Politics has seeped into every corner of our lives. Even announcements once thought above rank partisanship, such as states letting voters mail their ballots this fall and the death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic, now ignite accusations of political bias. Research by Harvard economists finds that politics don’t just influence people’s attitudes about economic issues and policies, it shapes their perceptions of verifiable reality.
Studies of Republicans and Democrats, as well as Trump voters and non-Trump voters, found that people with opposing political views don’t simply see issues like income inequality through different lenses, those beliefs distort their basic understanding of the issues themselves even though accurate information is readily available, according to a working paper by Alberto Alesina, Nathaniel Ropes Professor of Political Economy; Armando Miano, a doctoral candidate; and Stefanie Stantcheva, a professor of economics. Alesina, a pioneer in the field of political economy, died of an apparent heart attack on May 23 at age 63.
“All of this started with a push to really try to understand what’s in people’s heads,” said Stantcheva. The group decided to look at what drives people to support or oppose policies intended to reduce income and wealth inequality, like a progressive tax system, social insurance, and help for low-income families. “One thing that we’ve been doing a lot is to study what we can observe … like what people actually do, what people learn, and what people decide. What we really have not known until now so much is: What’s going on in the background? How do people think about their decisions? How do they decide which policies to support or not? How do they reason about these?”
Understanding those underlying assumptions is harder than it first appears. Political opinions are formed based on a confluence of external and internal factors, and they can shift over time.
The team first developed online surveys designed to elicit respondents’ political perceptions, values, and beliefs. They then asked thousands to share their views on social mobility, inequality, and immigration, three topics known to directly influence opinions on progressive economic policies, such as the redistribution of wealth.
No surprise, Republicans and Democrats had different views about many things, such as how hard it is to achieve the “American dream,” whether the country should adopt a different tax system to give more people a larger share of the national income, and how much the government is to blame for rising inequality.