Posts Tagged ‘ideology’

Examining social identity influence: A meandering series of thought exercises

At the annual MAPOR conference a few weeks ago, we held the third in a series of panels built around Doug Hindman’s “belief gap” hypothesis. Following the panels in 2011 and 2012 I posted summaries of where my thoughts had gone based on what we’d all presented and talked about in these fruitful sessions. I had planned to do the same this year, but the thoughts have gotten too big. Instead, I have some thoughts on where the belief gap model has gone and how it can integrate with other similar models of social identity influence, to be followed by several posts exploring the deeper questions that are raised by what current research has done with this model. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed: Science Is Real || 8:00, December 22 || 1 Comment »

Mitt Romney and the need for fringe belief entrepreneurship

Christian media plays a prominent role in supplementing the influence of conservatism and Republicanism. Belief that vaccines can cause autism is not predicted by political identity, but could Christian media be home to the leading edge of right-wing belief generation?

Mitt Romney’s campaign took kind of an odd turn this week — odd even in the context of this campaign. They sent out a mailer in northern Virginia touting Romney’s plan to deal with the epidemic of… Lyme disease. This was not merely one line item in the mailer, it was the whole point: “What can a president do about Lyme disease?” asks the cover side, with the interior calling it a “massive epidemic threatening Virginia.” Virginia had 9.3 cases per 100,000 people in 2011, just above the national average of 7.8. Needless to say, this is an addition to the campaign agenda, and I’d wager an addition to campaign agendas in general going back a long, long time, and maybe forever. George Bush declared a Lyme Disease Awareness Week back in the summer of 1990, which is probably the closest it’s ever come to being a campaign issue.

The Romney mailer suggests a few ways that Romney will end the scourge of Lyme disease. First, “improve synergy.” Sure, sounds good. Second, “increase awareness.” This mailer sure has him off to a good start! Finally, “support treatment.” The interior of the mailer makes clear that supporting treatment is primarily about tort reform, because doctors who might get sued for malpractice can’t effectively treat Lyme disease. A friend suggested to me that this is really the point of this weird strategy, but I’m skeptical. The GOP desire for tort award caps is not something that is sublimated in any way — they’re open about it and they talk about it a lot. So why put out this odd mailer where tort reform is buried in one phrase of an interior bullet point, if tort reform is the point?

Simon van Zuylen-Wood, guest-blogging at Political Animal, had the same initial reaction I did: it’s about dog-whistling the Christian right. First, Virginia and its evangelical governor, Bob McDonnell, have actually been pushing Lyme disease prevention for the last couple years. McDonnell put together a Lyme disease task force headed by the president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, rather than, say, a scientist. Apparently Romney’s desire to “get the CDC out of the way” resonated with this guy and now they’re pals.

This narrative is based on some nice dot-connecting among all these individuals and institutions, and it’s well worth reading the whole thing. My impression, on the other hand, comes largely from following and studying fringe beliefs over the last several years, and specifically from a study I conducted last fall. This is data I presented at MAPOR last year, and will follow up this year. One of the beliefs I examined in that study was the belief that vaccines can cause autism, and unlike some other science-related beliefs (climate change, evolution), there was absolutely no effect of ideology and partisanship. There was also no effect of using partisan political media. There was, however, a significant effect of using Christian media, that positively predicted belief in the autism-causing power of vaccines. To the extent that this belief is rising up, it’s happening in a venue that has little traction in mainstream social and political discourse. This is nothing new for American fringe beliefs — when Dr. Strangelove‘s Commander Ripper expressed concern over our “precious bodily fluids,” that was a satire of contemporary fringe concerns nearly 50 years ago.

So I find myself wondering if what Romney’s doing here is trying to innovate in the domain of fringe issues, playing on a right-wing Christian health and government paranoia. For a campaign still trying to solidify its base, and desperately in need of something to change the election’s trajectory, that kind of enterprise campaigning has a lot of upside and carries little risk. If it makes the campaign look kooky and generates some laughs on the national level, so be it — people are laughing anyway.

Filed: We R in Control || 12:13, September 30 || No Comments »

The first slide of my MAPOR presentation

I’m following up last year’s belief gap study at MAPOR this year, and analysis is still in progress, but I’ve found the thing that will open my presentation in Chicago — it’s these polls from Public Policy Polling in Ohio and North Carolina:

Who do you think deserves more credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden: Barack Obama or Mitt Romney?

OHIO All Democrats Independents Republicans
Barack Obama 63% 86% 64% 38%
Mitt Romney 6% 1% 1% 15%
Not Sure 31% 13% 36% 47%
NORTH CAROLINA All Democrats Independents Republicans
Barack Obama 63% 87% 61% 29%
Mitt Romney 6% 1% 3% 15%
Not Sure 31% 11% 36% 56%

Got that? Nearly 1 in 6 Republicans in these swing states say Mitt Romney deserves more credit than Barack Obama does for Osama bin Laden’s death. Unlike, say, the auto bailout, which Romney occasionally claims he ought to be credited for, neither Romney nor anyone else has ever said he deserves credit for this. And why would he? By any standard it’s a belief that’s totally detached from reality. And yet, there it is.

Filed: Science Is Real || 10:12, September 11 || 1 Comment »

Who cues?

At the MAPOR conference last weekend, I presented a study on how partisan media strengthens belief gaps. The belief gap idea, first identified by Doug Hindman a couple years ago, is an extension of the knowledge gap, a theory with over 40 years of work behind it. Whereas the knowledge gap hypothesis suggests that education predicts differential gains of knowledge about political issues — everyone learns, but high-education people learn more, creating a widening gap — the belief gap hypothesis suggests that ideology is better than education for such predictions. It’s called the “belief” gap because the conceptualization of beliefs better fits the context in which facts and knowledge are politically contested.

My paper (with students Delwar Hossain and Ben Lyons) took the initial findings and expanded them in three ways. First, we examined partisanship in addition to ideology and found that it’s consistently a better predictor of beliefs. We attribute this to both being essentially markers of group affiliation, but partisanship being a clearer one for both researchers and survey respondents. Ideology has long been conceptualized as a coherent belief system that drives opinion-formation, but most research suggests few people actually have this kind of formal ideology. Instead, we use cues from elites to guide our opinions, attitudes and beliefs.

Second, we examined the role of partisan traditional and social media in the belief gap process. Despite concern that social media are politically polarizing and insular, we found that partisan traditional media are far stronger drivers of partisan beliefs. There is a structural explanation for this — cable TV and radio have far larger audiences than do blogs and pundits’ social media outlets — as well as a psychological one — we’re exposed to more elite opinion through these outlets, whether those elites are elected officials or opinion-leading commentators.

Finally, we examined belief gaps in five issues — two science-related issues that had previously been studied by Hindman (climate change and abstinence-only sex education), two evidence-free rumors about President Obama (he’s a Muslim, he was born outside the U.S.) and one factual economic issue (whether most Americans’ taxes have gone up during the Obama Administration). Each of these issues has a correct answer by consensus of relevant authorities, but each is also highly politicized. We found belief gaps for each, with largely similar patterns of partisan media influence.

I lay all this out because thinking about our findings in the context of the other presentations in the belief gap panel — from Hindman; Ken Blake and Misa Culley; and Rob Daves, Allen White and Stephen Everett — led me to thinking a lot about the broader, more abstract facets of this idea.1 To my mind, there are two big questions to be answered. First, we need to think about what things a person can have “beliefs” about. During the panel, Rob Daves talked about “verifiable” issues and referenced the work of Cecilie Gaziano in this area, but I think we can think of this in cognitive terms. Given that the belief gap idea grow out of the knowledge gap, I suggest that we look towards the cognitive structure of knowledge to understand what we mean by “belief.” Presumably we are thinking of issues about which the believer can feel that their beliefs are “correct,” even if all evidence and authoritative consensus suggests otherwise, even if there is no consensus to draw on, and even if the answer exists but is unknowable. We may further want to separate issues that are retrospective (about which verification may already be possible), prospective (about which verification can’t be done yet) and ongoing (about which verification may be ephemeral or in constant dispute). These orthogonal issue dimensions would co-exist with the dimension already in use in existing research, politicization.2 The typology might look something like this — consistent with a seat-of-the-pants typology, the examples are the results of just some quick thinking on this and may not fit all that well:

Politicized Non-politicized
Retrospective Prospective Ongoing Retrospective Prospective Ongoing
Consensus Obama born in U.S. Global temperatures will rise Climate change Lincoln killed by Booth Vaccines and autism
Disputed Roe v. Wade lowered crime rate Economy will improve next year Gun ownership and safety JFK killed by Oswald
Unknowable 2000 election stolen Jesus will return someday Alien life exists

If we believe that the process observed in the belief gap phenomenon is one of elite cuing by like-minded political leaders (consistent with the work of, e.g., John Zaller), the next question is who does the cuing across the range of this issue typology. For politicized issues, we’ve got a pretty strong hypothesis that political elites provide the most relevant cues, but who those elites are might vary by issues. Particularly for issues that are politicized along evangelical/non-evangelical religious lines, we might expect to see different people and sources playing important roles in mass-opinion formation. Maybe economic, defense and science issues all have different arrays of influential elites; still, we’re probably talking about a relatively narrow band of elites that cue beliefs across a lot of political issues.

But what about beliefs for which elite political cues are not relevant? With the possible exception of Michele Bachmann, nobody’s politicizing childhood vaccinations. So who cues beliefs about vaccinations? Is it scientific consensus (as reported by news media)? Jenny McCarthy? Oprah? If we can explain how non-political beliefs are cued, we may go a long way toward identifying the underlying cognitive and social psychological processes of political belief formation.

1. I should also acknowledge the suggestions of several members of the SIUC political science department (particularly Tobin Grant and Scott McClurg) during a preliminary presentation of this work, which I subsequently incorporated into the final product, and which have informed my ongoing thinking about this topic.

2.┬áThere’s another wrinkle here, which is the concept of issue domains and the cognitive work that goes into connecting our attitudes on related issues. For example, in the data used in our paper above, beliefs that tax cuts encourage job creation and that federal deficits discourage job creation were strongly correlated, even though tax cuts help to increase deficits. Additionally, our respondents also anticipate strong inflation over the next year, even though we’ve been in a period of historically low inflation during the global recession. What it looks like is that, instead of considering each issue on its own, there’s a relationship between all these economic issues and general economic attitudes — that is, the economy is bad, and inflation is bad, so we’re in an inflationary period. Job creation is good and tax cuts are good, so they must go together. Probably relevant, but also probably not worth getting into until the first level of questions have been worked out.

Filed: Science Is Real || 20:11, November 21 || 2 Comments »

Liberals and the legend of Feingold

''Thanks Russ'' window in Madison

This empty Madison storefront was also a Kerry campaign office in 2004. Coincidence?

I spent four days in Madison over Thanksgiving break and learned two important things. First, my happiness at being back in my favorite city is only strong enough to survive one day of single-digit wind chills. And second, the development of the Legend of Russ Feingold is already well underway. All along State St., the “Feingold ’10” stickers have been permanently and prominently affixed behind store counters, while local talk radio has turned its ire to the “they” that populates the rest of the state (to be fair, this is also true in discussions of Gov.-elect Scott Walker’s plan to cancel a Milwaukee-Madison Amtrak route). No one I talked to was very receptive to the idea that Feingold shot himself in the foot by filibustering the financial reform bill, even though the result of his action was to weaken the bill so that Scott Brown would become the 60th vote.

This was all at the top of my mind when I read Dahlia Lithwick’s piece on the search for the new Feingold. The way Feingold supporters come across in the piece you’d think he was dead, because the last time liberals went looking for the “next” somebody it was Paul Wellstone. Ironically, the person most self-consciously working to uphold Wellstone’s legend — Al Franken — is suggested as a potential next Feingold as well, but dismissed by “civil libertarians” for his votes in favor of warrantless wiretapping. But then, he also voted for the financial reform bill, so maybe it’s a wash. But I suspect for liberals of a certain stripe, the lesson of Feingold’s defeat will be retrenchment. This is admittedly a bit of nutpicking, but these FireDogLake comments suggest that even Feingold saying “no” to a 2012 primary challenge isn’t enough to turn some minds from it.

Of course, since he’s not dead and not running for president in 2012, it’ll be interesting to see where he goes from here. It’s probably not a 2016 run — his window was 2008, when liberals might’ve gone big for him, if the Daily Kos straw poll is any evidence. Trying to get back to the Senate in 2012 if Herb Kohl retires? Challenging Walker in 2014? I’ve always felt that Feingold has an executive style about him, but I just don’t know if electoral politics is the place for him anymore. Facing a tough environment and a likely Republican wave, he pulled punches (when he punched at all); the campaign environment’s not going to be much more pleasant in the next couple cycles.

Filed: We R in Control || 9:59, November 30 || No Comments »