Many people mistaken about their own political beliefs

Posted by mjs76 at Jul 14, 2010 05:25 PM |
New research from Leicester academic shows some conservatives think they are liberal.

When Louis XVI convened the estates-general, an assembly of representatives from across France, in 1789, the nobility and aristocracy - the ‘Second Estate’ - sat on the King’s right. All the merchants, lawyers, doctors, magistrates and other representatives of the remaining 97% of the population - the ‘Third Estate’ - sat on his left. (The First Estate was the clergy.)

The estates-general of 1789 fell apart in acrimony, leading to the French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon and so on. But it did leave us one important legacy: the political concepts of ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’, by which personal and party politics have been defined ever since.

Dr James Rockey from our Department of Economics, has been doing some fascinating research into the concepts of left-wing and right-wing views. Or, more specifically, whether people think they are left-wing or right-wing.

You would think folk would know, wouldn’t you? But Dr Rockey’s research shows that many people who consider themselves to be a bit leftie actually have quite conservative views. The figures vary by age, sex, education and other factors, but one likely explanation is that people who were quite definitely left-wing in their outlook when young drift across the political spectrum as they get older, but don’t think to adjust their party political allegiance.

Dr Rockey used data from the World Values Survey (WVS), a massive, ongoing ‘comprehensive investigation of political and sociocultural change’. Tens of thousands of people in more than 80 countries were surveyed in five waves between 1981 and 2008, giving researchers an absolutely enormous dataset from which to extract statistics. By phrasing questions in terms of ten-point scales, the data is quantifiable, while the many lifestyle questions allow variables to be highligfhted or ironed out.

The WVS data allowed Dr Rockey to compare what people thought in principle:

In political matters, people talk of ‘the left’ and ’the right’. How would you place your views on this scale, generally speaking?

With their actual principles:

‘Incomes should be made more equal’ vs ‘We need larger income differences as incentives’. How would you place your views on this scale?

And the result, as outlined in his newly published paper Who is left-wing, and who just thinks they are? (PDF), is that a lot of people believe they would have sat on one side of Louis XVI in the Salle des etats when in fact their current political beliefs would place them on the other side of the hall.