Democracy for Realists, Part V

So we’ve established that our group identities are based more on emotion than on reason. I want to expand on this notion that we get our ideology from parties, rather than vice versa, before getting to a realist theory of democracy.

The chapter in the book detailing the relevant research is titled ‘It Feels Like We’re Thinking’, and that’s about the best way to sum it up. As the authors concisely state,“Citizens’ political preferences and beliefs are constructed from emotional or cognitive commitments whose real bases lie elsewhere.” (p. 269)

A brief framework of events: parties send signals to voters to advertise their group status; voters use these signals to construct a conceptual framework about the world; voters signal the strength of their partisanship through varying intensity of views held by the party.

What’s surprising is that research shows that higher levels of political engagement actually lead to more partisan views of reality. Intuitively, we might think that people who pay more attention to politics and policy will be more informed in an objective sense, and come to similar conclusions regardless of partisanship. This is not the case. High information voters’ thinking ends up being mostly just rationalizing what is already emotionally believed to be true. (This is something I’ve come to believe we do in many, if not most, realms of life: rationalize what our emotions have already told us to do or believe.)

This is all a bit abstract, so let’s turn to an example in the book: views of the Clinton era budget by Democrats and Republicans. Those polled were asked about the status of the deficit: was it increasing or decreasing? In this instance, there is a factual answer: it was decreasing. Low information voters of both parties did about as well as chance in answering the question, as would be expected from people just guessing. But as voter information goes up, there is a remarkable divergence. Higher information Republicans answer that the deficit is increasing, while equivalent Democrats answer that it is decreasing (to a lesser extent, however). What is going on?

From the framework above, Republicans have long claimed to be the party of fiscal responsibility, and decry Democrats as irresponsible spenders of public money. The lowest information voters don’t tend to pay attention to policy debates, but more engaged voters will hear this tale often. So, when asked about the Clinton budget, these voters ‘know’ that Democrats are profligate spenders, a Democrat is in the White House, and therefore the deficit must be increasing.

Rather than continue to belabor the point, I’ll just quote the key passage from the chapter:

“Most of the time, voting behavior merely reaffirms voters’ partisan and group identities. They do not rethink their fundamental political commitments with every election cycle. Insofar as they do consider new issues or circumstances, they often do so no in order to challenge and revise their fundamental commitments, but in order to bolster those commitments by constructing preferences or beliefs consistent with them. They sound like they are thinking, and they feel like they are thinking. We all do. The unwary scholarly devotee of democratic romanticism is thereby easily misled.

When proponents of the folk theory do recognize such pseudo-thinking, they tend to attribute it to political ignorance and inattention – a failure to live up to the high ideals of democratic citizenship. But that view misunderstands the nature of the problem. In fact, political rationalization is often most powerful among people who are well-informed and politically engaged, since their fundamental political commitments tend to be most consistent and strongly held. The result is that the political behavior of well-informed people often displays a sort of statis grounded in the consistency of their partisan commitments… In short, political sophistication dampen[s] voters’ responsiveness to the very considerations that the folk theory of democracy portrays as the appropriate bases of electoral choice.” (p. 294)


If we accept that voters get their views from parties, where do parties get their views from? After all, parties are made up of people as well. The book doesn’t really go into this topic, but I have a few thoughts.

To some extent, elites in the party set their own agenda. To again cite the Republican party as an example, their low tax and small government ideology was most favorable to the rich and business class who dominated the party elite. What benefit do poorer rural voters get from such policy? Not much. But other aspects of identity have created a link between the rural populace and the GOP, and so it has become accepted dogma for GOP partisans. Of course there are similar dynamics within the Democratic party as well.

Still, elites are bounded in the kinds of policies they can advocate. Since policy views can themselves be signals to voters about who is welcome in the party, the party elite must be conscious of the fact that advocating for certain positions may drive away voters. As described last time, the realignment of southern whites from the Democratic to the Republican was a consequence of a shift in civil rights policy.

Immigration policy is another excellent example. Immigration is generally favored by the business class, who again has historically aligned with the GOP. But there is a faction of nativists gaining power within the Republican Party, and they have successfully stymied efforts at immigration reform. Recall that George W. Bush was defied by his own party in his 2007 bid for new immigration policy that consciously sought to make the GOP more welcoming to Latino Americans. Despite being the head of the party, the President was unable to single handedly implement his preferred policy when it conflicted with the identity of the rest of the membership.

I suspect there is also a feedback mechanism here that may be leading to increased polarization. We all know that politicians are prone to overblown rhetoric; partly this is intended to attract and mobilize voters, as opposed to making claims about reality. But it’s possible for this rhetoric to get out of hand, as partisans who seek to demonstrate the strength of their commitment increasingly turn up the volume. The Tea Party movement was partly born out of the apocalyptic rhetoric coming from establishment Republicans, and took small government ideology to extremes. The Freedom Caucus is now an established wing of the GOP, i.e. part of the party elite, and the recently proposed federal budget of the current administration, which would slash government spending by a historical amount, is yet another symptom of the growing influence of this faction.

When we look at party ideology over time, using the DW nominate score, the GOP has steadily been moving to the right since the 1960s while the Democrats have more or less remained stable. Does this mean that for whatever reason Republican ideology is more susceptible to this kind of feedback? Is the differing nature of the two parties’ coalitions responsible?

To sum up, a rough recap:

  1. The voter obtains partisan identification from group status, such as family, employment, education, religion, and so on.
  2. From the party, the voter obtains a conceptual framework – a selective filtering and organizing of facts about the world to render it easier to understand. For example, Republican party orthodoxy since the Reagan era has held that tax cuts lead to economic growth. Within the conceptual framework, events, policies, etc can conveniently be fitted into place. When not, they are discarded.
  3. Voters in turn construct ideas of what parties stand for – potentially magnifying the rhetoric that is intended only to signal group status.

Next time I’ll finally get to the most exciting stuff, though it’s already been touched on a bit here: a realist theory of democracy.


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