Posts Tagged ‘political elites’

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 »

Elite cues in state judiciary elections

When it comes to electorates, there’s low-information, and then there’s low-information. State legislative elections features a lot of candidates that voters aren’t very familiar with, for example. An open city council primary like the one we just had in Carbondale — in which 16 candidates were whittled down to 12 for the general — is likely to rely on personal networking as much as anything else. But judicial elections are another beast entirely: Most people don’t really get what judges do, particularly at the appellate level and above (see, for example, Gregory Casey’s “The Supreme Court and Myth”).

So part of electing justices turns out to be lots of irrelevant scare-tactics about how Judge So-and-so wants to let child molesters loose in the schools, but another important part is elite cuing in the form of endorsements. You may not really know anything about the candidates or the job they’re running for, and you may not have the helpful cue of party identification, but it’s easy to sort out the latent partisanship of each candidate’s endorsements. Having said, Wisconsin will have a Supreme Court election in April, between incumbent David Prosser and challenger Joanne Kloppenburg. Let’s look at some of the prominent names in their lists of endorsers:

Prosser – Three former governors, a former lt. governor, apparently every Republican in the state legislature, many county sheriffs and DAs, and the county executive of Waukesha County

Kloppenburg – The county executive of Dane County, the mayor of Madison, several county supervisors, various aldermen, one state representative, and many private citizens.

Non-partisan election status aside, Prosser is the Republican and Kloppenburg the Democrat in this race. Notice the difference between how the parties understand this? The entire Wisconsin GOP is lined up behind Prosser, providing the kind of elite cuing that tells Republican voters how they should cast their ballot, even if they don’t know the first thing about Prosser or Kloppenburg as judges. Wisconsin Democrats, on the other hand, have apparently decided to sit this one out. Keep in mind, like all non-presidential elections, this is a turnout election — getting voters informed and interested in the election is the key to winning, particularly for a challenger. So where are the state legislative caucuses? Where is private citizen Russ Feingold and his considerable organizing and mobilizing weight? This is the first opportunity to demonstrate the energy of the anti-Scott Walker protests can be channeled into something sustained, and it has the added benefit of being a race that will impact the inevitable court decisions about what Walker’s trying to do.

Filed: We R in Control || 17:33, February 27 || No Comments »

Rhetoric, truth and ontology in political debate

This may be a little disjointed, as I’ve been trying to think through a number of issues relating to the Giffords shooting and my research on partisan information flow. I’m cautiously optimistic that the broad discussion about violent rhetoric is headed in the right direction, even if it is accompanied by a considerable amount of whining about “blame.” But I still feel like we’re missing part of the point.

First, we are seriously eliding the differences between violent, angry and uncivil rhetoric. Sharron Angle’s line about “Second Amendment remedies” is a clear example of violent rhetoric; Ben Quayle saying he would “knock the hell” out of Congress is not; Alan Grayson calling his opponent “Taliban Dan” is not. But in the Washington-dominated conversation about this tragedy, this interpretation (as epitomized by MSNBC’s First Read) is on full display. Much of this concern could’ve been aired during any recent campaign without much editing — the Washington press corps and the political elites they interact with have been extremely concerned with “tone” for quite some time. Tone-based criticism has been a primary weapon against the influence of outsider-activists such as bloggers for years. That they would respond to this shooting by reprising one of their favorite tunes has me wondering just why they’re so concerned with tone and rhetoric, often to the exclusion of policy outcomes. Do political elites fixate on tone because they are both socially close to both sides of the Washington power balance and largely insulated from the outcomes of policy decisions? Could this lead them to view all political debate through this largely socially-driven lens? Ezra Klein took himself to task yesterday for suggesting during that health care debate that Joe Lieberman “was willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands to settle an old electoral score.” This was a fairly personal attack on Lieberman, and probably an unnecessary one, but the core of the criticism was correct — the ACA will save hundreds of thousands of lives. That is, it’s not just a rhetorical device, it’s a policy with real outcomes. But for both passionate supporters and opponents of the policy among political elites, the rhetorical lens is just as important.

Once they abandon their concern for policy outcomes, their ability to moderate policy debates — which ultimately lie at the core of all this rhetoric — becomes extremely suspect. If you’re more concerned with rhetoric than outcomes, should you bother evaluating the outcomes, or the logic used to predict them? We can see this playing out in any number of recent debates. Look at the death panel claim, for instance. This was a claim that received significant criticism from the Left, and even some from the Right, usually in the form of, “Palin’s claim is a bit too strong, but still….” It was used to rile up opponents of health care reform and provided a quick and easy lineage of talking points for the GOP. It was, to be sure, a heated claim — the government was coming to kill our babies and old people — and that was seen by many as a problem. But really the problem with the claim wasn’t that it was heated, but that it was false. Imagine, for a moment, that it was 100% true. Babies with Downs syndrome would have to stand before these cartoonishly named “death panels” to anxiously await a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Wouldn’t you want to know? Wouldn’t you want somebody to scream from the rooftops, “Hey, this bill is going to allow the government to kill whomever it wants,” and do whatever they could to stop it? I would want to know that!

But it wasn’t true. Despite that, it was largely taken at face value. See also the “Ground Zero mosque,” the various fake bailouts, “Climategate” — you can even go back to Swift Boat ads of 2004, and probably well before that. Unfortunately, one of the hallmarks of the modern Washington press corps seems to be that all sincerely held beliefs are taken on their own terms, and never directly challenged. Over the years, this has allowed us to generate not just duelling ideologies, or duelling information infrastructures, but duelling notions of reality itself. Adam Serwer notes that, “If people really believed 90 percent of what the conservative media were telling them, violence would almost be justified.” What the conservative media tell them is that, among other things, President Obama is literally setting up both a communist and an Islamic overthrow of the U.S. government. Again, the rhetoric itself needn’t be violent; it’s a heated, angry fantasy, which clearly positions a real person with real power as the ultimate villain. Serwer determines that really they don’t believe it, because we haven’t seen a violent uprising, though Digby has a list that suggests otherwise. On top of that list of actual occurrences, we can look to poll results — last August, Pew found that 34% of conservative Republicans believe Obama is a Muslim.

You don’t have to be perfectly sane to start with, or a card-carrying Tea Party member to potentially be influenced by this detachment from reality. It may be enough to be in a position to let this worldview wash over you to the exclusion of truthful information. And once you’ve been so washed, there’s no reason to expect you’re going to take up arms against anyone. But this detachment does more than create an angry environment — it makes political debate impossible. If we’re going to debate the cost/benefits trade-offs of a health care reform proposal, or a stimulus bill, or a tax cut bill, etc., we have to at least have some consensus about outcomes. We don’t have to, and probably never will, agree on which trade-off is best in either the short or long terms. But if your method of debating is to toss out CBO scores you don’t like and just rely on the Laffer curve and scare tactics for everything, we will never get anywhere.

Filed: Super Special Questions || 14:11, January 11 || No Comments »