Arguments Over Definitions
The lack of common understandings and shared assumptions makes political conversations challenging.
Deep into the discussion of my post “The Rise of Negative Partisanship,” OTB regular MarkedMan observed, “90% of our arguments are over definitions.” He’s almost certainly right. Indeed, I suspect that’s true of many discussions about politics and morality, here and elsewhere. In fact, part of the reason moral persuasion is so hard is we don’t agree as to what falls within the ambit of morality.
With respect to the issue at hand, my co-blogger Steven Taylor, a comparativist political scientist who has studied and written about elections for more than a quarter-century now, is far more expert on the issue of political parties and partisanship than I am. While I had some relevant coursework in graduate school, I specialized in international relations and ultimately became more of a defense policy wonk than a pure political scientist. So, he’s operating on a more nuanced set of definitions than I am in these discussions.
Still, I don’t think he would object too strongly to a reference to the classic 1960 study The American Voter. BYU’s Adam Brown provides a useful summary of its core arguments:
The Funnel Model
Campbell et al. argue that the best predictor (X) of whether an individual will vote Republican or Democratic is the funnel model. The funnel works like this: First, you learn your party ID from parents and socialization. You form a psychological attachment to this party. As such, your partisanship shapes the development of your attitudes; because you like your party, you adopt its positions. Your (underlying) attitudes are then reflected in your positions on the six attitudinal dimensions: the personal attributes of the Democratic candidate (Stevenson), the personal attributes of the Republican (Eisenhower), the groups involved in politics and the questions of group interest affecting them, the issues of domestic policy, the issues of foreign policy, and the comparative record of the two parties in managing the affairs of government. Finally, these issue positions are the proximal cause of your voting decision. In fact, these six issue positions predict voting decisions with 87% accuracy–which is even better than asking voters who they intend to vote for.
Not surprisingly, feelings across these six dimensions tend to be highly correlated. For Campbell and his coauthors, this correlation occurs because partisan feelings are strongly shaped by party identification. (Party ID leads to partisan feelings, not the reverse.) In this book, party ID is treated as a psychological force or tie through which voters interpret political issues (each of the aforementioned dimensions). The authors write that “Identification with a party raises a perceptual screen [i.e. selective perception] through which the individual tends to see what is favorable to his partisan orientation.” In this sense, the party acts as a supplier of cues by which the individual may evaluate the elements of politics.
Origins of Partisanship
They claim that individuals “inherit” a party ID from their parents and the social milieu in which they are raised and that this party ID is characterized by stability and resistance to contrary influence. (They do recognize that objective events and conditions can lead a voter to modify her party ID or vote against it if her evaluation of the current elements of politics does not agree with her initial allegiances.)
Issues Don’t Matter
In their interviews, Campbell et al. find that policies and issues play a small part in most voters’ decisions, that only a small fraction of the electorate (12%) displays anything resembling an ideology (i.e., most people when asked about their positions on specific policy issues do not have a consistent pattern of responses in terms of a liberal-conservative dimension), and that voters frequently do not know which party stands for what. These findings cast doubt on the efficacy of voting as a mechanism of democratic control of government.
Changes in Partisanship
Changes in party ID are possible. These changes result from either personal forces (usually changes in an individual’s social milieu) or social forces (usually the result of experiences related to great national crises or those experiences related to progress through the life cycle older voters tend to be more conservative).
Not surprisingly, the literature has come a long way in the six decades since Campbell and colleagues’ seminal work. It was based on studies of the 1952 and 1956 elections and, quite obviously, our party system has ebbed and flowed considerably since. But the central findings—party identification is an enormously predictive variable of voting behavior and political attitudes tend to follow party rather than vice-versa—have held up to scrutiny.
Steven and I both spent a long time studying politics in our youth and yet, somehow, emerged from graduate school in our late 20s with voting preferences and political attitudes that were remarkably similar to those of our non-political scientist fathers. For a variety of reasons, we both started moving away from those attitudes in our 30s and 40s and ultimately stopped voting for the party of our youth—he a couple of cycles ahead of me. So, yes, people can and do change party. But most people spend far, far less time thinking about politics than we and our readers do and inertia is really hard to overcome.
Regardless, I see at least two definitional issues arising here.
First, many readers argue that some of the things that contribute to forming party identification (religiosity, social class, racial attitudes, etc.) are what really motivates people, not their party. Nobody, least of all us, is arguing that these issues are meaningless at the individual level. We just argue that party ID is a more useful way to gauge aggregate behavior. While the degree to which it’s true has fluctuated over time, depending on the degree our two dominant parties have been aligned with social cleavages, it remains simply the best predictive variable.
Second, many readers are operating on the implicit assumption that voters are operating with something like the same information base they themselves possess and are making rational, informed decisions. So, people who voted to elect Donald Trump in 2016—and, certainly, those who voted to re-elect him in 2020—all liked his policies. But, while many of them surely did, we’re simply noting that the overwhelming number (say, 95 percent) of them would have voted for any candidate who emerged from the 2016 Republican primaries as the winner over Hillary Clinton and voted to re-elect any sitting Republican President over Joe Biden. Just as sports fans continue to support their team even though the players change continually—and remain loyal even if their favorite player transfers to a rival team or a hated player from the rival team transfers to theirs—almost all voters find a way to justify voting for their party’s candidates.
To the extent most people have opinions on the various policy debates of the day, they’re shaped enormously by party framing. So, while the program that became labeled “ObamaCare” was broadly popular in the particulars, Republicans were naturally going to resist it simply because it was associated with a Democratic President. Did racial animus reinforce that tendency among some subset of Republicans? Sure. But the vast majority of them would have opposed “HillaryCare” had the 2008 primaries gone the other way and she had prevailed over John McCain. Conversely, if there were no ObamaCare and Mitt Romney had introduced a version of the remarkably similar program he had implemented as governor of Massachusetts, it would have commanded widespread Republican support and lost the support of a lot of Democrats.*
Third, the conversations often conflate the three “parts” of political parties identified by V.O. Key way back in 1942: the “party in the electorate” (voters), the “party in government” (officeholders), and the party organization. It is far easier to generalize about the organization and officeholders than voters.
*It’s quite probably true that a significant number of Democrats would have voted for it, though, compared to not a single Republican ultimately voting for PPCA. But that’s mostly a function of strategy and intraparty incentives.