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«Up to this point, I have been primarily concerned with how individuals apply gen- eral moral values to specific political attitudes. In Chapter 1, I ...»

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Chapter 4: Moral Representation

Brad Jones

18 August 2015

Up to this point, I have been primarily concerned with how individuals apply gen-

eral moral values to specific political attitudes. In Chapter 1, I argued that moral values

precede rational considerations and are the raw materials from which (many) political

attitudes are built. After an extended methodological diversion in Chapter 2 discussing

the measurement of these moral values, Chapter 3 showed that measures of individuals’ moral foundations can do a great deal of work in explaining variation in political atti- tudes. This is obvious when we look at the moral divide between partisans of each of the major political parties, but moral diversity within each of the major parties can explain the sometimes uncomfortable alliances that exist between people who are nominally “on the same side.” In short, the dissertation to this point has offered compelling evidence that individual political attitudes are a reflection of more deeply held moral predispositions.

In this chapter, I change my focus from the individual level to the aggregate level. If it is true that general moral principles account for differences between individuals as I showed in Chapter 3, it should also be the case that these differences add up to aggre- gate effects. Do aggregates of individuals with their own unique moral priorities exert measurable influence on their political representatives? The larger story that I am try- ing to tell in this project is that specific political attitudes are built upon intuitions about “rightness” and “wrongness” that constitute fundamental disagreements. Political elites have incentives to mobilize these basic concerns in the ways in which they frame political issues (as I will discuss more in the next chapter), and these attempts to structure politics around intuitive moral divides should show up in elite behavior like position taking.

I will take up the question of how basic moral values affect public policy by looking at how variation in moral priorities across congressional districts affects congressional behavior. To do so, I will first need to construct measures of the moral foundations at the congressional district level. I employ a model based strategy to generate small area estimates. This approach is similar to that proposed by Lax and Phillips (2009), but the 1 nature of the data I am using necessitate some adaptations to the method. My measures of congressional district moral foundations are built from a large (n 150,000) database of responses to the Moral Foundations Questionnaire (MFQ). The MFQ is long enough1 that it is rarely included in nationally representative surveys. The database that I rely upon makes no claims of representativeness, but my model attempts to account for the selection bias in the data and produce adjusted measures that are reflective of the general population.

After demonstrating the face validity of my measures of the moral foundations at the congressional district level, I discuss some the challenges associated with finding real effects amidst a vast number of roll-call votes cast. It would be easy enough to find seemingly “statistically significant” effects with purely random measures given the vast number of roll-call votes that are cast during every legislative session, so I employ a nonparametric test to separate out the signal from the noise. I find that, even after controlling for district partisanship (a factor which explains over two thirds of the variance in the roll-call votes I consider here), the moral foundations are robust and significant factors in a substantial number of cases. The roll-call voting behavior of members of Congress regularly shows responsiveness to the moral considerations of their constituents.

Moral Representation Recently, political scientists have devoted a lot of attention to the ways in which political polarization potentially distorts representation. For example, Bafumi and Herron (2010) scale constituents and legislators into the same ideological space and show a substantial gap between representatives from both parties and almost every person in the mass public. When party control shifts in a district, the hapless citizenry is “leapfrogged” by increasingly extreme legislators. In a polarized political climate, it would seem that there is little hope for the average citizen to have her interests represented in congress.

The story is perhaps not so bleak as painted by Bafumi and Herron. After all, one notable difference between average citizens and the legislators who represent them is that the latter are embedded within institutions designed to shape their behavior along a partisan dimension (Cox and McCubbins, 2005). The average citizen is not nearly so constrained in her opinions about specific issues (Converse, 2006). Indeed, as I argue 1 I actually combine responses from 3 different versions of the MFQ. A “short” 20-item measure, the standard 30-item measure as described by citegraham2011mapping that contains the 20-item measure, and a longer 48-item measure that contains the 30-item measure and adds a few more items. See Chapter 2 for more details about the use of these different scales.

2 in Chapter 2, individual preferences on political issues are shaped in large part by their moral intuitions,2 and these multidimensional predispositions cannot be cleanly divided into two camps. In a legislature however, one of the primary roles of the institution is to reduce the dimensionality of conflict thus making constructive legislative action possible (Shepsle and Weingast, 1981; Aldrich, 2011; Jones, Talbert and Potoski, 2003).





My contention in this chapter is that there is something more going on than just a left-right divide in congressional voting. Despite (or perhaps because of) the overwhelming pressure of the institution to structure conflict along a small number of dimensions, election-minded politicians will seek out opportunities to represent their constituents’ moral concerns that are not so neatly structured. They are constrained in significant ways by the congressional agenda, but if they are acting in accordance with their constituents’ moral concerns, we ought to be able to detect systematic deviations from the predominant unidimensional pattern that we see in almost all votes.

In this chapter, I am arguing that political elites, in order to succeed in reelection, must become intuitive moral psychologists. Politicians should be selected for their ability to capitalize on the underlying value structure in the electorate, and the system should come to be oriented around these enduring values. Under this view, the structure of individual-level values operates as a significant constraint on elite behavior. At the elite strategy level, we should observe elites operating under constraints placed upon them by the moral concerns of their district. Elite appeals and position-taking behavior should be targeted at the particular concerns of the average voter in their districts.

Given the overwhelming explanatory power of one (or maybe two) dimensions in explaining legislative decision making in the United States (Poole, 2005), it is perhaps surprising that there should be room for anything else in models of elite vote choice. In the contemporary Congress, rates of party-line voting are extremely high and the ideological distance between the two parties is wide and enduring. My measures of the moral foundations of each congressional district can only be plausibly extended back in time to around 2007. During this period, a simple bivariate probit model with district partisanship3 correctly predicts 90% of the voting decisions in an average roll-call vote.4 In almost 2 Although, the most engaged segment of the populace does seem to let partisanship trump moral intuitions at least some of the time.

3 In this chapter, when I refer to “district partisanship,” I am referring to the two-party vote for president in a member’s district in the presidential election preceding the vote. For example, when the dependent variable is a vote that occurred in 2009, the district partisanship variable is defined as the proportion of the vote that went to Obama in the 2008 election excluding minor party candidates.

4 At several points in this chapter, I will refer to the proportion of votes that were “correctly predicted.” For my purposes, correctly predicted refers to cases where the predicted probability of voting “yea” was greater than 0.5 and the legislator actually voted “yea,” or conversely the predicted probability of voting 3 15 percent of the votes (925), district partisanship cleanly separates the “yea” votes from the “nays” with no errors.

In the subset of votes that I examine in this chapter,5 accounting only for the partisan complexion of a legislator’s district (as measured by the two-party presidential vote in his or her district) explains more than two-thirds of the variation on average. For some votes, the explanatory power of district partisanship exceeds 80%. The contemporary U.S. Congress presents a difficult case for discovering any additional factors in roll-call voting.

Our understanding of legislative institutions suggests when these moral factors might be relevant. Legislators who find themselves in the majority party should be more constrained along the single dominant dimension. Legislators in the minority are relatively more free to act in accordance with their constituents’ demands. Fortunately (at least for the purposes of understanding the process), party control switched hands dramatically during the period of my study. The cases I examine span the 110th through 113th congresses. During the 110th and 111th congress, Democrats held majority control of the House. The 2010 election saw a dramatic reversal in fortunes for the Democratic party, and the 112th and 113th congresses had Republican majorities. This variation in party control allows a deeper look into the factors that contribute to legislative decision making.

Moral Foundations Theory In this chapter and elsewhere,6 I operationalize the moral priorities of individuals by their scores on the Moral Foundations Questionnaire. Moral Foundations Theory describes a small set of universal moral concerns that are found to varying degrees in all people.

The theory was proposed by Jonathan Haidt (2001) and others (Haidt and Graham, 2007;

Graham, Haidt and Nosek, 2009; Haidt, 2012; Koleva et al., 2012). Haidt’s conceptualization of moral values builds from cross-cultural psychology, anthropology, philosophy, and even primatology. He and his colleagues describe a set of moral intuitions that are common to all humans. The most recent iteration of the theory asserts that five foundayea” was less than 0.5 and the legislator actually voted “nay.” 5 For reasons that I will detail below, I am looking only at intraparty variation in votes where there was substantial division within the party.

6 This section of the chapter was adapted from a longer introduction in Chapter 1 to introduce the reader to Moral Foundations Theory if this is the only chapter that is read. Careful readers of Chapter 1 and the present section will note many similarities.

4 tions7 (Care/Harm, Fairness/ Reciprocity, Loyalty/Betrayal, Respect/Subversion, Sanctity/Degradation) can account for a great deal of the commonalities and the variance that we observe between and within cultures across the world. Haidt, Graham, and Joseph (2009) use the metaphor of an equalizer as is found on a home stereo system; individuals have different settings on the equalizer that are partially determined by biological factors and partially culturally determined. Individual differences across the moral foundations account for differential moral judgments. In Western cultures, they have found that political liberals tend to emphasize the Care/Harm and Fairness/Reciprocity foundations while political conservatives seem to place relatively more weight on all five foundations (2009, 113). In practice, this means liberals and conservatives often find it difficult to understand one another, as they are speaking different moral languages. The foundations are listed, along with brief descriptions and associated concepts from the political science literature in Table 1.

7 Haidt’s most recent work (2012) proposes a sixth foundation, “Liberty/Oppression.” However in most of the data that I have access to, I only have reliable measures of the five foundations most frequently associated with Moral Foundations Theory in the literature. Well-tested measures of this sixth foundation do not yet exist, and I remain somewhat skeptical that it qualifies as a moral foundation in its present incarnation.

–  –  –

Table 1: Descriptions of each moral foundation and some associated concepts. The descriptions were taken from www.moralfoundations.org.

Measurement My empirical study of the ways in which constituent moral values influence congressional behavior requires measures of constituent moral concern at the congressional district level. In constructing these small-area estimates of the moral foundations, I draw on a large database of responses to the Moral Foundations Questionnaire collected by Ravi Iyer, Jonathan Haidt, and their colleagues at the website www.yourmorals.org (hereafter “YourMorals” data). The data in this paper were collected between June 2007 and May

2013. After filling out some limited demographic and geographic information, individuals filled out the moral foundations questionnaire and had the option of completing other studies at the website. Respondents who filled out the moral foundations questionnaire were self-selected and many came to the website after reading a newspaper editorial or blog post mentioning the research.8 The database includes responses from more than 150,000 people. Although the data do not constitute representative sample of the population, people from all across the country and of every political persuasion can be found in the database.



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