|Table 1: Politicians in State Legislatures Ignorant of Strength of Constituent Support for Universal Health Care|
|Table 2: Politicians in State Legislatures Ignorant of Strength of Constituent Support for Gay Marriage|
In 2012, Broockman and Skovron surveyed candidates for office in state legislatures throughout the United States. Nearly 2,000 candidates replied. About half of those responding won their races, about half are Democrats, and about half are Republicans. The survey asked the respondents to estimate their constituents' support for the following three policy proposals:
- Implement a universal healthcare program to guarantee coverage to all Americans, regardless of income.
- Same sex couples should be allowed to marry.
- Abolish all federal welfare programs.
Figures 1 and 2, above, compare the actual support for the first two policy proposals, respectively, to estimated support. If estimates matched actual values, they would lie on the 45 degree line, shown in grey on the graphs. A striking finding is that members of state legislatures tend to think their districts are more conservative than they are. The bias is more extreme for conservative politicians: "Nearly half of sitting conservative officeholders appear to believe that they represent a district that is more conservative ... than the most conservative legislative district in the entire country." Furthermore, politicians learn next to nothing about their constituents' views in running for office.
Broockman and Skovron use these results as a starting point for speculating on how constituents can control their representatives, given these systematic biases in the representatives understanding of opinions among their constituents. As I understand it, this approach fits into a large question within political science, as studied in the United States: How can democracy work even as good as it does in the United States, given the widespread ignorance of the most basic facts about the political system on the part of populace in the United States, including voters? Broockman and Skovron have added a new question: How can democracy work in the United States, given not only ignorance among the populace, but also systematic ignorance on the part of elected officials?
I would like to suggest two hypotheses for explaining these results. First, I suggest legislatures are accurately reflecting the views of their constituents, at least those constituents who matter. Martin Gilens finds that only the policy views of the rich influence what policy gets implemented, at least on the Federal level. Andrew Gelman has shown that the rich tend to be more reactionary in their views.
Second, I would like to suggest that norms of politeness in the United States interacts with conservative minds such that conservatives are systematically underexposed to liberal views among their constituents. I draw on Jonathan Haidt's work here. In some work, he defines five dimensions of moral intuitions:
My hypothesis is that conservatives tend to hear those articulating liberal, or even more left views, as being rude. If you are not comforting the comfortable, these days, you are branding yourself as not a member of an in-group that conservatives are loyal to, showing disrespect for our elites, and demonstrating personal impurity. So whether or not they understand liberal views, conservatives are unlikely to perceive such views as any more than eccentricities.
I suppose one could test my first hypothesis by comparing politicians' estimates of their constituents' views with the actual views of those constituents in the top 10% or 1%, by income or wealth. I'm not sure how one would empirically assess my second hypothesis, relating norms of politeness to political views. However one did this, I would think my second hypothesis would apply in a more extreme fashion to rural districts, as compared with urban districts. I do not know how this would apply in suburban districts.
I've probably made my usual share of spelling and grammar mistakes above. But I get to conclude this post, as if it were a journal publication, not a off-the-cuff blog post. More research is needed.References
- David E. Broockman and Christopher Skovron. What Politicians Believe About Their Constituents: Asymmetric Misperceptions and Prospects for Constituency Control, Working Paper (3 March 2013).
- Andrew Gelman. Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do. [I HAVE ONLY READ PAPERS SUMMARIZING THIS]
- Martin Gilens. Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America, Princeton University Press (2012). [I HAVE ONLY READ A GILENS PAPER, NOT THIS BOOK]
- Jesse Graham, Jonathan Haidt, and Brian A. Nosek. Liberals and Conservatives Rely on Different Sets of Moral Foundations (2009).
- Jonathan Haidt. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Vintage (2013). [I HAVE ONLY READ PAPERS SUMMARIZING THIS]