In addition to my research on text analysis, I also conduct research on public opinion and political psychology. About a decade ago, I had a battery of questions about environmental attitudes in the 2008 CCES. Recently, the “Green New Deal” has been a subject of considerable political debate between the parties.
Among the questions, was a simple one: “What do you think of when you hear the word ‘green’”? Since the question appeared among a sample of environmental questions, respondents had been primed to think of the word in this sense (and not the political party or even the color). Responses, as I will cover below, are extremely revealing. What I like about this is that the open-ended nature of the question allows for variance in how citizens articulate their environmental beliefs. The responses illustrate many of the key findings in the subfield of political psychology.
Political scientists have shown that citizens draw from elite discussions to formulate their own opinions. We usually see this with regard to closed-ended survey questions, in which citizen attitudes on issues polarize mirroring elite movements on issues, or changes in the political agenda being reflected in the public’s sense of the most important problem.
In this case, reactions to the word “green” produce differences between partisan identifiers. Respondents can draw on a theoretically infinite pool of words, yet clear patterns emerge in the reaction to this question. This can be shown in the word cloud of all responses. (Note: for most of this analysis, I used Quanteda package in R. It seems fairly easy to use (in the past, I have relied on the tm package and occasionally tidytext).
The dataset has about 4,000 words, about 1,000 of which are unique words. I’ve provided the obligatory wordcloud above. Wordclouds aren’t all that informative. Instead, simple bar charts of word frequencies tend to give a better sense of proportion in terms of how the words are used. The bar chart below is easier to read and we can see that the most commonly used words are fairly unsurprising; the term “green” generally is associated with environmentalism.
These words tend to be used by nearly all respondents. In fact, using a measure of text similarity, it is clear that partisans across the spectrum tend to draw on similar vocabularies.
demgreen.txt 1.0000000 0.8445287
gopgreen.txt 0.8445287 1.0000000
indgreen.txt 0.8255080 0.8188555
However, there are clear differences across parties and that is what I will be exploring in the rest of this post. For example, Democratic respondents usually emphasize more positive language. The difference plot below shows the words with the largest differences using a “keyness” score. The plot below shows a striking difference in terms of how Democrats and Republicans conceptualize environmental issues. Remember, these are open-ended responses, so these words are the unfiltered expressions of what came to the respondents minds.
Partisan Semantic Differences in Responses to “Green”
The words most likely to appear among Democratic respondents compared to Republican respondents are largely positive. Again, these aren’t surprising as they focus on reducing pollution, protecting the environment. A word like “footprint” is associated with “carbon” and the words like “keep”, “conserve”, “preserve” and “save” all express anxiety about environmental degradation. I suppose one could even draw a larger psychological claim about the orientation towards fragility. I have noted in looking at state party platforms that Democratic discussions on environmental issues are more aligned with Haidt’s purity foundation than any of the other moral foundations (or least as much are harm/care).
The Republican words are far more likely to be adjectives than verbs and these are clearly pejorative. Al Gore takes up two of the most different words and the others, “hippie”, “hugger”, “idiot” and even “lie” make no mistake how this issue is perceived among those on the right. Interestingly, these terms aren’t really ideological; they represent the affective nature of attitudes many political scientists how found characterizes mass partisan polarization.
Similarly, using sentiment analysis the same pattern emerges. Emotions are connected to the construction of opinions; apparent ideological differences seem to be rooted more in affect than policy. Sentiment analysis shows that the vocabulary of partisans differs markedly. So, these emotional differences paint a clear picture of how partisans conceptualize these issues in emotional terms. Democrats discuss environmental issues in largely positive terms. For Democrats, the environment is and there is optimism that government efforts will be successful. The negative words, such as “destroy” and “harm” are associated with the positive words, “clean” and “protect” as the same underlying sentiment is driving the use of both sets of words.
Independents are more like Democrats, but there is some evidence of emotional ambivalence (for more on how ambivalence affects political reasoning, see here and here). In this case, independents use many of the same positive words that Democrats use, but their negative affect vocabulary is much more distinct. The negative and positive words are orthogonal; these are distinct sets of ideas that are generating the words the respondents use (I did find evidence in an unpublished paper that environmental issues generate a high degree of ambivalence). Words such as “problem”, “restrict” and “slow” are largely used when discussing environmental protection. In contrast, obviously words like “fake”, “hoax” and even “bullshit” are not describing the costs of environmental protection, but reflect a rejection of the legitimacy of the issue. In other words, this is not ambivalence; the responses are not illustrative of someone struggling with internal conflict over competing or inconsistent goals or beliefs.
Finally, the Republican sentiment is almost exclusively negative. What separates Republicans from independents in this regard is that they have a much larger vocabulary (partisan responses were longer than independent open-ended responses). “Bullshit” actually appears twice (“bs”) and the condemnation of the other side is more apparent indicating a threat response provoked by the use of “green” to describe environmental issues. The words such as “corrupt”, “extremist”, “greed”, “scam” and “idiot” all refer not to a preference for economic growth over environmental issues, but describe the perceived threat that Republicans identify coming from both the promoters and believers of climate change.
While I had asked this survey question over a decade ago, the issues are in some ways more relevant today. Partisan responses about the environment are often framed as policy debates about the merits of economic growth and versus environmental protection. These responses, however, show that while this is the case for some respondents, the divide has more to do with subjective perceptions about the motives of the other side or the gravity of the issue. Responses are emotional, tapping into anger, anxiety and even enthusiasm. These responses were generated with little more than an ink-blot of priming, illustrating the biased-nature of information processing. One final note is that there is a considerable value to using open-ended survey questions, especially when they are conducted online, as the unstructured nature of these responses can be quite revealing in showing how citizens construct attitudes and opinions.