AJPS Author Sumary: Partisan Elites as Culprits? How Party Cues Shape Partisan Perceptual Gaps

Author Summary by Martin Bisgaard and Rune Slothuus

AJPS-AuthorSummary-Partisan Elites as Culprits? How Party Cues Shape Partisan Perceptual GapsTheir article “Partisan Elites as Culprits? How Party Cues Shape Partisan Perceptual Gaps” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

With American politics deeply polarized along partisan lines, and much debate revolving around fake news and alternative facts, many political observers are concerned that citizens are too deeply divided in their perceptions of reality. When survey researchers ask citizens about political reality, a typical finding is that partisans supporting the incumbent party offer a rosier view of real world conditions—such as the state of the economy—than supporters of the opposition do. Such partisan gaps in perceptions are evident in many different countries.

To most public opinion scholars, perceptual gaps between opposing partisan groups only seem to reaffirm the idea that an individual’s identification with a political party raises a “perceptual screen;” that partisanship sparks an inescapable motivation to process information in ways that reflect well on one’s own party. By this view, the culprit behind partisan perceptual gaps is individual-level motivation.

In our article, we propose a different possibility. We highlight a crucial driver of partisan perceptual gaps that does not feature prominently in existing work: partisan elites. Citizens rarely face neutral facts about reality, and partisan elites are often eager to portray real world conditions in ways that serve their electoral interests. If citizens listen to messages from their own party—and ignore the out-party’s message—then changes in how party leaders talk about reality could shape the perceptual gaps between opposing partisan groups. Under such circumstances, the “culprit” behind partisan perceptual gaps could be partisan elites at least as much as ordinary citizens.

Our study offers the first direct test of how elite partisan rhetoric influences the perceptual divides between partisans. We use two types of data. First, we analyze on a closely spaced five-wave panel survey surrounding a sudden shift in how the Center-Right government in Denmark changed its portrayal of the public budget deficit. Second, in addition to this quasi-experiment we present two randomized survey experiments from the same country.

Our findings reveal that when a major incumbent party suddenly advances a more dire interpretation of the budget deficit, incumbent partisans follow suit, whereas out-partisans reject the message. Thus, changing party cues about how to interpret the macro-economic facts at hand can effectively narrow, and even cancel out, partisan perceptual differences. The gulfs of disagreement between partisans are not a stable, inevitable pattern, but depends, in part, on how political elites communicate.

About the Authors: Martin Bisgaard is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Aarhus University, and Rune Slothuus is Professor of Political Science at Aarhus University. Their article “Partisan Elites as Culprits? How Party Cues Shape Partisan Perceptual Gaps” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The Editor of the AJPS is at Michigan State University and the Editorial Office is supported by
the Michigan State University Department of Political Science and the School of Social Sciences.

  Michigan State University 
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