No, Really, Americans Aren't Motivated by Ideology

Richard Florida has a post in The Atlantic that sees the number of people who self-identify as conservative state by state as evidence that "America is an increasingly conservative nation, by ideology and by political affiliation." Let's leave aside the obvious point that Americans telling us they are "conservative" is essentially meaningless in terms of sussing out the ideological bent -- if any -- of the country. Florida asks a more interesting question, which is why some states are becoming more conservative, looking at a variety of possible correlating data.

Unsurprisingly, he finds that more religious states tend to be more conservative while more educated states tend to be liberal. Similarly, conservative states are "working class" while "creative class" states are liberal. And finally, higher income means wealthier individuals tend to vote Republican, while richer states vote Democrat. So what does all this mean? Florida suggests the following:

Conservatism, at least at the state level, appears to be growing stronger. Ironically, this trend is most pronounced in America's least well-off, least educated, most blue collar, most economically hard-hit states. Conservatism, more and more, is the ideology of the economically left behind. The current economic crisis only appears to have deepened conservatism's hold on America's states. This trend stands in sharp contrast to the Great Depression, when America embraced FDR and the New Deal.

There's nothing ironic here; this is simply a restatement of What's the Matter with Kansas?, a 2004 book that advanced the quite plausible-sounding thesis that voters in red states voted against their own economic interests because of a Republican appeal to social values. This theory was debunked thoroughly by Larry Bartels in a 2005 paper [PDF] that found voters in red states actually hold consistent conservative views on both economics and culture -- which explains why there has been no nationwide embrace of New Deal politics. But Florida concludes with a more compelling assessment:

But the much bigger, long-term danger is economic rather than political. This ideological state of affairs advantages the policy preferences of poorer, less innovative states over wealthier, more innovative, and productive ones. American politics is increasingly disconnected from its economic engine. And this deepening political divide has become perhaps the biggest bottleneck on the road to long-run prosperity.

In some ways, this is nothing new. Poorer, more rural, less populous states have always held a disproportionate degree of sway in American politics, chiefly through institutional design (the U.S. Senate). But if "wealthier, more innovative, and productive" states are losing representation at the national level, this isn't due to an ideological realignment it means Republicans are winning more elections than Democrats. To put it another way, Florida is restating the thesis of another book from the last decade, The Emerging Democratic Majority, which suggested that "ideopolises" (creative class, anyone?) were trending demographically toward Democrats, potentially locking in a "permanent" majority. But that's an argument based on a bit more firm data. Florida is heading in the same direction, but unfortunately gets distracted by the persistent temptation to see ideology as the prime mover in politics.