Ideology, Learning, and Policy Diffusion: Experimental Evidence

The forthcoming article “Ideology, Learning, and Policy Diffusion: Experimental Evidence” by Daniel M. Butler, Craig Volden, Adam M. Dynes, and Boris Shor is summarized here:

One of the benefits of American federalism is the ability for states and localities to try out new policies, keeping the successes, abandoning the failures, and learning from one another.  However, in ideologically polarized times, this system of learning and policy diffusion may be under serious strain.

To explore this possibility, we embedded experiments in surveys of local policymakers across the U.S.  We offered vignettes of the policies tried in other communities and asked the local officials whether they wanted to learn more, perhaps to try similar policies at home.  The policies were left-leaning government interventions in the areas of commercial zoning and home foreclosures.  And, as may be expected, liberal-leaning officials were more interested in learning than were conservative officials.

However, our study showed that interventions can overcome the observed conservative bias against learning about these policies.  For the experimental component of our studies, we varied how the policies of others were described – as successes or failures, and as adopted by Republicans or Democrats.  When described either as a success or as a policy previously tried by Republicans, conservatives became as interested in learning more as were liberals in the control condition.  In the end, about two-thirds of them wanted to learn more about others’ experiences with the policies.

On the whole, this study establishes that ideological biases do exist in the willingness of officials to consider new policies across American cities and towns.  But those biases can be overcome under the right circumstances.  Policymakers want to learn about what works, and will pay close attention to the experiences of co-partisans, even if they are initially ideologically predisposed against the policy in question.


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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.