Politicians think the public is more right-wing and conservative than it actually is

It is Wednesday and so a short blog. I am working on a number of things at present but getting the material sorted for my next book with Thomas Fazi is a priority at the moment. My snippet today though is about a study that has just come out in the American Political Science Review – Bias in Perceptions of Public Opinion among Political Elites – by two US academics. The title is indicative. They explore what they argue is a disjuncture between what the politicians think voters want and what the voters actually want. This lack of congruence is also biased towards right-wing views. So, the politicians “believed that much more of the public in their constituencies preferred conservative policies than actually did”. They trace this bias to biases in the way the politicians get their information. The takeaway is that the progressive side of the debate has to be more active in framing distinctive messages and using multiple ways and avenues to communicate those messages to the candidates seeking election and the politicians that have been elected. And it must refrain from using conservative frames which advisors think neutralise difficult concepts etc. I think this sort of research provides some hope. I will be writing more about this in the weeks to come. And after that listen to some really classic minimalism from the C19th, which you might suspect on listening is very contemporary such was the genius of the composer.

Bias in Perceptions

The research I referred to in the Introduction is very interesting and ties in to the sort of work I mentioned I was doing yesterday’s blog post – Reclaiming our sense of collective and community – Part 1 (August 21, 2018).

You need relevant library access to get the copy that has been published in the 2018 edition of the Review (Vol 112(3), 542-563).

You can access the paper in Working Paper form – HERE.

As an aside, Dr Louisa Connors and I will present some of this work at the MMT Conference in New York at the end of September. I hope as many of you that are able can attend that conference and help us widen and deepen the network to extend our advocacy.

The ‘Bias’ paper by David Broockman and Christopher Skovron sets out to examine what they call a “puzzle” – the “conservative asymmetry of elite polarization”.

What does that mean?

They write that there has been a “sharp increase in elite polarization” in US politics which has seen the “movement of the Republican Party to the right” driving most of the skew.

They cite literature that suggests that:

Republican candidates often take positions more extreme than would be electorally optimal, while Democrats do so far less often.

This suggests a lack of congruence between the behaviour of politicians and public opinion but so far there has been little coherent research that can explain why that lack of congruence persists.

While there is a vast body of literature that establishes that “politicians seek to represent the median voter” and demonstrate a “strong responsiveness to public opinion”, the persistence of these biases suggest that it is:

… biases in politicians’ information environments common across politicians can lead politicians as a whole to systematically misperceive constituency opinion and, in turn, to contribute to systemic breakdowns in dyadic representation like asymmetric polarization.

That is a very interesting conjecture.

It comes down to whoever gets in the ear of the politicians can have a major influence on the way they perceive what public opinion is.

And because the ‘in-crowd’ that do get audiences with politicians – via networks, their advisors, etc – my not be fully representative of public opinion, it is easy for these politicians to form a biased view of what that public opinion is.

As a result, they develop strategies and narratives with their advisors that they think are clever responses that will garner them political support but, which in reality, bear little resemblance to what the public perceive as being in their best interests.

This is very relevant to what I have been discussing with respect to the sort of advice that traditional social democratic (and Labour) parties have been getting on the macroeconomics front.

My view is that they are being badly advised by people who think it is ‘clever’ to adopt the language and frames of neoliberalism to articulate what they see as being a ‘progressive’ policy stance.

What they fail to understand is that in adopting that language and framing they reinforce the neoliberal structures, which ultimately, preclude the pursuit of progressive policy positions.

So these social democratic-style parties become ‘austerity lite’ outfits talking up fairness and well-being but delivering nothing of the sort.

The Socialist Greek government is at the extreme end of this ‘progressive’ betrayal. The Blairites were disasters for Britain (never forget Gordon Brown’s ‘light touch regulation’ of the financial sector). The US Democrats are so poorly led that they allowed Donald Trump to beat them.

And so on.

David Broockman and Christopher Skovron focus on the US political scene to demonstrate the veracity of their conjecture about the source of this bias or incongruency.

They note the rising mobilisation of right-wing ideas in the public sphere “since the mid-2000s” – in the media, “talk radio programs”, “town hall meetings”, etc.

This ‘uprising’ of conservatism has been instrumental in shaping “how politicians perceive the public’s demands”.

The authors accumulated survey evidence from “American politicians … collected 11,803 elite perceptions of constituency opinion in total”.

The data was mostly collected in 2014.

Seven issues were explored in the surveys, which corresponded to the sort of information that the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) run by YouGov for through Harvard University, generates.

CCES is a “50,000+ person national stratified sample survey” designed to assess “general political attitudes, various demographic factors, assessment of roll call voting choices, and political information”.

The seven issues were (as worded in the surveys):

1. “Allow gays and lesbians to marry legally”.

2. “Let employers and insurers refuse to cover birth control and other health services that violate their religious beliefs”.

3. “Require background checks for all gun sales, including at gun shows and over the Internet”.

4. “Ban assault rifles”.

5. “Allow police to question anyone they think may be in the country illegally”.

6. “Grant legal status to all illegal immigrants who have held jobs and paid taxes for at least 3 years, and not been convicted of any felony crimes”.

7. “Always allow a woman to obtain an abortion as a matter of choice”.

Note there were no questions about macroeconomics but I think the findings they produced can be extended to the sorts of issues I focus on in my work.

The politicians were asked to estimate what proportion of voters would support these propositions – specifically, “What percent of the people living in your district would agree with the following statements?”

What did they find?

I won’t go into the statistical techniques they deployed to make their inferences here. You can read the paper if you are interested. I found their technical methodology very interesting.

In summary, they found that:

1. politicians “believed that much more of the public in their constituencies preferred conservative policies than actually did”.

2. “Republicans were prone to severely overestimating support for conservative positions. Democrats’ perceptions also typically overestimated the public’s support for conservative positions, although by less, suggesting our findings cannot be attributed to motivated reasoning by Republicans alone.”

3. These biases are “pushing Republicans to the right and discouraging Democrats from making a similarly strong move leftward.”

4. One “implication … is that relatively simple informational interventions would lead to legislative outcomes that are more congruent with public opinion.”

5. “politicians with the most severe overestimation of conservatism told us they took the most extremely conservative positions”.

6. “politicians overestimated conservatism the most in districts where Republicans were especially likely to contact legislators”.

7. “Politicians’ incentives are difficult to change, but their information environments are demonstrably malleable”.

So the takeaway is that the progressive side of the debate has to be more active in framing distinctive messages and using multiple ways and avenues to communicate those messages to the candidates seeking election and the politicians that have been elected.

I think this sort of research provides some hope.

I will continue writing about these strategic issues in future blog posts as I learn more.

Music I was listening to just now …

Éric Alfred Leslie Satie is one of my favourite pianists and composers and his works in the late C19th and into the early part of the C20th were the precursor to what emerged in the 1970s and beyond as ambience and post minimalism.

His music was also influential in the French drama style referred to as Théâtre de l’absurde, which sought to attack “the comfortable certainties of religious or political orthodoxy”. My sort of drama!

Satie died from the effects of his alcoholism in 1925. He was a rebel. And produced beautiful music.

This piece (which I listen to regularly) is called Gymnopédie No.1 – which is the first piece in his three-part set of compositions called the Gymnopédies.

It was released in Paris in 1888 and was so far ahead of anything that was going on at the time.

The structure of the pieces was distinctive:

1. 3/4 time.

2. disjunctive chordal pattern in the first bars which defied concepts of harmony at the time but produced the haunting beauty.

John Cage is the contemporary interpreter of Satie’s work.

I hope you like it as much as I do.

London Event – Launch of the Gower Initiative for Modern Money Studies

As part of my next Northern Hemisphere speaking tour (first US, then UK and Europe), I will be helping to launch the Gower Initiative for Modern Money Studies on October 5, 2018 in London.

The Initiative (GIMMS) is an activist group in the UK that is dedicated to advancing an awareness of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) in the public and political spheres.

To achieve fundamental change in the way our governments operate so that the well-being of all of us and not just the elites is forefront, groups like the GIMMS are necessary.

I hope you can support them.

Apart from the Launch, I will present two workshops in the late afternoon on MMT and the Job Guarantee.

For full information, please see the – Event Page

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2018 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 23 Comments

  1. Dear Bill,

    The premise of the study presupposes that politicians do actually want to please their constituents and form their policies to match their desires (and therefore garner their votes).

    I’m afraid I’m a bit cynical about that, and am more inclined to think that, with a few notable exceptions, they are mostly greedy troughers who, in tandem with the corporately owned media, will mostly seek to distort and drive the political narrative so that the public becomes trained to think in the way that they, the politicians, prefer them to – and in ways that, for some strange reason, always seem to benefit the most wealthy and powerful interests that greedy and manipulative politicians are actually the keenest to serve.

    Unfortunately, the left have been on the back foot since the 1970s, even more so since 1989, and are still playing catch-up for the dominant hegemony of political opinion. And that’s when they’re even trying! Hopefully we may be reaching an inflection point here.

    As an aside, I suppose the issues of cultural and social policy listed in the survey are perhaps broadly indicative of political placement, but to my mind still appear to be something of a distraction from fundamental class politics, if not even occasionally contradictory, eg gay marriage; since when is marriage (of any kind) anything but a conservative institution?

    I very much hope to catch the event in London in October.

    Best Wishes, Mr S.

  2. I agree with Mr S. The people who fund their campaigns, the people who own, run and advertise in the media, the political, financial news and programming – they have an agenda that represents their political and economic interests without ever explicitly stating those interests.

  3. Surely, Mr S, one reason that the left has been on the back foot is because they have been aping the right instead of developing their own narrative, economic and political. Sanders, and Obama to some extent, should show the Dems at least that if you have a decent alternative narrative, you can win against the right. I do not understand why Labour seem to be unable to understand what is going on. Maybe it is as Broockman and Skovron claim coupled with a kind of inertia. This latter phenomenon, which Newton understood well in the physical domain, can I think be transferred, in a way, to the social psychological domain. One question then becomes: what sociocultural ‘force’ can move the Labout Party away from the neoliberal narrative and lead then to adopt a new frame?

  4. Great piece.

    We know from many polls that US citizens are pretty left/progressive on many things like health care, wars, and gay marriage.

    Its the oldest battle in the book: the battle between capital and workers.

    Media, politicians, imperialists, lobbyists, economists, and big businesses vs. workers who are alienated by stature, squeezed by finance capital, and spent most of their energies on performing everyday duties, distracted by gizmos and virtual achievements.

  5. Tom, I don’t think the battle is simply the old one between capital and the workers. Overlaid on this structure is the conflict between the 99% and the 1% (some prefer the 90% vs the 10%). Among the 99% are the bankers, who have always been against redistribution, particularly the largest banks.

  6. @larry,

    I am firmly convinced that the reason the left (I’m speaking here for the UK at least…) have been “aping the right” in the very recent past is not because they are necessarily cowardly, hesitant, ignorant, or out of their depth in socialistic framing techniques, but because the (self-described) ‘centrist’, “Third Way” New Labour cohort that pushed their way forward for selection, and who got selected under Kinnock, or, worse, imposed, under Blair, Mandelson, Brown etc. were very much right-wingers all along, and not only believed all their market-driven guff, but were determined to ram it down our throats as ‘continuity Thatcherites’. The aping was not inadvertent, incompetent, or accidental, but duplicitous and very deliberate.

    (I’m not that familiar with the details for the U.S., but Thomas Frank’s book, “Listen, Liberal” documents a similar sounding process.)

    Wrt John McDonnell’s neoliberal narrative aping… well, I can’t really explain that, I’m afraid. Not sure whether it’s a result of listening to a poor choice of advisors, monetarist Trojan-horsery, reluctance to scare the (non-Trojan, electoral!) horses, sheer uselessness… or a combination of the lot!

  7. Larry,

    Bankers are part of the 99%? IDK, even the lower level employees make loading up the society with debt the norm.

    I don’t agree with bankers being against redistribution. They are for redistribution–just not the direction we want. They extract rent without putting back anything valuable into the economy.

    When people say ‘capital’, I thought they meant the people I mentioned in my previous comment.

    Anyway, I just want to get my terms straight. Its a giant neoliberal death ball alright.

  8. “capital and workers”, “conflict between the 99% an the 1%… : “There’s definitely a class war, and our side is winning” W Buffet.
    The concept of an ongoing class war is comprehensive. There probably never has been a war that wasn’t in reality a class war in some respect.

    I tend to agree with Mr S on this. Many politicians these days, including those on purportedly left leaning parties appear to be in politics primarily for the purpose of feathering their own nests within the new (neoliberal) world order.
    They say some things which sound progressive and left, but after being elected act along neoliberal lines with everyone else, as if they were all one big party united under the same tent, laughing all the way to the bank with their corporate overlords.

  9. I’d agree with Mr. S that Gay Marriage is not necessarily a sign of being ‘progressive.’ Bill And Fazi cover this issue well in their book, pointing out that the LBGTQ (ever lengthening acronym) world has been appropriated by neo-liberalism and fed into the ‘agent of maximalisation of self interest’ machine and seen as a fragmented expression of individualism entirely compatible with neo-liberalism.

    Witness the Tory support for Gay Marriage and examples like Ruth Davidson, heading Scottish Tories as an LBGTQer. Identity politics replaced the underlying class issue and wrong footed the Left. The Tories are happy to support identity politics (and freedom of choice to choose your identity) as long as you pay obeisance to financialisation.

  10. “The Tories are happy to support identity politics (and freedom of choice to choose your identity) as long as you pay obeisance to financialisation.”

    I can’t agree with that more.

    Identity politics is in the same line of meritocracy. Its become “as long as you make money, we don’t care about your identity and background.”

  11. Another Satie fan here.
    Regarding the UK Labour Party, there are or have been those (Tony Benn comes to mind) who said that the Labour Party has never been a socialist party. Perhaps it came closest in the 1945-1951 period.
    In the 1980s there were the supposed “Entryists” of the Militant Tendency (opposing Neil Kinnock’s rightward tendency), and now we have Momentum, facing up to the Blairite tendency, with Corbyn (who is probably a socialist) in between. The Labour Party as whole cannot be said to be a socialist party at the present time.

  12. I recommend Ideology in America by Christopher Ellis and James Stimson which addresses this point but also points out that many voters support progressive programs(universal healthcare,higher minimum wage
    better infrastructure, more government support) but identify themselves as conservative.

  13. Excellent: [My view is that they are being badly advised by people who think it is ‘clever’ to adopt the language and frames of neoliberalism to articulate what they see as being a ‘progressive’ policy stance.]
    By the way:
    [Varoufakis: “Tsipras fired me exactly at the point of time when we wanted to bring charges against huge numbers of tax evaders. A special group, that I had assembled, had identified 485,000 tax evaders with the help of a particular computer programme and bank data. These people had evaded at least 100,000 euros in taxes each between 2000 and 2014. We had everything ready, we had even linked the banks’ live data with account numbers and tax numbers. Following the German model, we wanted to offer something like an act of grace: whoever pays back their taxes voluntarily and on their own initiative will only pay a minimum fine of 15 percent. We would have caught anyone who then didn’t pay. Among the people we found were many Greek oligarchs and their families.”]
    [Varoufakis: “No. I was pushed out because I would not sign the 3rd bailout loan. However, the moment I resigned in early July 2015 the troika, with the acquiescence of the Tsipras government, killed the programme that would have caught the tax evaders. As far as it was reported to me, the senior representatives of the troika – not the ministers of finance – wanted to protect the oligarchs. The oligarchs were the troika’s allies in Greece, running the banks and controlling public opinion. They had to be protected.”]
    From: Greece was never bailed out and remains in debtor’s prison – Bild Zeitung interview

  14. It’s the old “Squeaky wheel gets the grease”. Problem is there’s a veritable army of greying right-wingers who’s sole purpose in life is to squeak, as evidenced by your typical letters to the editor in any newspaper.

  15. Gymnopédies are indeed lovely, #1 especially, but Satie is definitely worth a deeper listen starting with Trois Gnossiennes another beautiful set of short pieces, considered derivative of Gymnopédies but written about a decade later.

  16. The paper you (Bill) are talking about is deeply flawed for the reasons others have pointed out.
    Namely it is all about identity politics and nothing about economic politics.
    It is almost as if the authors are as convinced as everyone that the US Gov. is just like a family.
    As long as that is the common perception america is screwed.

  17. @jujuman47,

    “….many [US] voters support progressive programs(universal healthcare,higher minimum wage
    better infrastructure, more government support) but identify themselves as conservative.”

    I believe it was the authors of ‘The Spirit Level’ who declared that if you really wanted to live the Anerican Dream, you should move to Denmark!

  18. Tom, I guess I wasn’t clear that when I mentioned bankers, I did not have in mind the rank and file as it were but the upper management, those who basically run the bank. The term, redistribution, as I meant it referred to redistributiing from the upper strata to the lower ones, not redistribution among the upper strata personnel. My bankers were against FDR’s New Deal and Bretton Woods, especially the Fund. Some of the comments they made about funding for developing countries were eerily similar to those made recently in relation to Greece, certainly during the time Varoufakis was finance minister. Now as then, they fought for deregulation, as that would allow them to do what they wanted without interference, just like they enjoyed in the ’20s. There was a good deal of gold bug thinking going on in the ’30s and ’40s, just as there is, often implicitly, now.

  19. “biases in politicians’ information environments common across politicians can lead politicians as a whole to systematically misperceive constituency opinion”

    The authors should study the most rabid anti-Corbynite in the British Labour Party, Chuka Umunna, as a prime example of this phenomenon. He apparently believes his majority increased in last year’s general election because of his anti-Brexit stance and not because of Corbyn’s/the manifesto’s popularity. Presumably he has not bothered to tax his grey matter in considering why Kate Hoey (a prominent Brexiteer) also increased her majority in a constituency that voted heavily for Remain.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back To Top