Political Choice in a Polarized Era: How Elite Polarization Shapes Mass Behavior

(Oxford University Press, 2022)

What motivates citizens to support one party over the other? Do they carefully weigh all of the relevant issues and assess which party or candidate best matches their own positions? Or do people look at politics as something more akin to a team sport—the specifics do not matter as long as you know what side your team is on? These are the questions that consume scholars of political behavior. Understanding how and why Americans vote the way they do is central to understanding the political process.

Answering these questions require us to think about how much does the average American know about politics? How are their attitudes structured? Are they structured at all? Many scholars of public opinion paint a fairly grim picture. The consensus is that the majority of Americans only pay passing attention to politics, at best. Many Americans struggle to answer even the most basic factual political questions. Large majorities of citizens cannot name a member of the Supreme Court, or know which party controls the House of Representatives.

The electorate’s apparent lack of competence presents a direct challenge to normative theories of democracy. How are citizens supposed to exert control over the government if they have no idea of what is going on and even if they did, lacked the tools to effectively process the information?

What I claim in Political Choice in a Polarized America is that these fears are overblown. Not only do individuals have core beliefs about what the government should or should not do (what I call policy orientations), but also the predictive power of these attitudes has increased in recent decades. Individuals have become more likely to support the party that best matches their policy attitudes, by both identifying as a member of that party and actually voting for that party in elections. Most voters are not ideologues, but they do have favorable and unfavorable orientations towards specific types of government action and employ these orientations when they make political choices.

My thesis rests on the idea that voters generally try to support the party or candidate that best matches their orientations. However, voters’ ability to successfully do so varies as a function of the signals sent by elites. Voters have an easier time connecting their own orientations with the party offerings when the parties are polarized, i.e. they are presenting a clear set of alternatives. This perspective helps to clarify decades of mixed findings about the prevalence (or lack) of policy voting.

I show that voters have sorted into the ‘correct’ partisan camp as result of increasing polarization among elites—those with liberal orientations support Democrats and the opposite is true for those with conservative orientations. This is true even among citizens with low levels of sophistication. Voters now consistently cast ballots for the candidate that best matches their own policy orientations. They are also more likely to express hostility towards members of the other party and align their symbolic ideology (identifying as a liberal or conservative) with their policy orientations as a result of this same process. These are all consequences of growing elite polarization.

Wrapped up in my core claim are several others surrounding the nature of the relationship between policy orientations and other political attitudes—partisanship in particular. I argue and then demonstrate that policy orientations are not just a byproduct of partisanship, as is often argued. Instead, policy orientations should be viewed as a distinct and equally meaningful disposition. I show that policy orientations are stable over time—both within individuals and groups. I use several analyses of panel data to show these policy orientations both shape partisanship and are shaped by partisanship. The strength of this relationship is conditioned by elite polarization—policy orientations have become stronger predictors of partisanship as the elite has grown more polarized (opposed to vice-versa). Overall, the arguments and evidence in this book help to shed new light on some enduring and important questions in the study of American public opinion and behavior