Self-Interest vs. Symbolic Politics in Policy Attitudes and Presidential Voting

David O. Sears, Richard R. Lau, Tom R. Tyler, Harris M. Allen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

576 Scopus citations


This article contrasts short-term self-interest and longstanding symbolic attitudes as determinants of (1) voters’ attitudes toward government policy on four controversial issues (unemployment, national health insurance, busing, and law and order), and (2) issue voting concerning those policy areas. In general, we found the various self-interest measures to have very little effect in determining either policy preferences or voting behavior. In contrast, symbolic attitudes (liberal or conservative ideology, party identification, and racial prejudice) had major effects. Nor did self-interest play much of a role in creating “issue publics” that were particularly attentive to, informed about, or constrained in their attitudes about these specific policy issues. Conditions that might facilitate more self-interested political attitudes, specifically having privatistic (rather than public-regarding) personal values, perceiving the policy area as a major national problem, being high in political sophistication, perceiving the government as responsive, or having a sense of political efficacy, were also explored, but had no effect. The possibility that some long-term self-interest might be reflected in either group membership or in symbolic attitudes themselves is examined. While such possibilities cannot be definitively rejected, problems with interpreting standard demographic findings as self-interest effects are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)670-684
Number of pages15
JournalAmerican Political Science Review
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1980
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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