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 …
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.
David Friedman explains what's wrong with Altemeyer's work here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
"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.
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.
"If your people couldn't imagine themselves voting for a Republican, I'd call that strongly partisan."
In general, they couldn't.
I'd say that gets it exactly right, both for (most) people at Unfogged, and for the typical Rush Limbaugh fan, for example.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.