Bryan Caplan  

The Respect Motive

EconLog Book Club Round-up: Revealed Preference...
Consider a simple model of voter behavior:

People vote for whoever respects them more.

My immediate reaction: This Respect Motive is a roughly accurate description of over half the electorate.  Furthermore, it's hard to name any socially recognized group whose members do not usually vote for whoever respects that group more.

Example: Consider this analysis of the demographics of the last U.S. presidential election.  Romney got a majority of the following:

  • Whites in general
  • People with income>$50k
  • Whites under 30
  • White women
  • Independents

Obama got a majority of the following:

  • Non-whites
  • People with income<$50k
  • Non-whites under 30
  • Non-white women

In terms of objective material well-being, it's unclear whether Romney or Obama would be better for any of these groups.  In terms of respect, though, the difference seems pretty obvious.  At least to me.

This doesn't mean that Romney is racist, or that Obama hates the rich.  My claim, rather, is simply that Romney doesn't respect non-whites as much as Obama does, and Obama doesn't respect the rich as much as Romney does.

Got any counter-examples?  I'm listening.

COMMENTS (24 to date)
Anon. writes:

Would be interesting to know what the breakdown was education-wise.

Sonic Charmer writes:

I think this relies on an idiosyncratic definition of 'respect'. Does making a whole class of people your wards constitute 'respect' for those people? If so, sure, this theory explains a lot of voting on all sides. I would probably modify the theory by changing the word 'respect' to something else though.

Brian Moore writes:

I think this is roughly accurate, except I'd add the caveat that it's only perceived, conventional wisdom "respect" that matters.

But it makes sense: our brains aren't really wired for the vast, disconnected, impersonal system that is politics. So it renders it down into things that would make sense back in the day: "which caveperson (out of the 30 in our group) should we allow to wield more power? Well, in my personal interactions with Thag, he seemed to respect me and consider me prestigious, so let's go with him."

steve writes:

(R) seem infatuated with jews. I also dont see any respect for asians coming from (D).

Glen writes:

I would substitute "pretends to care about" for "respects."

steve writes:

I guess conservative parties are incapable of "respecting" latinos. Why else would there be so few of them in latin america?

Gallego writes:

steve, there is so few polar foxes in Latin America; does that mean that polar foxes are incapable of respecting Latinos?

MikeP writes:

How do you distinguish between "respect" and "pander to in order to get their vote"?

Phil writes:

Why don't the Republicans try a strategy of showing respect for blacks? They could easily frame their policy differences as having more respect, rather than less, couldn't they?

Sonic Charmer writes:


How do you distinguish between "respect" and "pander to in order to get their vote"?

Perhaps the point here is, 'If voters themselves won't, why should we?'

Matt S writes:

Romney respects independents more than Obama does? a) what does that even mean, b) why don't I have any intuition in that direction before I look at the election results page?

This whole endeavor is lost until "respect" is much more clearly defined (without reference to the election results to avoid circularity).

mike writes:

"...Obama doesn't respect the rich as much as Romney does..."

The rich? By that do you mean your aforementioned "People with income>$50k"?

Are you really defining "the rich" as whites over 30 years old making more than $50K?

Pat writes:

I am going to mangle English here. I think voters pick the type person they respect least and vote against whoever that person supports.

For example, I think there are a decent number of economic conservatives who aren't really that worried about creationism being taught in their school but still can't bring themselves to be in a voting coalition with a creationist.

Tom writes:

I already believed in "politics is not about policy", but the reaction I saw told me that it was particularly true for this election.

Lewis writes:

In Alabama, some African Americans supported George Wallace in his run for president and later in his gubernatorial races after he said he was sorry for being stridently, even primarily racist. I just ran a google search and came up with this gem:

MingoV writes:

I don't think perceived respect from the candidates has anything to do with voting decisions in the recent presidential election.

African-Americans voted for Obama because he looked like them, not because Obama respected them. (He doesn't; he just uses them.) Others voted for Obama because he was the Democratic candidate. Some voted for him based on his appearance and his speaking skills.

Romney got most of his votes because he was the Republican candidate or because he was not Obama. He got some votes from people who liked him.

I doubt that more than 100 people voted for either candidate because they were convinced that candidate respected them.

Floccina writes:

Obama won big among Asians, I doubt that he respects them more than Romney does. How about Jews clearly they are respected more by Romney, did he win their votes?

Maximum Liberty writes:

Many commenters have said some version of "Candidate X doesn't really respect group Y."

I don't think that is professor Caplan's point. I think what he really meant was not actual respect, but a signal of respect. Two key points there: (1) the candidate's actual subjective intention is not relevant to the statements or actions with which he signals and (2) what is a signal depends on how it is perceived by the target group.


Chris H writes:

The Asian example has been brought up a few times but I'm not sure how that's relevant to this model. While Obama may not have talked about Asian-Americans much neither did Romney to my knowledge. Did I miss something there? If neither candidate bothered giving a particular group much respect then we would have to expect other factors would influence that group's vote. I don't see anyone claiming this is the sole determinate of voting behavior.

Now I don't remember Obama talking about Asians very much (except when he was China bashing, which Romney did even more than Obama), but he was rhetorically more pro-immigrant than Romney. If Asians are identifying themselves with the "immigrant" group then Obama did give them more rhetorical respect than Romney did.

Sonic Charmer writes:

I think what he really meant was not actual respect, but a signal of respect.

Perhaps. In that case it's odd that the post's author didn't just say what he meant.

Joey Donuts writes:

Instead of respect, perhaps lack of disrespect would explain the results. Romney's remark that the 47% of voters that don't pay income taxes wouldn't vote for him signals disrespect (perhaps) maybe those voters perceived a signal of disrespect.

Republicans are more likely to be pro-Israel. Many of the Jewish voters who were most inclined to listen to Republicans responded by moving to Israel. If Israel were an American state, Romney would have carried it.

As for Asians, my best guess is that this might have been due to both parties running against "out sourcing." This can be heard as being either anti-business or anti-foreign. Republicans are not seen as being anti-business.

Jim Glass writes:

You have a serious direction-of-causality issue here.

Does each candidate succeed in attracting the support of the group he respects more?

Or, with a two-party system, does the population necessarily break into two near even-sized political groupings, with each nominating the candidate *it* most prefers -- whom *it* respects more, if you will.

I'd say it is pretty plainly mostly the latter. And that makes the fact that they select and then support someone who respects them a pretty trivial level finding.

After all, is any political group going to select, nominate and support a candidate who *doesn't* respect them?

"Republicans for Krugman!"

Lawrence D'Anna writes:

Yup. Politics is mostly about identity and group status, not policy.

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