The Republican Party is viewed by a majority of the American people as being out of touch and advocating policies that are too extreme. According to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, although 85% of Americans say the Republican Party has strong principles, only 33% hold a favorable view of the Party. Significantly, 62% of the public says the GOP is “out of touch with the American People,” 56% think that it is not “open to change,” 52% say the Party is “too extreme” and 50% do not think the GOP “looks out for the country’s future.”
There are multiple explanations for why this is the case. But without a doubt, a contributing factor has been the GOP’s lionization of deeply unpopular policy positions as the Party’s official approach to addressing issues of national concern. For example, there is widespread public demand for major legislation to address the federal deficit. But there is little public appetite for the policies the Republican Party has repeatedly advanced. Why, for example, do conservative politicians promote significant structural changes to the Medicare guarantee as a component of deficit reduction when Americans have consistently said they want Medicare completely off the table in deficit negotiations?
Part of the answer is that this is what the Republican Party actually believes. Eviscerating Medicare is simply a means to an end – in this case, the end being smaller government. But in a representative democracy like the United States, one would think that the relative unpopularity of a proposal would cause some self-reflection among politicians. That such self-reflection has been absent from lawmakers, particularly conservative lawmakers, is a vexing question.
A recent study by political-science graduate students David Broockman of Berkley and Christopher Skovron of Michigan may provide an answer. Their paper, “What Politicians Believe About Their Constituents: Asymmetric Misperceptions and Prospects for Constituency Control,” found that state legislators routinely overestimate the conservatism of their constituents. In other words, Americans are not as conservative as their elected officials think.
Broockman and Skovron “endeavor[ed] to advance the understanding of this basic question about democratic politics: what is . . . [the] correspondence between constituencies’ policy preferences and their representatives’ policymaking?”
To address this question, they probed state legislative candidates on a number of controversial issues including, among other things, universal health care and same-sex marriage. Specifically, they asked legislators “What percent of your constituents” would “agree with” the following statements: (1) “Implement a universal healthcare program to guarantee coverage to all Americans, regardless of income”; and (2) “Same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.”
After gathering data from 9,825 state legislative candidates, Broockman and Skovron concluded that “[m]ost politicians appear to believe they are representing constituents who are considerably different than their actual constituents.” This misperception, however, was asymmetric. In fact, Broockman and Skovron found a “striking conservative bias in politicians’ perspectives.” In other words, both Republican and Democratic legislators consistently believe their constituents are more conservative than they actually are.
Conservatives’ perceptions, however, are “exceptionally distorted.” Conservatives typically overestimate the conservatism of their constituencies by more than 20 percentage points, roughly the difference in partisanship between California and Alabama. In fact, “nearly half of conservative politicians appear to believe that they represent a district that is more conservative on these issues than is the most conservative district in the country.”
Consider the case of universal health care and same-sex marriage. In the graphs below, the thin black line is perfect accuracy (i.e., the response you would get from a legislator who is perfectly in tune with his or her constituents). A politicians’ estimate above this line signifies that they think the district is more liberal than it actually is; an estimate below this line signifies that they think the district is more conservative than it actually is. The blue line represents the average estimate among liberal legislators; the red line represents the average estimate among conservative legislators.
The above graph shows the incongruence between public opinion and politicians’ estimates of public opinion on the issues of universal health care and same-sex marriage. Specifically, it shows a systematic conservative bias among state legislators. This incongruence is particularly striking among conservative legislators, where more than 90% of conservative candidates significantly overestimate their constituents’ opposition to these policies.
The effect of this misperception is that “where supporters of these policies outnumber opponents by 2 to 1, liberal politicians appear to typically believe these policies enjoy only a bare majority of support while conservative politicians outright reject the notion that these policies command widespread support.” Legislatively, however, this misperception effectively imposes a supermajority requirement at the state legislative level for passing liberal policies.
Consider the following graph, which measures whether elite perception responds to changes in public opinion.
The above graph is a little more difficult to read than the previous one, but what it identifies is the threshold of support a policy must cross for politicians to back it as well. The graph indicates that liberal politicians recognize that their constituents support universal health care and same-sex marriage, but only once that support becomes somewhat lopsided. Conservative politicians, on the other hand, “appear to nearly never entertain the notion that a majority of their constituents support these issues, even when support among their constituents is overwhelming.” In order to pass universal health care, for example, the threshold of support in the district would have to be above 60 percent.
Broockman and Skovron do not get into why there exists a conservative bias among state legislators in the United States. But a powerful explanation likely can be found in the organizational advantage held by conservatives in service of conservative causes. As Garance Franke-Ruta noted over at The Atlantic, “conservatives have since the 1970s pursued a strategy of robust organizing within states in the service of pushing conservative policies.” On the other hand, “Liberals have never been able to (or, more commonly, sought to) match the extent of state-by-state organizing and statehouse lobbying of conservative groups and causes.”
It is important to note that the working paper has not been peer reviewed and that, as a general rule, it is foolhardy to read too much into a single piece of academic research. Even so, however, the results held up against the battery of checks the authors threw at it. In fact, the difference between politicians’ perceptions and reality is so great that Broockman and Skovron’s “model would need to perform exceptionally poor” to tangibly change their conclusions. Furthermore, while Broockman and Skovron’s research focused on state legislators, there is little reason to believe that their findings would not also be true of federal legislators, particularly in the House of Representatives. The difficulty lies in what we can do about it. This isn’t a matter of simply telling legislators that they are wrong, or providing them with better information. Rather, the burden lies with us as citizens. There must be greater organization at the state level and more persistent demand-making. Above all, this means that there must be greater political participation. Only then will our legislators produce policy that is less disconnected from public opinion.
The United States relies on representative democracy. That is, American citizens elect people to represent themselves and their ideas in government. This does not mean that representatives are, or should be, beholden to the whims of public opinion. Representatives owe their constituents only their industry and judgment. But the disconnect between conservative representatives and the people has become so stark that it is impossible to ignore.