Explaining Explanations: How Legislators Explain their Policy Positions and How Citizens React

The forthcoming article “Explaining Explanations: How Legislators Explain their Policy Positions and How Citizens  React” by Christian R. Grose, Neil Malhotra, and Robert P. Van Houweling is summarized here:

People often disagree with their elected representatives, especially on contentious issues such as immigration that do not fall cleanly along liberal-conservative lines. At the same time, reelection rates for incumbent members of Congress are extremely high in the United States, even as political elites have become more polarized and more extreme. How can this be? We argue that it does not only matter how representatives vote on legislation, but also how they explain their votes to their constituents. It is possible that through persuasive explanations, members of Congress can smooth over policy disagreements with their constituents. To test this hypothesis, we conducted two experiments.

Our first experiment used U.S. senators as subjects during the 110th Congress, when an unsuccessful cloture vote effectively killed comprehensive immigration reform. We sent all 100 U.S. senators one letter in favor of immigration reform and one letter opposed. The pro letters were all identical to one another (as were the cons), and each letter was mailed to a senator from a constituent in the senator’s home state. We examined whether the senators responded and if the content of the senators’ responses differed depending on whether the constituent supported or opposed immigration reform.

Surprisingly, we found that senators were equally likely to respond to constituents who disagreed with their positions on immigration as constituents who agreed with them. They were also equally as likely to share with constituent opponents and supporters how they voted. So how exactly did they explain their votes? We discovered behaviors that we term compensating. When confronted with a letter from an anti-immigration constituent, a pro-immigration senator would acknowledge her vote in favor of cloture, but would also be more likely to discuss additional amendments that called for spending more money on border security, or would discuss support for administrative enforcement actions at the border. Analogously, an anti-immigration senator responding to a pro-immigration constituent would mention his vote against cloture, but also discuss his efforts to promote family reunification and increase skilled immigration.

How effective were these explanations? In our second experiment, we used ordinary people as subjects, and randomly assigned them to read examples of the various letters we received from actual senators in the first experiment. We found senators’ tailoring strategies to be extremely effective. People were more likely to support a legislator who explains his or her policy position by providing examples of other positions tailored to the preferences of the citizen than a legislator who straightforwardly details his or her position on a key roll call without engaging in additional strategic tailoring. We also find that people are often likely to mis-report the true position of the legislator on the key roll-call vote – even though legislators told the citizens how they voted – when the legislator engages in explanations that involve tailoring. This means that legislators can convince constituents that they actually share political positions even when they do not vote in accord with what their constituents specifically want.

What do these results mean? For one, they can help us understand political polarization. Political elites may be able to get away with taking extreme positions because of their abilities to persuade and explain. Normatively, the findings are somewhat troubling given how easy it is to make people misperceive a member’s actual position on immigration. On the other hand, the letters from senators show that political elites do not hide their votes and attempt to engage in deliberation – albeit strategic – with their constituents.

This article is part of the AJPS Virtual Issue:  Most Cited, 2015-16.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.