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How Much Does Political Affiliation Reveal about Character?

Does it matter if your child's partner disagrees with you politically?

Jonathan Chait published an article this morning at the New York magazine's website about how he, a Democrat, would not like his child to marry a Republican. The entire piece is well worth reading, but I think the last paragraph sums up both what I agree and disagree with about it:

There are millions of Americans who think it’s okay to deny legal citizens their voting rights or force them to go without health insurance. Those people live in a different moral universe than I do. They’re not necessarily bad people. (Lord knows the people who agree with me on those things are not all good.) But, yes, I believe their political views reflect something unflattering about their character.

I agree that political views reflect something about character, but I disagree that they tell us much about character. Specifically, overly simplistic, black-and-white characterizations of abstract political views tell us almost nothing about a individual person's character.

For example, the two issues he uses as examples, voter ID and health reform, are incredibly nuanced and complex issues, and whether someone agrees with Chait on a "yay-or-nay" question regarded them reveals almost nothing about his or her character. As I wrote in an earlier post:

Consider any topic of heated debate today, such as healthcare, abortion, or immigration: all sides in these issues believe in some idea of justice, equality, and liberty, but they interpret, balance, and implement them differently. The Hobby Lobby case, argued recently [at the time] before the Supreme Court, ultimately comes down to issues of religious liberty, fairness (or justice) in health care provision and financing, and equality of treatment and consideration. Most everyone on both sides of this issue agree that both religious and reproductive freedom should be respected to some extent. They differ only over which ideal takes precedence in which cases, especially when payment and provision are concerned. No one is really trying to “destroy religion” or “withhold contraception,” and this emotional rhetoric only serves to obscure the real issues at the heart of the debate and prevent any real compromise or consolidation.

People may support or oppose voter ID for many different reasons, some more valid or informed than others. Delving into those reasons, exploring how a person balances the various concerns relevant to the issue, and hashing them out—after all that, it might be possible to discern something about a person's character. But all of that nuance and complexity goes out the window if you judge a person based solely on his or her responses in the ballot box and on an online poll, and conclude based on differing responses that you live in different "moral universes."

One way to explore these nuances in a person's values is to discuss politics over the dinner table. But you have to let them in the door first.

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For a select list of my previous Psychology Today posts sorted by topic, see here.

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