Political Science Opinions1

Published on January 10th, 2013


Research on Economic Opinions – A History

By Tor G. Jakobsen

Moving on from the Michigan model presented in our previous facts article, we move on to studies regarding the economic left–right opinions of people. This is a subfield of electoral research, its main characteristic being that one investigates attitudes rather than what a person votes. 

However, opinions are decisive for people’s electoral behavior. This is especially true for opinions along the economic dimension.

Several collaborative cross-national surveys emerged in the 1980s, thus allowing researcher to compare attitudes of citizens in different countries. This helped to lead the research focus over to macro-level factors and their influence on individual attitudes, rather than a sole focus on individual level explanations. The development and improvement of statistical techniques also rendered possible more comparative research on public opinion.

There is a tradition for research on so-called welfare attitudes, and many have attempted to answer the question: what are the determinants of people’s economic left-right opinions? One approach is to focus on the citizens as rational actors who wish to maximize their utility or incomes.
This argument stems from Anthony Down’s economic theory of democracy. Persons with a high income would thus be expected to hold more rightist views than their poorer counterparts. To control for income is a necessity in most studies of public opinion toward questions of a redistributive nature. Many researchers on this field of study find rational self-interest, related to economic voting, to exert significant explanatory power, which is related to the economic voting argument.

Education can be viewed from the rational actor perspective. Those with higher education are often rewarded both economically and with regard to status. Therefore, those with higher education will on average hold rightist views on issues pertaining to economics or distribution of income. The opposite is also true: those with little education are more inclined to choose a leftist stance on the same issues.

Gender has also been found to matter when it comes to public opinion. Women are often more pro-redistribution than men. One reason for this might be that early life experiences of women differ from those of men, thus contributing to a gap between their political values.

According to Ted G. Jelen and his companions, women are taught an ethic of caring, and is therefore predisposed to think more socially and have less focus on individual gain.

With regard to the influence of age on how the public feels about economic issues there is a tendency that the older a person is the more economically leftist his or her opinions will be. This can be explained using Ronald Inglehart’s argument that the new generations are acquiring more post-materialistic values.

Changing upbringing environments for the younger generations makes them more concerned with other values than earlier generations who grew up under harsher conditions. For these new generations, who have had their needs for material safety satisfied during their upbringing, new non-material needs arises.

This can function as an explanation for why younger people have more individualistic (rightist) attitudes and values than older people, who again are more in favor of materialistic values such as equality and redistribution of income. Also, from a rational actor perspective, the older population is expected to be more supportive of public programs for the elderly.


Further reading:

Downs, Anthony (1957). An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper & Row.

Inglehart, Ronald F. (1990) Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jelen, Ted G., Sue Thomas, & Clyde Wilcox (1994) “The Gender Gap in Comparative Perspective” European Journal of Political Research, 25(2): 171-186.


*Cover photo by Nick Ares

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