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Beyond left and right: how political identity influences happiness

Date:26 February 2019
Econ 050 is a podcast on the economics and finance research that matters to Groningen and the wider world, presented by Traci White.
Econ 050 is a podcast on the economics and finance research that matters to Groningen and the wider world, presented by Traci White.

In municipal elections across the north in 2018, left wing and local issue-based parties performed especially well. In the city of Groningen, there was a far left swing: the liberal D66 party had the biggest share of votes before election day, but the green party, GroenLinks, wound up being the big winners this time around. In America, the midterms also saw a strong shift toward the democrats. So what sorts of issues would matter to the voters who cast their ballots for these parties?

Maite Lameris, PhD candidate and lecturer at the Faculty of Economics and Business, has been working on research on new ways to see how a person’s political values correspond with how happy they are and how they vote. She explains her research in this episode of Econ 050, a podcast made in collaboration with the Northern Times.

On why left wing or right wing are poor descriptors:

Maite Lameris: If you use only left or right to describe someone's political view, you are kind of assuming that people are left or right on all topics, right? So economic topics but also social topics, or what we call open versus closed topics, so immigration and all kinds of topics that are really booming now with Trump and with the PVV here in the Netherlands. So it kind of assumes that these beliefs are mutually exclusive. You are either left or you are right, and that’s it on every single issue. But usually, left or right covers only one of these issues. So for example, I’m more right wing when it comes to economic issues, but I would consider myself more leftwing in social terms, so if I talk about the freedom of individuals, all these kinds of things, if I have to say that I am left or right if someone asks me, then I would probably say I'm center, which is not necessarily true, it’s just cross pressure, or I would just say I'm right, but what I mean is that I’m actually right on economic issues. So if we don't really have more variation in this, it's very difficult to see what people want people's political preferences are.

What are the dimensions of political identity?

Lameris: One of these dimensions, we call it economic equality. It's about redistribution: are you in favour of redistribution or not, would you prefer labour unions to protect around of workers.

The second dimension market and efficiencies, so it's more the libertarian part, so it is more about how we should leave the economy and the market be as it is, we shouldn't regulate, and small government is part of this preference.

Then we have one called self-determination, which is more about social issues, so it's about individual freedom, can I choose whatever I want, can I choose my own life path or should it be limited in some way. So this would be the social liberalism part, it you want to give it a name, one of the –isms.

And then we have the last one, which we call openness. This kind of captures open versus closed policies economically and socially. It’s a bit like contemporary populism, so it’s protectionism and protecting the domestic economy, but also not letting in any immigrants. So it kind of captures this new contemporary populism.

On why right wing voters are generally happier than left wing voters:

White: [Your research found that] right wing or conservative voters are happier than left wing liberal voters, largely due to the fact that right wing voters are, generally speaking, less in favour of economic equality than left wing voters. So what does that mean, exactly? Does that mean that the people who are more rightwing assume that most people are relatively equal, economically, or that they don't really care if anyone else is economically equal, or neither of those?

Lameris: So it's not because they think that there is equality. That's not what they think. They know that this is not the case. Saying that they don’t care might be a bit too harsh. I would be inclined to argue that it's more that they don't consider this as influencing your happiness. So what we did in our research, we just showed that this is the case, that if you answered on our survey that you're left wing, then you are less happy than those people who say that they are right wing. But there is quite a lot of research on happiness and explaining what is actually behind this is relationship, and they usually argue that whereas left wingers are more inclined to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders and they consider everyone for their happiness, right wingers only consider their own situation and they’re more self-interested in that sense, so they don't really take it into convert. Left wing people are more likely to see society and see that some people are not doing well or living in poverty, and that there is a lot of inequality and they consider this as part of their happiness.

White: So that kind of sounds like ignorance is bliss, or almost like wilful ignorance, kind of like if it doesn't personally bother me then that doesn't influence my happiness because my happiness is up to me whereas maybe a more liberal worldview is thinking if other people are unhappy or unhappy then that also influences my standing?

Lameris: It might be putting rightwing people in a position that they shouldn’t be. I don't think that's necessarily the case, it’s not that they don't care, it's just that they don't consider it. And might be also originating from the fact that right wing people are more inclined to view someone's life situation as being a result of talent and effort. You've put effort in and therefore you are where you are.