Although there are a number of qualities that people feel children should have, every person thinks that some are more important than others.

I am going to read you pairs of desirable qualities. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have.

1. Independence versus respect for elders

2. Obedience versus self-reliance

3. Curiosity versus good manners

4. Being considerate versus being well-behaved

How you answer those four questions can predict a lot about you: whether you’re more likely to live in the city or the suburbs, to watch The Amazing Race or Mad Men, to eat at Red Lobster or Goorsha, to name your daughter Katherine or Louise, to go to church or Sunday brunch, to pursue higher education or not, to drink a Michelob Ultra or a Trophy Cloud Surfer IPA, to drive a GMC Yukon or a Toyota Prius. 

More important, how you answer says a whole lot about your politics.

That’s the thesis behind Prius or Pickup? How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide, the new book from University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler. Those who pick traits centered on order—respect for elders, obedience, having good manners, being well-behaved—have a “fixed” worldview, and are more likely to harbor racial prejudice and support politicians like Donald Trump. Those who go other way are said to have “fluid” worldviews and are likely to have supported Hillary Clinton. (As we’ll see, lots of caveats apply, and most people fall somewhere in the middle.)

Prius is something of a layperson’s follow-up to Hetherington and Weiler’s first joint publication, 2009’s Authoritarianism & Polarization in American Politics, which showed that the Republican Party was unified less by small-government principles than by authoritarian tendencies—a proclivity toward maintaining a social order that conservatives believe is under threat. Prius, which is mercifully lighter on statistics (and ditches the pejorative-sounding “authoritarian” for the nicer “fixed”), expands on this concept for the Trump era.

In the process, it offers a cogent—and discomfitingly convincing—argument for why everything in our political system seems irreparably shattered. Since the civil rights movement, they write, our political system has become fundamentally polarized by these worldview divides. That, in turn, has led each side to distrust, even hate, the other, to the point where we don’t just consider our opponents wrong but dangerous. On the right, this polarization congealed around Donald Trump, a politician who speaks to the authoritarian worldview better than any in a generation, and—most dangerously—has led his partisans to shrug aside attacks on the free press, the rule of law, and other democratic norms.

Politics, Hetherington and Weiler argue, has become less about issues than our gut reactions.  As Hetherington puts it, “We have what is not an ideological polarization per se, but rather what we call an effect of a feeling-based polarization. … We’d believe anything about our political opponents. This is the perniciousness of this particular divide.”

I interviewed Hetherington and Weiler at length last week in Chapel Hill. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation, edited for space and clarity. Starting Wednesday evening, you can find the entire interview on our podcast, INDYcast, which you can download on Apple Podcasts or listen to at

INDY: Your first book came out in 2009, about the time the Tea Party emerged. It seemed prescient, because this was a group ostensibly organized around economic principles, but there was a cultural undertone to it. Why did you come to think that authoritarianism was such an organizing principle of conservatism?

HETHERINGTON: One of the reasons I think people misunderstand the politics of this moment is they’re still thinking about ideology in the same way they did during the New Deal—that the Republicans are really the anti-government party and the Democrats are the pro-government party. That’s not really the case anymore. What we noted was this cascade of issues, from race to law and order to women’s equality to sexual orientation, all of them were knitted together by one thing, and that is a concern about social change, not economic change or anything along those lines. These groups—whether it was feminists or African Americans or any of these groups—they were all pressing the established hierarchy for new opportunities.

Prius argues that you can ask people four questions about child-rearing, and based on their answers, you can predict a lot of information about them. Why are these questions so important?

HETHERINGTON: It’s off the wall, in a sense, that these things work the way that they do, but the questions are directed to people’s understanding of what makes a good child. What makes a good child is a pretty fundamental thing to who we are as human beings, so that’s probably a really important start to things. These are the questions that we asked to deduce the degree to which people are fixed in their worldview. They’re maybe more traditional—“respect” and “obedience” and “good behavior.” Or if their worldviews are more fluid, those would be people who favor independent children who are curious. What we show throughout the book is that the answers to these questions predict very well people’s opinions about gay rights, people’s racial attitudes, people’s opinions about immigration, people’s opinions about gender roles, people’s opinions about gun control, people’s opinions about constitutional and biblical interpretation, people’s opinions about basically everything that divides us deeply.

It doesn’t tell us anything about how big government ought to be, and that’s what’s important here. A different kind of ideology divided us about those things. But the things that we reasoned about in our guts as opposed to in our heads, that’s where these four items about parenting move the dial.

My sense from your work is that fixed people tend to have a greater need for order, and they see greater value in maintaining and preserving the social order.

HETHERINGTON: The thing that really unifies everything is the level of threat that people perceive in the world. What we think this really turns on is the degree to which people view the world as a dangerous place. When Donald Trump was talking about Jamal Khashoggi’s killing in the Saudi embassy in Turkey, what he started his statement with was, “The world is a very dangerous place!” He is appealing to this worldview, saying, “Things are uncertain, and any deviation from what we’re doing now—the traditional way of thinking about things—is potentially dangerous.” If you think about it in the social world—these traditions that have tied us together, whether they’re religious, or whether they’re about sexual orientation, or women’s roles, or racial hierarchy—maybe they’re not fair, but they’ve served us really well for a really long time. And it could cast us into disorder and chaos if we change any of those things.

People on the opposite side of the worldview divide—people who want independent kids who are curious and outward-looking—they view it differently. If you want your kids out there being curious and independent, you must think the world is a much safer place.

WEILER: To the extent that they—the more fluid or liberal—see a threat in the world, it’s precisely from those people who want to shut down that exploration and to prevent us from being more open to a more diverse kind of society. There’s a question on a 2016 political survey that basically asks people, “Which is closer to your understanding of reality: ‘The world is a dangerous place. It’s full of threat. We need to guard against it,’ or, ‘We live in a big, beautiful world that’s safe to explore.’” And the responses are just staggering. By sixty- to seventy-point margins, Donald Trump voters said that first view, that the world is a dangerous place. And by the exact same inverse margin, Hillary Clinton voters said that closer to their view of reality was the sense the world is a big, beautiful place safe to explore.

HETHERINGTON: Our work has always been about polarization. Why is politics so polarized if people actually don’t care all that much on the issues? If people don’t really care very much about politics, maybe they’re not necessarily extreme on the issues. But here’s the thing: What if you just completely understand the world differently from those on the other side in your guts? If you think the world is dangerous and you see people on the other side thinking, “Oh, let’s let refugees and immigrants into the country,” that’s dangerous. And those people aren’t just people you disagree with, those are people who are dangerous to the country.

And on the other side of that divide, those who are judging people without getting to know them because of the color of their skin or where they come from, those people aren’t just disagreeable. They’re dangerous, because their worldview is anathema to yours. So it’s very hard for people on opposite sides of this particular divide to understand what the other side could possibly be thinking.

In Authoritarianism & Polarization, you wrote that elections turn on people who fall in the middle—what you call “mixed”: not quite authoritarian but not not-authoritarian.

HETHERINGTON: There are a couple of things about those who are in the middle of the worldview spectrum. The first thing is their opinions about the most divisive issues in American life—whether it’s race, or immigration, or gender roles—tend to be closer to the fixed than they are to the fluid. And this gives people on the political right an advantage. When the fluid talk about things like structural racism, most people don’t get that. And this is important for liberals to realize, actually. We tend to be in our own cocoons, our own bubbles, and, as a result, we tend to think everybody sees the world the way we do. 

The second thing that I would say is, in the context of the present moment in politics, it doesn’t so much matter how fixed or how fluid people are. Almost everybody has put on a blue uniform or a red uniform. And as such, with partisanship so strong, the mixed act like those who are at the extremes.

WEILER: I do want to add one thing, though, to complicate this picture a little bit. While most people are being compelled to take sides, some people do sway, right? We just had a very different electoral outcome than we did in 2016. There are all sorts of reasons for that, but I think one thing that is true—speaking from a partisan perspective, we’re “lucky” that Trump is as extreme and bad as he is, because he’s turning off quite a number of people in the middle. If [there was] somebody with similar instincts about immigration who wasn’t such a jerk about it, that would be a much more palatable way of packaging that worldview to people who would be inclined to agree, but whom Trump is just turning off. That obviously has implications for our politics now and in 2020.

You note that American minorities tend to be more fixed in their worldview and yet vote like fluid people. Why is that?

WEILER: African Americans are the most extreme example in both directions. They answer the parenting questions in the most fixed way of any measurable group that we have, and they are by far the most reliably Democratic voters. In their case, I think we feel like the answer is pretty straightforward, which is that the Republican Party has proven itself so obviously hostile to them over a long period of time that they don’t really have a choice.

It’s worth noting that these parenting questions that we’re describing only really explain well how white people think. But people of color are, of course, an incredibly important part of the story, and the reason is that their self-interest makes so clear that, whatever ambivalence they have about the Democratic Party, they know where they stand with the Republican Party.

HETHERINGTON: This is a key part of the historical story. We talk a lot about working-class whites these days. If you go back to the Nixon years and the LBJ years in the sixties, working-class whites, whether they were in the South or whether they were in Northern cities, they were Democrats. And what Republicans realized was, “We can peel some of these working-class white Democrats off by making appeals to race, by saying African Americans are getting more than they deserve and taking things away from you all.” So the beginning of this worldview divide is exactly this issue. It’s Republicans trying to peel away old-time Democratic constituencies by making negative appeals to race.

Prius suggests that worldview correlates with all sorts of personality traits and life decisions, down to how many kids you have and what you name them. What are these little quirks that you found, and what really surprised you about them?

HETHERINGTON: There are a couple of things that are really important to keep in mind. These correlations all exist. Democrats go to Starbucks. Republicans go to Dunkin’ Donuts. Republicans drink light beer. Democrats are more inclined to drink IPAs. [But] we may have all of these different personal experiences that cause us to be a little bit different. We’re not necessarily saying that all liberals have these tastes for IPAs and fancy coffee and certain types of cars. There are plenty of liberals who drive pickups, and not very many conservatives who drive Priuses, but there are surely a few. But the key thing here isn’t necessarily the behavior that people actually engage in, it’s the caricature that develops about the other side by the choices that they make.

One of the shows that the conservatives really love is Duck Dynasty. Duck Dynasty, of course, is a show about rural life in the South. Lots of guns, hunting, and so forth. All of those things are conservative-identity things. One of my graduate students has shown that people identify that show more with Republicans than they do being pro-life on abortion. I mean, that’s really remarkable. On the other side of it are yoga and foreign films. Those are things that liberals do, and people make that connection to the Democratic Party more cleanly than they do being pro-choice on abortion.

So the question is, if you’re a Republican who encounters somebody with a yoga mat walking to a foreign film studio theater, do you want to talk to that person? Do you want to have anything to do with that person? Or have you made a judgment about that person even before anybody’s uttered a word? Of course, the answer is the latter. And this is the thing that’s so pernicious about the worldview divide. Because we have these markers of who we are, and they cross into the cultural sphere, it’s making it much more challenging for people across the political divide to get to know each other and to realize that we’re actually not that different. Maybe we are different, but we’re not that different.

WEILER: I grew up Manhattan, the epicenter of godless liberalism—and I’m Jewish—in the 1960s and 1970s. Our food options—where did we go out to eat when I was a kid? We went to Howard Johnson’s. There was no Thai food. Americans did not have the same choices back then. Likewise, people more or less had the same attitudes about disciplining children. There was no debate about gay rights before the 1970s. I think this is important to understand, too. It’s the proliferation of choice that makes possible the kind of divide we’re talking about, one that both suffuses our political choices and our nonpolitical choices, because we can now differentiate ourselves from other people in ways that we never would have seen fifty years ago.

There’s a physiological aspect to this—for instance, you say fixed people tend to have stronger gag reflexes. Does that indicate that worldviews are baked into our DNA?

HETHERINGTON: That’s probably the most controversial element in the book. What we mostly are trying to do there is to paint a picture of what the worldview divide is mostly about: A, it’s about wariness, and B, it’s automatic. In other words, people don’t deliberate about their reactions to certain things. It’s automatic. It’s before conscious thought begins. This is a key to our understanding of polarization. If we are acting automatically as opposed to deliberatively, then there’s no way we’re going to be able to see across the divide. 

Is this baked into us? I mean, do people come out of the womb hardwired to be conservative or liberal? We don’t want to go that far. Even the people who do that bio-politics and genetics-type research would say that way of thinking is really a caricature of their research. These reflexes that we develop have something, probably, to do with our wiring, but they also interact with the early life experiences that we have.

WEILER: I want to add one thing here, which is that wariness is not political destiny. It’s wariness in this very particular historical and political context that’s being reinforced by the way the parties are divided, the issues that are being emphasized, the rhetoric of political leaders, to make these instincts as politically relevant as they are. I mention this in part to say that the role of leaders, of political elites, I don’t think can be overstated.

We are not making a biology-is-destiny argument. We’re using that as a foundation to explain these different instincts and how, under the right circumstances, they can be exploited in the ways they are for political gain.

In 2016, what drew fixed people to Donald Trump as opposed to Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush, people who had conservative records?

WEILER: I would say that Trump was the dream candidate for the fixed worldview. The entire Republican Party had become an anti-immigration party over the previous several years. There’s always been that rhetoric, but Trump owned and sold it in a way that we had not seen. I think it was even the language and rhetoric that he used. There were all kinds of studies during the campaign looking at the grade level of the candidates’ language. Trump’s was like at a fourth-grade level. That doesn’t mean that everybody who supported him has a fourth-grade-level-education understanding of the world. What’s important is how clear and simple and black and white Trump was in communicating what he communicated. I think that was just an especially good fit for fixed-world folks who wanted clarity.

You write about the erosion of democratic norms under Trump. Is that what concerns you most about his presidency?

HETHERINGTON: This is a really remarkable moment. We have a president who refuses to sit for questions from Robert Mueller, the special counsel, and nobody raises a fuss about it. Imagine if any other political leader took that stance. What concerns me most is how low the bar has become for him and his comportment as it relates to democratic norms. There’s very little concern about these types of things. Republicans in Congress, they’re not going to stand up and say anything negative about Trump, because his supporters are their supporters. If they alienate Trump, they alienate the base, and they may face a primary challenge in the next election.

And then you think about the people in the electorate. Think about why these questions about child-rearing work. People who want respectful children who are obedient and well-behaved, they want a tidy, not disagreeing, household. What do these democratic principles like free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protecting minority rights …

WEILER: Accountability for people who have authority …

HETHERINGTON: These people say, “All of these things, these democratic principles create untidiness. They create disagreement and discord. We hate that. So, if everybody would just listen to Trump, then everything would be OK.

WEILER: Democracy is institutionalized messiness.

HETHERINGTON: Where do we go from here? I mentioned earlier the potential for the Mueller report. My sense is, it’s not going to be positive. I think it’s going to be devastating, and I am so worried about what this means for the future. Will there be accountability, or do people just rationalize it away because they don’t want to believe it?

WEILER: This is both something that troubles me, but also encourages me in terms of what we’ve seen over the last year and a half. Every time Trump breached a norm, especially during the campaign, people responded, “Oh, that’s disqualifying.” And it drove me crazy, because that whole notion is just based on this false premise that anything is disqualifying other than people voting against you. It turns out that these vaunted norms that we love to talk about are not nearly as solid or protective as we’ve always wanted to believe that they are. On the other hand, what I am so heartened by, honestly, has been the incredible response in the last twenty months to what we’ve seen. The turnout in these midterm elections was staggering by American standards, our highest turnout since 1914. I am encouraged that, on the ground, I feel like people are actually internalizing that notion that norms aren’t going to save us. Only we are going to protect and save our democracy.

In 2004, the political scientist Morris Fiorina co-wrote a book called Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America. It suggested that Americans are closely divided, not deeply divided. Your book, however, argues that the two camps are worlds apart. Are those two perspectives fundamentally incompatible?

HETHERINGTON: I still teach that book. The reason I still teach it is because I actually think, in an odd way, it’s still right. And in some ways, it’s a salvation. What Fiorina specifically suggests is that we’re not polarized on the issues. In his view, our elites are what are polarized. And this is the idea that if we just sat down and talked to each other, we would actually come to realize that.

But what we would suggest is that it hardly matters that we’re not so polarized on the issues. What’s actually more consequential is how we’re polarized, and that is, we’re polarized in our feelings. So the nature of polarization is just different.

I think Fiorina’s still right as far as it goes. We’re not miles apart, necessarily, on the issues. What we’re far apart on are the symbols. We have what is not an ideological polarization per se, but rather what we call an effect of a feeling-based polarization. And it might be even more important. Because think about this: What we show in the book is we’ve come to hate the other side more than ever in the history of survey research.

WEILER: By the way, we don’t like our side any more than we did forty years ago. The only thing that’s changed is how much we hate the other side.

HETHERINGTON: Exactly. And it’s because they are characterized by this other worldview that seems dangerous and that we just can’t really understand. But here’s the thing that’s so important about that: You’re probably a better person than I am, but I hate somebody. And I know that it affects every single thing that comes up about that person. So if I hear a rumor about that person, am I willing to believe it? Hell yeah. Let’s play this out with Donald Trump. Would you believe the fact that Donald Trump refused to hug a child in the in the White House who had special needs? Yeah, you’d believe it, but it’s not true. We’d believe anything about our political opponents. This is the perniciousness of this particular divide.

This worldview dynamic that you describe makes for a fairly depressing political outlook. To put it simply: Are we screwed?

HETHERINGTON: I think this might be the natural way that Americans and all people are usually divided. Have we been divided like this before? If you look at the Electoral College map from 1896, it’s almost exactly the same as the one now. It just flips by party. We’ve been there before, and we got out of it.

But it was because the political elites decided that it was more advantageous to divvy up the country in different ways. And we also had a Great Depression, which caused the parties to stake out different ground. You ended up with a weird system where segregationist Southern whites were in the same party as African Americans.

So how do we get out of it? It’s going to be political leaders who decide that this approach to things is no longer winning elections.

WEILER: Our “optimistic scenario” at the end of the book is that, if there is some climate catastrophe of significant enough proportions, it might alter our sense of urgency about how we need to how we need to work together to solve problems. But, of course, we don’t really want to root for a climate catastrophe in order to bring about more political unity.

I want to add one more optimistic note, which is that, especially from the perspective of what we all worried about in January 2017, it’s been an unnerving time in some ways, and in other ways, our institutions have held pretty well. I mean, the Trump administration has been dealt one legal setback after another. They keep trying to find other ways to be horrible to people, but our courts are—maybe not as much as we would like—delivering them very significant defeats. So I’m personally more optimistic than I was twenty months ago about our capacity to withstand somebody like Trump.

HETHERINGTON: Voters came through, too, in 2018. Institutions are holding up. They haven’t been as tested as they might be, though, in the next couple of months. I was talking to my students the other day about the scenario that I mentioned about the Mueller report. What the students came back with was, if people can’t be convinced that [collusion] was determinative of the election outcome, people will ignore it. The motivation, if you’re a Republican, is to ignore it. And I was thinking to myself, “Wow. I bet you that’s right.” I mean, we’re talking about colluding with the country’s most serious adversary to win a presidential election, and people are like, “Oh.” That’s disturbing.

Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman by email at, by phone at 919-286-1972, or on Twitter @jeffreybillman.

One reply on “Ever Wonder Why Politics Seems Broken? Two UNC Professors Have an Answer. It’s Not Reassuring.”

  1. Halfway through the interview with Weiler and Hetherington, and only after being asked about “minorities,” do they acknowledge that their supposedly universal theory only applies to white people. They give a brief and general statement about why African Americans support Republicans despite their “fixed” worldview (“that the Republican Party has proven itself so obviously hostile to them over a long period of time that don’t really have a choice”), and then for the rest of the article, they continue using the fixed and fluid categories to explain “Americans’” political behavior, despite the fact that they don’t apply to one third of the population! This is the epitome of white privilege: create an broad theory that does not apply to people of color and then continue to act as if you speak for everyone.

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