Success, Faith, and Politics

March 28, 2012, 5:38 PM GMT+0

Previously, I wrote about the divide between liberals and conservatives over the value of college: liberals are far more likely than conservatives (by 20 percentage points) to believe that college is important to financial success.

Since then, I've been asked by several people, "then what do conservatives believe is important to financial success"? I have an answer to this question and, like opinions about college, politics is shaping opinion. On the same YouGov survey that I asked about college, I asked about the importance of two other factors that might contribute to success.

So, if liberals are almost twice as likely as conservatives to attribute financial success to a college education, to what do conservatives attribute financial success?

Partially to advantages bestowed by being born to successful parents.

The income of a person's parents is a very good, perhaps the best, predictor of future financial success. And in a rare, bipartisan show of agreement with the facts, a majority of both liberals (70%) and conservatives (57%) agree that a parent's financial success is, at least, "somewhat important" to a person's financial success.

But there is a divide in emphasis: only 19% of conservatives say that the financial success of a person's parents is "very important" to financial success. This is less than the percent of conservatives (28%) that say it is "neither important nor unimportant". Liberals are flipped on this question, with 33% saying it "very important" and 17% saying "neither important nor unimportant".

Of course, a reasonable debate could be had about how much the financial success of parent's actually causes financial success, rather than simply being correlated with it. However, this debate would likely be of little consequence here - because it is really a debate of political ideology that underlies the disagreement between liberals and conservatives: the divide over the importance of parents, like many other opinion divides, is likely a reflection of the ideology and influence of political elites.

But, if you really want to see the influence of elite ideology on divisions in public opinion, look to where we see the single greatest divide over what contributes to financial success: God.

When I asked whether faith in God was important to financial success, liberals and conservatives divide more sharply than in attributing success to any other cause. While 57% of conservatives say faith is at least somewhat important, only 23% of liberals say the same. Moreover, 25% of conservatives say faith is very important to success, but only 8% of liberals. And in the biggest divide, while 44% of liberals will say that faith is "not important at all" to financial success, only 8% of conservatives will say the same. This means that liberals are more than 5 times more likely than conservatives to say that faith plays no role in financial success. Keep in mind that this divide exists even if I statistically control for how often the respondent attends church.

Unless a large portion of conservatives happen to know wealthy preachers, their opinion is not likely to be built on a rational assessment of what really drives success. But this does not imply that the negative assessments of the importance of faith by liberals are driven by a careful assessment of what really contributes to success either. Instead, my hunch is that these responses reflect political ideology. Liberals are choosing not to make success about faith because of the political connotation of that attribution - in the same way that conservatives self-consciously choose to make success about faith and not about institutions that they have come to associate with liberals, like college.

That liberals and conservatives are closer together when it comes to the importance of parents than they are when it comes to the importance of faith likely reflects the political ambivalence associated with attributing success to parents: on the one hand, conservatives probably see the importance of family as consistent with their ideology, but some more sophisticated conservatives know that this question has political overtones. For liberals - it is probably easy for everyone to be behind the importance of family, but it becomes even easier when a person realizes that the question has political implications. This can be seen in the relationship between the importance one ascribes to parents and the level of education of a survey respondent. Survey respondents with a college education are the most likely to be engaged in politics, to have strong political ideologies, and the most likely to recognize the importance of parents as a political issue. As such, it is among the college educated that we should see the strongest relationship between ideology and opinion. And for the college educated, the statistical relationship between political ideology and opinions about the importance of parent's is very strong. For those with a high school education or below - those likely not engaged with politics - political ideology is not statistically related at all to their thinking about the importance of parents.

Demonstrating the powerful influence of politics on these opinions is that this same relationship between education and ideology exists even when the question is the importance of faith to financial success. While for both high and low education individuals, conservatives are more likely to believe that faith is important financial success - the statistical relationship is more than twice as strong for high education individuals. This means that highly educated individuals, those likely to follow politics closely and to be influenced by the opinion of political elites, are the most likely to attribute financial success to religious faith. Let me underscore this point - it is not the uneducated, "unwashed" masses that are putting their faith in religion for financial success - it is the college educated. And it is not because these people found God in college - it is because they found politics.