Monday, April 08, 2013

Political Elites Bowing Down Before The Ones They Serve

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.
Broockman and Skovron also estimated the actual support for these proposals in each of the respondents' districts. Estimates of actual support come out of a multi-level regression and poststratification (MRP) model. The paper contains a neat map of greater Los Angeles showing the results of the MRP model for districts there.

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:

  1. Harm/care
  2. Fairness/reciprocity
  3. In-group/loyalty
  4. Authority/respect
  5. Purity/sanctity
(Quite a bit of literature exists on the different cognitive styles of conservatives and liberals. Liberals tend to have more activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, and conservatives tend to have a more active amygdala.) Liberals tend to worry more about harm and fairness, while conservatives equally emphasize all five dimensions.

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.



Magpie said...

Like yourself, I haven't read Jonathan Haidt's "The Righteous Mind".

But I did read an enthusiastic summary/review, which made me doubt the wisdom of spending money and time in that book:

"Haidt finds that small-L liberals' moral concerns are limited to just the first three dimensions (...)
"Conservatives, on the other hand, care about all six dimensions. (...)
"The conservatives' broader range of moral concerns means they understand the motivations of liberals better than liberals understand the motives of conservatives.
"Haidt argues the community benefits from the ever-present tension between the two sides - each emphasises important aspects of maintaining a good society - if only we could restore a greater degree of civility between the contending parties." (Ross Gittins, the Sydney Morning Herald's economics editor)


As I write this, Al-Jazeera TV shows comments about Margaret Thatcher's death. It's striking how widely discordant the comments are: ordinary people tend to be quite critical; David Cameron has a sycophantic paroxysm before 10 Downing St, while Tony Blair endorses her destroying unions (and both fail to realize how repugnant they sound).

You may be onto something here, Vienneau. Very good title, btw: "Political Elites Bowing Down Before The Ones They Serve".

Robert Vienneau said...

My title is a take-off on a lyric from a Nine Inch Nails song.

I'm willing to hear about other ways of formulating my second hypothesis - that conservatives here expressions of liberal or leftist views as being inherently rude.

I thought of Haidt's framework as one setting for justifying this idea. Haidt and coauthors have a paper, "The Moral Stereotypes of Liberals and Conservatives: Exaggeration of Differences across the Political Spectrum", with empirical data from a questionnaire supporting the view that conservatives understand liberals better than vice versa.

On Thatcher - I bought a copy of Masters ofthe Universe yesterday (HT: Matias Vernengo).

Greg said...

I think your second hypothesis has much merit. I would only add that if they are "hearing" the view, it likely is rude.... for good reason! I've stopped trying to be polite just for politeness sake when it comes to some matters.

I have another theory about conservatives. They really only hear rudeness. They often need a rude awakening.