Discover more from The Path Not Taken
What's driving social justice ideology? The US and UK compared
Increasingly, researchers have better data on social justice ideology (some call this ‘woke’, though I dislike the term). This week, the British Election Study (BES), a large panel study of British voters, published a wave which includes a battery of items on social justice ideology. When analysed with data from the 2020 American National Election Study (ANES), this enables analysis of the demographic and economic drivers of the ideology. As I have written before, this is a crucial endeavour.
For our purposes, we must note issues with the datasets. On BES, certain items measure differences between conservative and liberal positions on culture war issues – for example, one item asks whether (not how!) statues of slave traders should be taken down - rather than differences between liberal and social justice positions. ANES has similar problems, though two correlated items on freedom of speech and transgender self-identification enable (exploratory) measurement of social justice values.
Data suggest differences between Britain and the US. In Britain, age seems to be the key predictor of social justice values, younger voters being more sympathetic. In the US, sex seems to be key, female voters being more sympathetic. Education does not appear to be a major predictor. In table 2, it does not achieve statistical significance.
Table 1: Predictors of social justice values among British left-liberals (standardized coefficients)
One obtains these results in full samples (i.e. all voters), yet they hold in subsamples of voters who identify as left-liberal. Whilst the results reflect broader pressures in Britain and the US – in the former, Brexit made age a major cleavage; in the latter, topics such as abortion have made sex a major cleavage – they are indicative of more complex processes.
Table 2: Predictors of social justice values among American left-liberals (standardized coefficients)
In both countries, analysis of left-liberal positions on traditional liberal issues reveals interesting results. Among US left-liberals, female sex seems to be negatively correlated with support for the separation of powers and press freedoms. Among British left-liberals, age predicts opposition to the death penalty (if one adds appropriate controls). In other words, left-liberal support for social justice values follows a distinct pattern, rather than the regular liberal-authoritarian dimension.
Other sources are consistent with this. In an excellent paper, Cardiff psychologists develop a Progressive Values Scale (PVS) which distinguishes between liberal and social justice values and finds that, as in ANES, female sex is the main predictor of social justice values among American left-liberals, youth being secondary.
We might reflect on alternative drivers. Many scholars favour economic explanations of change, reflecting the influence of Marxian frameworks and the greater ease of estimating economic causes. But recently, economic drivers have a poor record; voluminous literature on right-populism shows that demographic factors are more important than economic factors, even if the latter can be important.
Is this the case with social justice ideology? In the US and Britain, negative evaluations of the economy predict social justice attitudes (see tables 1 and 2), even controlling for government approval. This makes sense; in recent years, young people have been excluded from labour and housing markets, increasing the appeal of radical ideologies.
However, macroeconomic data provides less support. Though US county unemployment predicts social justice attitudes among a full sample, this is not significant in a subsample of left-liberals and, among this group, county GDP growth even predicts support for the ideology.
We are at an early stage, yet I would not be surprised if, as with right-populism, demographic variables emerge as more important. After all, right-populism and social justice ideology primarily concern culture and identity; compared to economic ideologies, economic drivers should be less strong.
Institutional theory sheds further light on these issues. The limited salience of economic explanations poses an extra challenge to institutional theorists; when the economy is an exogenous, disrupting force – in many areas which institutional theorists study, the economy indeed plays such a role – one need not worry about how endogenous change takes place. Therefore, the case of social justice ideology (and right-populism) makes one reflect on the nature of internal change.
Whilst demographic changes may be slow, gradual developments can have profound consequences. Arguably, the deep changes of the summer of 2020 would not have been possible without the incremental feminization of US public life. Over decades, the entry of women into workforces revolutionized cultures, the extent of the changes only becoming manifest on the outbreak of crisis. In institutional terms, Gerschewski calls this an endogenous rupture, potential for such ruptures being embedded within long-term institutional logics.
We should be glad to see more data on social justice ideology. As I have argued, the ideology remains under researched, particularly compared to right-populism. Whilst there is certain resistance to this agenda, some academics denying differences between liberalism and social justice ideology, such opposition may become unfeasible.
Sources such as BES and the Progressive Values Scale demonstrate key differences between support for liberalism and social justice ideology. Potentially, this represents a new dimension of political conflict, complementing the economic dimension and (traditional) cultural dimension. It may be here to stay.
If you enjoyed reading this, do think about subscribing! Subscription is free – all it means is that you’ll receive a weekly email. But every new subscriber makes me very happy 😊 😊 😊