Political Parties are not about Policy

Shankar Vedantam explains in the Post why politics isn’t about policy:

In 2004 … die-hards in both parties felt that the choice between George W. Bush and John F. Kerry was much sharper on a host of issues than in any presidential contest going back to 1984.  But when political scientist Marc J. Hetherington quizzed moderates, he found to his surprise that he got the opposite answer. … If anything, moderates in 2004 saw the Republican and Democratic nominees as being more alike than in any election since 1988.  The schism between moderates and partisans has intensified in this election …

Hetherington believes that much of the loyalists’ perception of a yawning divide has little to do with issues. Rather, he said, what has happened in recent years is that partisans have come to identify with their parties in much the manner that sports fans identify with their teams. The strong views they feel on many issues do not drive their party affiliation; it is their party affiliation that drives their strong views.


"Let’s say you are a left-leaning person," Hetherington said. "You don’t really follow politics, but through the blogs you know the Democrats are here on the bailout and immigration and health care. All of a sudden, you know where you are supposed to be on these issues. It is not as though you really care about the bailout."

There is another piece of evidence that party identification rather than ideology is behind the growing polarization of the electorate: On a variety of unrelated issues — gun control, the economy, war, same-sex marriage, abortion, the environment, the financial bailout — the views of Republicans and Democrats have become increasingly monolithic. There is no reason someone who is against abortion should necessarily also be against gun control or for economic deregulation, but that is exactly what tends to happen among committed Republicans. Loyal Democrats have similarly monolithic views on unrelated issues.

"Party identification is part of your social identity, in the same way you relate to your religion or ethnic group or baseball team," said Gary C. Jacobson … This explains why, on a range of issues, partisans invariably feel their side can do nothing wrong and the other side can do nothing right. … Moderates … are like people who are uninterested in sports and roll their eyes when fans of opposing teams hurl abuse at each other.

Another consequence of intense party identification is that the Democratic and Republican parties have rid themselves of contrarians. Liberal Republicans and, to a lesser extent, conservative Democrats are endangered species.  … In previous eras … these divisions were not primarily along party lines.  The Vietnam War bitterly divided the country, for example, but the divide was hardly partisan. … Knowing whether a person is a Republican or a Democrat today tells you far more about their views on many issues than it did in previous eras.

One implication of this thesis is that it makes little difference what positions presidential candidates take on issues. People’s views — on the war, immigration or the economic bailout — come down largely to their party affiliation.

If you are a strong partisan, and if you accept the above as explaining where your strong correlated policy views come from, I beg you to reconsider:  you just can’t reasonably be that confident your party is that consistently right on all those issues.

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  • http://www.kensharpe.net Ken Sharpe

    This post seems entirely self evident to me, but I frequently look on in amazement at people who toe the party line. I know this happens more often than not.

    Maybe politics is a sport for the slightly more intelligent — Football for the gammas, politics for the betas?

  • http://www.meteuphoric.blogspot.com Katja Grace

    It seems in general people would prefer to follow people, or something that has human qualities (e.g. a group of people) than ideas. This is demonstrated in religion (where many people feel no need to understand all of their scriptures or take them seriously, but there is almost always an enthusiastically followed lead entity), in politics, and in institutional design (our political systems are based on elevating people to be leaders – this does not appear optimized for good policy). Perhaps consistent alliances were more useful than consistent policy positions in the development of our species.

  • Alan Gunn

    “Maybe politics is a sport for the slightly more intelligent — Football for the gammas, politics for the betas?”

    Vice versa: a lot of really interesting things happen in a football game.

  • michael e sullivan

    I am currently a strong partisan, but hardly because I believe my preferred party is right on all the issues. If anything I think the typical democratic politician is wrong on more things than s/he is right.

    My current high level of partisanship comes from a certainty that nearly all of the current republican leadership is *exceptionally* and radically wrong on a number of very important issues, while most of the democrats are at least less wrong on those issues, and a few actually seem to align with my thoughts on at least those matters.

    Even if things were a wash on issues, I’d have to hold my nose hard to vote for anyone that is willing to race-bait as much as most republican campaigns do.

  • Roger, FCD

    Actually, I find that it’s precisely the opposite. I’m extremely socially liberal, I don’t feel that we should legislate sin, anti-theocracy and am pro-rights/equality for women and sexual issues. I find that I can consistently count on the social conservatives to be dead wrong on the issues that I care about. It’s not that I find democrats extraordinarily attractive, it’s that republican social values are, in my eyes, repulsive.

  • http://pdf23ds.net pdf23ds

    I frequent a site, Unfogged.com, where the average political position is well to the left of center. However, there are almost no people that would identify themselves as Democrats. However, most vote for Democrats because the Democrats are consistently somewhat closer to their positions. Most also think that the Democratic party isn’t very good at all about representing their views, and vote Democratic out of a “lesser evil” rationale.

    So I’m not sure that the result in the post generalizes very well to the demographic of Unfogged, even though there are many people there that could be identified as “strongly partisan”.

  • komponisto

    So true!

    Incidentally, last night C-SPAN reaired previous vice-presidential debates. In the 1988 debate between Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen, the issue of campaign finance came up, and Quayle explicitly said something like “We need to take power out of the hands of individuals and special interest groups and give it to political parties”. It sounds shocking now (at least to me), but this appeared to be not only a mainstream view, but a virtual consensus position at the time.

    Sure enough, over the next 20 years, that’s exactly what happened — which is one reason why blowout elections such as 1984 (or even 1988) are a thing of the past. (In the old days, given the current situation, someone in Obama’s position might have won 49 states; but this election promises to be as close as the previous two.)

  • http://profile.typekey.com/wnoise/ Aaron Denney

    I don’t see the bailout as good evidence for this — both the Republicans and Democrats are heavily divided.

    I’d also like to echo all the “lesser of two evils” (which argues against this thesis) and “the other side is truly repulsive” (which argues for this thesis) posts.

  • http://www.andreas-graefe.org Andreas Graefe

    Historically, voters elected the candidate they expected to do the best job in dealing with the issues facing the country. That’s the result of a recent study in which we analyzed the last 9 U.S. presidential elections. In 7 out of 9 cases, our model correctly predicted the winner of the popular vote. For the last three elections from 1996 to 2004, the method outperformed well-established quantitative models.

    The results suggest that the voters’ perceptions of how the candidates will perform on the issues do matter. For 2008, the model predicts Obama to win. More information can be found under PollyIssues at the Pollyvote.com

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Andreas, can you go beyond seeing a correlation between party and policy views to determining that the direction of causation is from policy to party, rather than the other direction as hypothesized above?

    pdf, this view doesn’t predict everyone will feel strongly attached two one of the two major parties. If your people couldn’t imagine themselves voting for a Republican, I’d call that strongly partisan.

    Katja, I’d love to see your thoughts above elaborated.

  • Jeff

    Robin, you and Shankar are wrong to believe moderates’ opinions on the issue over partisans.

    There are a number of components to your misperception: moderates are, in general, less interested, and thus more poorly informed and the last twenty years has seen an increase in the ability of politicians to muddle the differences, both through the media claim of “fair and balanced” and through codewords and concealed verbiage. The increase in the amount of money to pay for, and the corresponding ability of speechwriters, preparers, and surrogates.

    In fact, there has been a massive shift in the Republican party, such that the Republicans of today do not much resemble the Republicans of the 80s, as you can see by the old guard of Conservatism rejecting, in public, the neocons. The Democrats, in response, have shifted to follow. That, however, is simply history, not argument.

    Many partisans today aren’t convinced that their politicians are always right — they’re convinced that the other party is always wrong. This is particularly the case in the area of human and constitutional rights — Democrats see Republicans as having shredded such rights, and Republicans see Democrats as being unwilling to sacrifice pieces of those rights when needed to win the various wars.

    I could continue. I think your contrarian streak leads you, like many contrarians, to exaggerate the things that others disagree with. You claim that “politics isn’t about policy” and you base that on the fact that there are aspects of politics that are about group membership and dynamics. Certainly group membership and dynamics play a significant role in politics. But you have decided that politics isn’t about policy is a good stand to hold at least in part because of your own contrarian nature. Politics is definitely about policy — in addition to the other things. Instead, I would say that partisans care only about a limited set of the policies, and don’t evaluate those outside of their sphere-of-caring very often. That theory takes into account, say, pro-gun social liberals in the West splitting their tickets, as they do in the Dakotas, which consistently vote Republican only for President.

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    It seems in general people would prefer to follow people, or something that has human qualities (e.g. a group of people) than ideas. This is demonstrated in religion (where many people feel no need to understand all of their scriptures or take them seriously, but there is almost always an enthusiastically followed lead entity)…

    This is another one of those points so massively obvious that I couldn’t even see it until Katja pointed it out.

  • http://pdf23ds.net pdf23ds

    “If your people couldn’t imagine themselves voting for a Republican, I’d call that strongly partisan.”

    In general, they couldn’t.

    “Many partisans today aren’t convinced that their politicians are always right — they’re convinced that the other party is always wrong.”

    I’d say that gets it exactly right, both for (most) people at Unfogged, and for the typical Rush Limbaugh fan, for example.

  • Jeff

    In addition, Shankar’s article is heavily confused. If a victory for my team is what matters, and not the actual policies, why would parties be monolithic in policy position? Why would they shed liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats? Why would everyone on both sides of the aisle be so very split on the bailout? The splits in both parties over what to do about the bailout suggests that policy matters a lot more than party right now.

  • Doug S.

    “Many partisans today aren’t convinced that their politicians are always right — they’re convinced that the other party is always wrong.”

    Sort of. There are some ideological gaps that can be crossed and compromised with, and some that can’t. There are some positions that are so wrong, you would do your best to oppose anyone who supports them, regardless of their other viewpoints. They don’t have to be always wrong, they just have to be wrong about what matters.

    Let’s try a silly example:

    Suppose a politician advocated killing everyone who was born with a last name beginning with the letter Q. You probably wouldn’t need to know anything more about the politician before deciding that there is no way in hell that you’d vote for him.

    I have litmus tests of my own. To me, what matters most in a decision maker is that he or she has a fundamental respect for science, reason, and empirical evidence. If you are a Young Earth Creationist and assert that the Earth is 6,000 years old, I don’t care what policies you support today, you clearly don’t know the difference between legitimate evidence and wishful thinking, and in the long run, you’re going to end up doing some very stupid and harmful things. In the extreme case, this kind of thinking literally kills people. There have been children who die of treatable medical conditions because their parents prayed for them to get better instead of taking them to a doctor. Priests in Africa have told people not to use condoms because birth control is sinful, and as a result, fewer people use condoms, and more people die of AIDS.

    If your epistemology is fundamentally wrong, that’s a bigger problem than having bad evidence, because you can fix bad evidence with better evidence, but you can’t fix bad epistemology with better evidence – and if you are a Young Earth Creationist, your epistemology is fundamentally wrong.

  • http://pdf23ds.net pdf23ds

    I think a better approach to understanding political behavior would be through the lens of the Right-Wing Authoritarian spectrum, as studied by Bob Altemeyer. (Despite the name, I think it’s a potentially neutral approach.)

  • http://bccy.blogspot.com frelkins

    Let me expand a proposition on Katya’s basic point. Monkey society and even most known human societies until recently tended to be in the form of a highly stratified structures with alpha males, beta males, juvenile males, and females in a similar ranks.

    Your social position is determined by who you are related to, to whom you bore children, and to whom you are loyal in social actions. The result of this is that the few alpha males (kings, sultans, chiefs) have generally had harems of females, many offspring, and rely on the social support of beta males and senior females (think Queen Mother) to maintain their position.

    This social support is typically repaid in assignment of females, intermarriage to close relatives, food & hunting favors, etc. The entire system is nepotism, as would be expected if we are interested in protecting those with genes like our own. (This is how noblesse oblige derives from the droit de seigneur.)

    In large modern societies, where we are not directly related, perhaps one could argue that instead of direct genetic connection we have memetic connection with the leader. That is we follow people whose memes are like our own, since we can no longer know or be personally related to them – we select those to whom we could imagine or feel ourselves being related.

    As others do likewise, we condense groups from former strangers who can then share out the kinds of favors monkeys can understand – food favors (hiring), hunting favors (joining the country club). In place of direct intermarriage, we let you into Yale, where you can then mate assortively yourselves. Thus we move from distant memetic connection back to genetic & direct social connections, which we monkeys understand.

    This explains also why political parties become more rigid over time – as groups become larger we need ways to determine who is “more closely related” than others so the hierarchy can be sorted. Again, this is done memetically at first. So those “big tents” where you could at first be A OR B OR C then become A AND B OR C, and then further refine into A AND B AND C. Now the tiers are clearer, and “closeness” for support, status, and reward can be calculated.

    Politics thus literally cannot be about “policy” in any real sense. Policy can only be the excusatory meme to kickstart the greater process.

  • Lord

    One has to wonder how many of these moderates still think there was no difference in retrospect. Now they may have gone with the default choice, but how many think that was a good one? They may think the alternative would have been equally bad, or may reinforce their original judgment as the best option. Or they may see no difference because they don’t care about the issues on which the parties are polarized and so focus on lessor issues, character, or personality. In earlier times it was often geography that mattered since people faced common problems and obstacles.

  • Lars

    It seems to me that the two parties currently in power have candidates that are very similar in most issues, but their few differences are built up to be gaping chasms that broadly separate the two of them.

    For example, both candidates supported the 700 billion dollar bailout, and another bailout for American auto companies. These are both measures that most Americans don’t want.

    Both candidates also say they will stay in Iraq for a limited time, then withdraw.

    I could go on, but the point is, on most issues, the candidates are largely the same, except for on things like gay marriage, drilling in ANWR, and other little, unimportant issues that are blown up to seem big and take over public discourse, so that the things that really matter, like our money, education and security, are ignored by most people.

    How do people propose to rectify this situation? Can it change, or is it fundamental to human nature? I’m with Katja in that I think people really want to follow a leader, and maybe that’s unavoidable. There’s far less church affiliation than there has been in centuries past, so maybe political parties are the modern group that people identify with, the replacement of the church.

    It seems people just want to follow somebody, anybody.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/aroneus/ Aron

    I’m not loving this new CNN gizmo crowd-meter thing for the debates. Political consideration for those willing to spend a little bit of time on it, seems guided by the mass consumption punditry towards judging the judgements of others about policy rather than judging the policy. Same is true naturally of all the more traditional talk that runs as ‘this will play well with middle America’, ‘the folsky anecdotes really appeal to so and so’, ‘his detailed responses were too Washingtonian for those worried about their jobs’.

    I don’t know incidentally whether the parties are any more monolithic than in the past. That would seem to require having somewhere for the contrarians to actually go. And they don’t seem to be piling up anywhere.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    I find it hard to believe that this is a revelation to anybody who knows anything about politics, history, or the way humans work. People do their thinking in groups, so ideology and factions and social identity all covary with each other. If you think you are exempt as a rationalist individualist, why do you hang around with like-minded people at universities, conferences, and blogs, reinforcing each other’s beliefs?

    I remember reading Brian Caplan’s book on voting and feeling like he was completely missing the entire point. Democracy is not about voting and not about individuals weighing policy; it’s about how well candidates can mobilize social networks of support. Shared opinion obviously can draw people together but it works the other way around too. More on this here and here.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    David Friedman explains what’s wrong with Altemeyer’s work here.

  • Douglas Knight

    TGGP,
    that is a disingenuous description of what DDF says. Altermeyer’s choice of the name RWA is itself disingenuous and you may agree with DDF that this is a reason not to trust him, but that’s not a problem with his work. If you think he’s a liar, call him a liar. If he’s telling the truth about his experiments, then his work is quite valuable.