative action or Social Security. Once we've seen how and why different demographic features relate to different issue opinions, we'll get into the real slicing and dicing, breaking up the public into lots of different groups with various collections of views. This will lead to an expanded perspective on the variety of modern political positions.

The Bichromatic Rainbow

Sometimes it can seem that there's little need for the demographic obsessions of political professionals who target specific "messages" to narrow groups. Aren't there really just two big groups—liberals/Democrats on one side and conservatives/Republicans on the other—and, thus, really just two big "messages"? Comedian Jon Stewart and the team behind The Daily Show put it this way in America (The Book): "Each party has a platform, a prix fixe menu of beliefs making up its worldview. The candidate can choose one of the two platforms, but remember—no substitutions. For example, do you support universal healthcare? Then you must also want a ban on assault weapons. Pro–limited government? Congratulations, you are also anti-abortion. Luckily, all human opinion falls neatly into one of the two clearly defined camps. Thus, the two-party system elegantly reflects the bichromatic rainbow that is American political thought."


Excerpted from The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind by Jason Weeden, Robert Kurzban. Copyright © 2014 Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Part I: Political Minds

Chapter 1: Agendas in Action 3

Chapter 2: Investigating Interests 26

Chapter 3: Machiavellian Minds 44

Part II: Political Issues

Chapter 4: Fighting over Sex: Lifestyle Issues and Religion 69

Chapter 5: Rules of the Game: Group Identities and Human Capital 96

Chapter 6: Money Matters: Redistribution and Hard-Times Programs 123

Part III: Political Coalitions

Chapter 7: The Many Shades of Red and Blue 145

Chapter 8: The Republican Coalition 160

Chapter 9: The Democratic Coalition 176

Part IV: Political Challenges

Chapter 10: An Uncomfortable Take on Political Positions 195

Acknowledgments 217

Appendixes 219

Data Appendix for Chapter 2 219

Data Appendix for Part II 236

Data Appendix for Chapter 4 251

Data Appendix for Chapter 5 268

Data Appendix for Chapter 6 287

Data Appendix for Chapter 8 304

Data Appendix for Chapter 9 321

Notes 343

References 351

Index 359

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Weeden and Kurzban are brilliant thinkers who provide a broader, deeper, and occasionally unsettling new perspective on how our self-interest influences our choices—even choices made by those of us who cherish the belief that we are not motivated by self-interest. Read it and weep, or laugh."—Douglas T. Kenrick, coauthor of The Rational Animal: How Evolution Made Us Smarter Than We Think

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