Polarization of Voters Reflects Wide Differences in Moral Views

Lincoln memorial
(Gage Skidmore photo)

America’s political divide runs deep — with vastly different views among left, right and moderate voters on the nature of right and wrong, according to a recent study by UC Davis political scientist Christopher Hare.

Hare and a colleague at the University of Southern Mississippi compared the political and moral views of more than 35,000 people from a 2008 survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

They found that voters, regardless of religious affiliations, were divided politically according to their basic beliefs in the source of moral truth:

  • On the right were people who believe morality is absolute and comes from God.
  • In the center, were people who see morality as absolute but determined by scientific or rational thought.
  • On the left, voters see morality as relative — based on the values of individuals or groups.

“The familiar divides we see in American politics are hardly superficial, but instead reflect fundamental differences in the ways individuals acquire and conceptualize moral knowledge,” Hare said.

In another study, Hare and colleagues found that voter surveys tend to understate the polarization of the U.S. electorate because voters — liberal and conservative alike — tend to place themselves in the middle of the political spectrum.

— Kathleen Holder, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science