Search Results for: liberals

How Norms Shape the Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics

The forthcoming article “How Norms Shape the Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publicsby Eric GroenendykErik O. Kimbrough, and Mark Pickup is summarized by the authors below. 

Since the publication of Converse’s classic chapter on the nature of belief systems in mass publics, scholars have expressed concern about Americans’ apparent lack of ideological consistency. The concern is that, if voters’ belief systems are unconstrained by an ideology, they may be unable to develop coherent preferences over candidates and platforms and thus will struggle to ensure that democracy holds elites accountable.  We point out that the normative implications of the large literature confirming Converse’s findings depend crucially on how we think about the nature of ideology.  The validity of these concerns depends crucially on the extent to which ideological constraint arises from principled reasoning, as it is often assumed, or from pressure to conform to identity-based norms established by ideological elites, as we theorize.  

If ideological constraint is the product of norm conformity pressure, the normative implications of Americans’ famous lack of ideology are completely changed. Lack of constraint may not be the product of ignorance (or “innocence” as it is often termed in the literature). It may instead reflect pragmatism—knowingly preferring some policies despite their inconsistency with doctrine. Furthermore, to the extent norms are shaped by political elites, voters who show ideological constraint may actually be more susceptible to elite influence than pragmatists who are happy to “agree to disagree.” 

To test our norm conformity theory of ideology, we combine widely used survey questions measuring individuals’ own policy preferences with an incentivized coordination game that separately measures their knowledge of what other ideological group members expect them to believe.  This allows us to distinguish knowledge of ideological norms—what liberals and conservative believe ought to go with what–from adherence to those norms when expressing personal preferences.  We then assess whether conformity pressure causes ideological conformity using a question order experiment that varies whether ideological norms are primed prior to eliciting preferences.  

Our results confirm that a significant portion of what has been defined as ignorance (or “innocence”) can be attributed to pragmatism. And when ideological group norms are primed prior to measuring personal policy preferences, ideological conformity rises.  This suggests that ideological constraint is at least partially attributable to norm conformity pressure.  Together these findings raise doubts about whether ideology is actually desirable or if it instead allows elites to reverse the direction of democratic accountability by shaping the very norms that define what it means to be a “good liberal” or “good conservative”. 

About the Authors: Eric Groenendyk is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Memphis, Erik O. Kimbrough is a Professor of Economics at Chapman University, and Mark Pickup is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Simon Fraser University. Their research “How Norms Shape the Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

The Well-Ordered Society Under Crisis: A Formal Analysis of Public Reason vs. Convergence Discourse

The forthcoming article “The Well-ordered Society Under Crisis: A Formal Analysis of Public Reason vs. Convergence Discourse” ( by Hun Chung is summarized by the author below.

AJPS - FB Posts_Chung

Can a well-ordered liberal democracy sustain liberal democratic political order after the intrusion of illiberals who wish to change the political system into a perfectionist state? This paper examines whether “the well-ordered society” – which is John Rawls’s proposed conception of an ideal liberal democratic society – can successfully restore political order once it is destabilized by the intrusion of unreasonable political officials who intend to change the political constitution according to their particular comprehensive moral/religious doctrines. In doing so, this paper offers a formal analysis of two competing institutional solutions that have been offered in the philosophical literature of public reason liberalism: namely, public reason vs. convergence discourse.

Public reason and convergence discourse are two alternate forms of public justification. In public reason, public officials are restricted to using only public reason – viz. the type of reasons that everybody shares in virtue of being a liberal democratic citizen regardless of his/her particular moral/religious commitments – to justify political proposals. In convergence discourse, public officials are allowed to rely on private reasons stemming from their own comprehensive moral and religious doctrines to justify political proposals (as long as their proposals are, in the end, consonant with the political conception of justice undergirding the liberal democratic society.)

This paper examines how successful these two institutional solutions are in restoring liberal democratic political order in the well-ordered society once it is destabilized by the intrusion of unreasonable public officials via a formal game-theoretic model.

The formal results of the model show that as an institutional device to restore liberal political order, public reason (modeled as cheap talk) fails completely. This confirms previous worries that it is unlikely for public reason to perform such a stabilizing role as using public reason is mere “cheap talk” that illiberals can readily imitate to falsely assure other liberals to cooperate, which they can, then, exploit for the sake of advancing their own illiberal political aims.

The formal results also show that convergent discourse (modeled as costly signals following Kogelmann and Stich 2016), although doing better, has its own critical limitations. Specifically, it turns out that convergence discourse succeeds only under relatively favorable conditions – namely, when the political ambitions of illiberals are not too excessive relative to the number of comprehensive doctrines existing in the well-ordered society. Even under relatively favorable conditions, there is no guarantee that convergence discourse will successfully operate and restore liberal democratic political order. And, even when it does successfully operate, there will always be some positive probability that the well-ordered society will destabilize nonetheless. Moreover, unlike what Kogelmann and Stich have previously claimed, the effect of social diversity on the success of convergence discourse is at best ambiguous: it may increase the success rate of convergence discourse by increasing the cost of its proper use which makes it more difficult for the illiberals to successfully imitate; but it may also disrupt its very success if it goes too far by introducing moral and religious fundamentalists whose desires to impose their comprehensive doctrines on society are particularly high.

About the Author: Hun Chung is Associate Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University. The research “The Well-ordered Society Under Crisis: A Formal Analysis of Public Reason vs. Convergence Discourse” ( is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.



Ideology Justifies Morality: Political Beliefs Predict Moral Foundations

The forthcoming article Ideology Justifies Morality: Political Beliefs Predict Moral Foundations” ( by Peter K. Hatemi, Charles Crabtree, and Kevin B. Smith is summarized by the authors below.

Ideology Justifies Morality: Political Beliefs Predict Moral Foundations

Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) suggests that political differences are rooted in instinctual right/wrong value judgments. According to this argument, a key difference between liberals and conservatives is that members of each group employ a set of evolved psychological mechanisms that weight individual versus group values differently. This seems to offer a reasonable explanation of why political differences are so persistent and often so difficult to reconcile. The idea here is that these differences are not just produced by reasoned consideration, but reflect deeper differences springing from emotionally-rooted, reflexive judgments of right and wrong. In this way, MFT seems to offer a fairly comprehensive theoretical explanation of ideology and the psychology that underlies partisan divides. Specifically, the key difference between liberals and conservatives is that in making right/wrong evaluations, liberals instinctually over-weight the concerns of the individual (whether someone is harmed and/or treated fairly), while conservatives instinctually place comparably more weight on group concerns such as loyalty, authority, and deference to group norms or taboos.

However, a recent AJPS article co-authored by two of us raised questions about MFT’s explanation of individual-level political orientations. Using survey data from Moral Foundations Questionnaires (MFQs), we found, to our own considerable surprise, that moral foundations are less temporally stable than political attitudes and show little evidence of genetic influence. This contradicts MFT’s description of moral foundations – the psychological modules held to underpin instinctual right/wrong evaluations – as stable, dispositional traits that are products of Darwinian selection pressures. Our study also provided some evidence that moral decisions may be more a product of political beliefs than vice versa. This raised, but did not directly test, the possibility that political beliefs are at least in part justifying judgments of right and wrong.

In our current study we sought to directly address this key causal question while also accounting for the measurement and methods concerns that were raised in response to the earlier paper. Using survey data from three panel data sets taken from samples in two different countries, we find no support for the argument that instrumentation issues explain the results of the earlier study. More importantly, we find consistent evidence that political attitudes are temporally stable and some evidence that they are a better predictor of moral foundations than vice versa.

The key takeaway of the current study, then, is that political beliefs and loyalties might drive moral evaluations (at least as measured by MFQs), rather than vice versa. While this upends the causal story of MFT, it increases rather than decreases the importance of the study of moral decision making to political science.  A good deal of research already suggests that it is ideology that has the key characteristics ascribed to moral foundations – i.e. that political judgments are intuitive, products of implicit, emotionally anchored and genetically influenced psychological mechanisms. If that is indeed the case, the psychological mechanisms underpinning ideology may drive not just individual-level policy preferences but individual-level moral choices that have little direct connection to politics.

About the Authors: Peter K. Hatemi is Distinguished Professor of Political Science in the Department of Political Science at The Pennsylvania State University, Charles Crabtree is Visiting Scholar in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College and Senior Data Scientist at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research, and Kevin B. Smith is Leland J. and Dorothy H. Chair of Political Science at the Department of Political Science of University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Their researchIdeology Justifies Morality: Political Beliefs Predict Moral Foundations” ( is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Public-Sector Unions and the Size of Government

AJPS Author Summary by Agustina S. PaglayanPaglayan.jpg

Liberals and conservatives in the U.S. seem to agree on at least one thing: collective bargaining with public-sector unions leads to increases in public spending—which liberals think is good, and conservatives bad. This article challenges the widespread conventional wisdom about collective bargaining. It shows that the introduction of collective bargaining rights for teachers in the 1960s and 70s led to higher public spending on education only in states where teachers could credibly threaten to go on strike; but it shows also that, in most states where teachers were given the legal right to engage in collective bargaining, these rights came bundled with provisions that made it more difficult for teachers to resort to strikes as a weapon during collective negotiations. As a result, on average, the introduction of mandatory collective bargaining with teachers did not lead to increases in the level of resources devoted to education. When collective bargaining did increase education spending, the magnitude of the effect was small and cannot explain the bulk of the differences in education spending levels that exist across states today. In fact, most of these differences in spending precede the formation of modern teacher unions.

The findings of this study are at odds with the conventional wisdom because of two major improvements over prior research. First, this study pays attention to the political history behind the emergence of collective bargaining rights for public employees, showing that these rights were not introduced by an unambiguously pro-labor coalition, and that they were often accompanied by anti-labor provisions. In the U.S., public employees gained the right to engage in collective bargaining in the 1960s and 70s. By 1990, 33 states had ended long-standing prohibitions on teachers’ collective bargaining, instead establishing that school districts had an obligation to bargain with teacher unions. The introduction of these mandatory collective bargaining state laws led to a rapid increase in teacher unionization rates, which climbed from 6% in the late 1950s to 60% in the early 80s. It is common to assume that these were pro-labor laws introduced by pro-labor politicians, but a look at history shows these assumptions are wrong. The laws were shaped by counterbalancing interests with ample support from both Democrats and Republicans, and represented a mixed change in unions’ power. Yes, they gave unions collective bargaining rights, but they also introduced costly strike penalties designed deliberately to deter striking. Lawmakers realized that threatening to dismiss striking teachers was not effective to dissuade them from striking, because teachers knew that no politician wanting to ensure the smooth provision of public education would dare fire everyone who went on strike. Instead, to prevent strikes, most mandatory collective bargaining laws established strike penalties that could be enforced. If they went on strike, union members could lose two days of pay for every day on strike, the union could be heavily fined, decertified, and/or no longer enjoy automatic deduction of union dues from districts’ payroll. With striking capacity curtailed, collective bargaining did not have the bite to increase resources for education.

The second feature that sets this study apart from previous research is the data and methods it uses to quantify the effect of mandatory collective bargaining laws on the size of government. The study uses a new and publicly-available dataset that tracks the evolution of teacher salaries, student-teacher ratios, per-pupil education spending, and per-pupil non-wage education spending (including employer contributions to pensions, administrative costs, etc.) in all 50 states in the U.S. from 1919 on. This unprecedented breadth of data on public education in the U.S. confirms, as lay observers often note, that governments that engage in collective bargaining tend to pay higher salaries and spend more than those that don’t; but it also shows that collective bargaining is not the reason why they spend more. In 1919, when there was no collective bargaining with teachers anywhere, the states that would later introduce collective bargaining rights for teachers were already devoting considerably more resources to education than states that would not. On average, these historical differences in spending did not become wider after collective bargaining rights were introduced by some states but not others.

The evidence presented in this article revises our understanding of what public-sector unions do and where their power stems from. It highlights that, in most U.S. states, public-sector unions remain considerably constrained in their ability to exert pressure through collective bargaining, either because they don’t have the right to bargain to begin with, or because they have collective bargaining rights but not the ability to strike.

Liberals and conservatives may still have thoughts about public-sector collective bargaining. But the article sets the record straight: whether they support it or oppose it, their position cannot be based on the belief that collective bargaining rights per se lead to higher public spending.

About the Author: Agustina S. Paglayan is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and School of Global Policy and Strategy at University of California San Diego. Paglayan’s article “Public‐Sector Unions and the Size of Government (” is now available online in Early View and will be published in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Did Disagreement over Trump Drive People Out of Churches?

In the following blog post, the authors summarize the forthcoming American Journal of Political Science article titled “Reconsidering the Role of Politics in Leaving Religion: The Importance of Affiliation” which is now available for Early View. The post was first published on the Religion in Public blog and is shared here with permission.

By Paul A. Djupe, Jacob R. Neiheisel, and Anand E. Sokhey

Another version of this post just appeared at The Monkey Cage blog.

The 2016 presidential contest highlighted just how deeply divided the United States is over politics as well as religion. The vast majority of white evangelicals (81%) voted for Trump and a strong majority of religious “nones”—the 20-25% of the population who do not identify with any religious tradition—voted for Clinton (68%). And the divide does not stop at the vote, of course. For example, from May 2016 to February 2017, every religious group has become less supportive of temporarily banning Muslims from entering the country except for white evangelical Protestants; the gap between evangelicals and nones on this issue grew from 28 to 41 percentage points.

How did we get here? As the story is most often written, the close connections between the Christian Right and the Republican Party that became prominent with the Republican Revolution of 1994 pushed political liberals to conclude that religion simply wasn’t for them. From this perspective, American religion has been polarizing, as those who decline to identify with any faith tradition increasingly hold liberal political views and religious identifiers remain conservative.

On its face, this tale makes a great deal of sense, and it isn’t hard to find existence proofs – people who no longer identify as religious and who decry a noxious, ultra-conservative form of political religion. According to one variant of this process, it is in particular the anti-gay advocacy of the Christian Right that has driven out Millenials, at least a third of whom identified as a religious “none” (in 2014) – a figure three times that of their elders.

In new research forthcoming in the American Journal of Political Science [1], we challenge some aspects of this broad narrative. To us, it makes little sense that political liberals would leave religiously liberal churches – where a large portion of “nones” come from – because of a conservative political movement. This would be like breaking up with your boyfriend because Casey Affleck is behaving badly. Instead, like relationships, people leave houses of worship when they disagree with other members. Liberals leave churches that are too conservative and conservatives leave churches that are too liberal. This is important because it allows us to recognize this process as plural and local – it is not something owned by the left or right, but is a regular and expected social process in organizations.

Put another way, the Christian Right did not cause people across the religious and political spectrum to leave their churches. Instead, their politics was inspiration to leave for evangelicals who disagreed with the Christian Right. We find evidence for this among Republicans in Ohio in 2006, when the GOP candidate for governor was closely identified with the Christian Right. We find evidence for this in national samples, too, where evangelicals who disagreed with the Christian Right were more likely to leave their churches. More generally, the rise of political engagement in houses of worship gave members another important dimension on which to evaluate their fit within the congregation.

We were back in the field in 2016 around the presidential election [2] and gathered data to replicate many of the notions explored in our paper. Of those who indicated attending a house of worship in September, 14 percent reported leaving by the post-election period – a number right in line with several of our previous estimates from surveys in the 2000s. ‘Leavers’ were distributed across the religious population, including 10 percent of evangelicals, 18 percent of mainline Protestants, and 11 percent of Catholics. This represents an enormous amount of churn in the religious economy.

We gauge whether politics is influential in the decision to leave by assessing how people react to politics in their house of worship when they do not desire it to be there. We asked if their clergy addressed any of eight political topics [3]; we also asked if seeing evidence of politics reminded them of how divisive politics has become. The figure below shows that those who believe politics is divisive were more likely to leave political churches (black bars).  In non-political churches, leaving hovers around the sample mean as it depends on a host of other considerations.


While for some the presence of politics in any form may be divisive, for others specific political disagreements are likely to be more important. In the past, the Christian Right was a visible reference point for political religion that was salient in evangelical churches; 2016 was different. The Christian Right seemed to take a back seat to the genre-bending politics of Donald Trump. As arguably the most divisive candidate in at least recent – and perhaps all of – American history, one might expect that conflicting sentiment about Trump would drive some out of their churches. This might be especially true among evangelical Protestants, who were experiencing a great deal of cultural threat that helped to spawn the #NeverTrump movement composed of a select group of evangelical elites.

To find out, we asked evangelicals to tell us their own level of support for Trump and to estimate their clergyperson’s support of Trump. He was not well-loved, with an average feeling thermometer rating of 48 (though their rating of Hillary was only 25); similarly, the average perceived support level of evangelical clergy for Trump was 50 (on a 100 point scale). The two measures are strongly, but not perfectly, correlated. We looked for the patterns of who was most likely to leave their church using a regression model. In the figure below, we find that those who perceived disagreement with their congregation over Trump (in September) were the most likely to report leaving their house of worship by November. Those who felt very warmly toward Trump and perceived very little support for Trump from their clergy (red line on the left) were more likely to leave as were those who felt cool toward Trump and perceived considerable support from Trump from their clergy (blue line on the right). The estimates diverge quickly from their convergence in the middle, which suggests that feelings about Trump were quite salient in evangelical congregations. This finding might help us explain why evangelical clergy appear to have had little to say about Trump in their churches this fall – they were sensitive to these possibilities.


There are arguments on either side about whether this trend, which is not unique to 2016 or Donald Trump, is troubling. People are leaving congregations because of politics, which may be a troubling trend for anyone who is concerned with the role that organized religion plays in civil society. Religious institutions have long been found to promote a number of democratic goods and can serve as practice grounds in which individuals can develop civic skills that can then be turned toward the political arena. Somewhat fewer have access to those training grounds as a result of disagreements in houses of worship. On the other hand, this trend results from congregations being more engaged with politics, helping to connect people’s values with political options. While church engagement may promote partisan polarization, it is also linked to a more engaged citizenry. And the members most affected by political disagreements tend to be marginal, infrequent attenders. In this way, leaving over political disagreements is natural and expected, and churches do better at surviving partisan diversity in their ranks than do typical relationships.

Paul A. Djupe, Denison University Political Science, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.

Jacob R. Neiheisel, an assistant professor of political science at the University at Buffalo, SUNY, studies religion and politics, election administration, and political communication. Additional information about his research can be found on his website.

Anand Edward Sokhey, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is the associate director of the American Politics Research Laband the incoming director of the LeRoy Keller Center for the study of the First Amendment. Further information about his work can be found on his website.


Note 1. The article citation is: Djupe, Paul A., Jacob R. Neiheisel, and Anand E. Sokhey. Forthcoming. “The Role of Politics in Leaving Religion – The Importance of Congregational Context.” American Journal of Political Science. < DOI:10.1111/ajps.12308>.

Note 2. After the election, we reinterviewed 957 individuals from a 2,500 person sample first interviewed in late September.

Note 3.  The possible topics included: Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Immigration in America, Abortion, The importance of voting/participating in the election, Religious freedom, Poverty, Same-sex marriage / gay rights.

Conspiracy Endorsement as Motivated Reasoning: The Moderating Roles of Political Knowledge and Trust

The article “Conspiracy Endorsement as Motivated Reasoning: The Moderating Roles of Political Knowledge and Trust” (AJPS 60:4 – October 2016) by Joanne M. Miller, Kyle L. Saunders, and Christina E. Farhart is summarized by the authors here:

Contrary to the popular conception that conspiracy theorists are a small group of tinfoil hat-wearing men who spend most of their time in bunkers, conspiracy theories are not solely the domain of extremists and paranoids. They cut across demographics and political identities, and are pervasive across the globe. Conspiracy beliefs can also affect policy attitudes, social behaviors, and even medical choices. Further, just the presence of these theories in the public zeitgeist can distract political elites from attending to more pressing public policy concerns. For example, President Bush had to repeatedly respond to accusations that he and Dick Cheney staged the 9/11 attacks, and President Obama had to hold a press conference for the sole purpose of releasing his long-form birth certificate.

Given the potential political and social significance of conspiracy beliefs, a substantial and growing body of work examines the individual-level correlates of conspiracy endorsement. Our article builds on this extant literature to posit that conspiracy endorsement is a motivated process that serves both ideological and psychological needs. In doing so, we develop a theory that argues that the tendency to endorse a conspiracy theory is highest among people who 1) have a particular ideological worldview to which the conspiracy theory can be linked (i.e. liberals or conservatives), 2) have the motivation to protect that worldview and the ability to see how endorsing the conspiracy would serve that purpose (i.e., political sophisticates), and 3) believe that the world is the type of place in which secretive, malevolent actions are not only possible, but also probable (i.e., people low in trust). In other words, knowledge should exacerbate ideologically-motivated conspiracy endorsement and trust should mitigate it.

To test the hypotheses derived from our theory, we administered an original survey via MTurk in 2013 and replicated our findings using the 2012 ANES. We assessed belief in “conservative” conspiracy theories (ones that impugn liberals/Democrats) and “liberal” conspiracy theories (ones that impugn conservatives/Republicans), as well as ideology, political knowledge, and generalized trust.

Consistent with the theory of motivated reasoning, conservatives are more likely to endorse the conspiracy theories that impugn their political rivals, and vice versa. Our results also confirm our hypothesis that political knowledge exacerbates ideologically-motivated conspiracy endorsement whereas trust simultaneously mitigates it. Interestingly, however, this hypothesis is only confirmed for conservatives (i.e. high knowledge-low trust conservatives are the highest endorsers of conservative conspiracy theories). For liberals, trust is negatively associated with endorsement of liberal conspiracy theories, but knowledge is either not associated with or independently negatively associated with endorsement of liberal conspiracy theories.

This ideological asymmetry—a result that was consistent across both datasets—was unexpected, but is consistent with the notion that conspiracy endorsement, and science denial more generally, is a more attractive worldview-bolstering strategy for conservatives than liberals. It is also consistent with an alternative explanation–given that both surveys were conducted during a Democratic presidential administration, conservatives may have been situationally induced to be more motivated to bolster their worldviews (as would have liberals if the political situation had been reversed). We consider these and other alternative explanations for the asymmetry in the article.

Our results have broader implications for an increasingly polarized political discourse. As we well know, political sophisticates tend to be among the most active citizens in the United States; our findings therefore highlight a normatively displeasing notion for those who wish to view democracy through even the most rose-colored of lenses. In today’s political environment, elites (however defined) can cast outrageous aspersions against their nemeses, and can count on at least a segment of their knowledgeable (and less trusting) base to endorse (and possibly spread) what is essentially misinformation. Not only does elite polarization increase motivated reasoning within the mass public, but it is precisely this kind of motivated reasoning (endorsing ideologically-consistent conspiracy theories) that would also exacerbate polarization and rancor among elites and active partisans.

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.


Why citizens don’t like paying for public goods – and how institutions can change that

The forthcoming article “Policy Attitudes in Institutional Context: Rules, Uncertainty, and the Mass Politics of Public Investment” by Alan M. Jacobs and J. Scott Matthews is summarized here:

Why are citizens in the United States so averse to paying taxes to fund the basic functions of government? Why are Americans reluctant to foot the bill for public goods – like high-quality roads, good schools, and a clean environment – on which most citizens place a high value?

It could be that people are short-sighted: while taxes must be paid today, the benefits of public investment tend to emerge over the long run, and citizens may value the future less than the present. Alternatively, Americans may just prefer a small government that does less and leaves more scope for private action. Or perhaps Americans simply hate paying taxes.

In a novel set of experiments, the results of which will appear in the American Journal of Political Science, we examine a very different reason why citizens may object to paying for public investment: uncertainty.

When governments propose to raise taxes to finance public investments, they are asking people to accept a tradeoff: sacrifice now, in return for the promise of better public goods and services in the future. From the citizen’s perspective, the difficulty is that the costs of that tradeoff are certain: the taxes will be paid. The promised benefits, on the other hand, are uncertain. The public official who pledges today to channel new revenues into the school system or into environmental cleanup might decide tomorrow to use those same dollars to cut taxes for the wealthy or to boost welfare spending. Politicians making the case for tax hikes have strong incentives to make lavish promises; but they may not have equally strong incentives to deliver on those pledges down the road. Thus, even citizens who are in principle willing to pay more for improved public services, may simply not trust that government officials will do as they say.

We examined the effect of uncertainty on citizens’ policy attitudes in a series of three experiments, conducted online with representative samples of voting-age American citizens. In our first experiment, we asked all subjects to consider the problem of decaying infrastructure – thousands of miles of crumbling roads and bridges around the country – and a commonly proposed policy solution: raising the gas tax by a few cents per gallon and using the revenues to finance needed repairs. However, we randomly assigned subjects to versions of the proposal that differed in which governmental actor would be placed in charge of the investment. When we tapped opinions of the proposal, we found that subjects’ willingness to pay for infrastructure investment hinged substantially on whether it would be managed by a more-trusted or a less-trusted public institution. Support for the measure was one-third higher if the investment was to be implemented by local governments or the Army Corps of Engineers (more trusted) than if it was to be overseen by Congress (less trusted). We find, moreover, that this difference derives from differing degrees of confidence in whether these institutional actors will keep their policy promises.

In a set of further experiments, we examined the role of institutional rules in shaping citizens’ willingness to pay for public investments. We were specifically interested in whether budgetary rules could be designed in ways that would enhance citizens’ confidence that their tax dollars will be well spent.

In two experiments focused on institutional design, we find that some institutions are more effective than others in reducing citizen uncertainty and increasing support for public investment. On the one hand, trust fund rules – rules that set aside taxes collected for a specific purpose in a separate, dedicated account – boosted our subjects’ willingness to pay for investments in a range of public goods, from environmental protection to border control. On the other hand, rules that insulate decision-making from electoral politics – empowering unelected, non-partisan officials to make budgetary decisions – did little to reassure our subjects that their tax dollars would be well spent.

In an age of ideological polarization, one further feature of the results is noteworthy. Across all of our experiments, it was conservative subjects who were most responsive to the allocation of institutional responsibility. Simply telling conservatives that highway repairs would be overseen by local governments rather than Congress doubled their support for a gas-tax hike. These findings suggest that most conservatives want safe roads and good schools just as much as liberals do – but that conservatives are more skeptical about public officials’ willingness to deliver on their policy promises.

Our results imply that a good deal of anti-tax sentiment in contemporary America is rooted in mistrust of particular institutional actors and institutional arrangements, rather than in simple, philosophical opposition to state action. What taxpayers want, our studies suggest, are ironclad assurances that public officials will do with public money as they say. The findings also suggest that smart policy and institutional design has the potential to build broader support for the kinds of public investments that most Americans value.


Making Young Voters: The Impact of Preregistration on Youth Turnout

The forthcoming article “Making Young Voters: The Impact of Preregistration on Youth Turnout” by John Holbein is summarized here:

Political scientists have long debated the extent to which voter turnout might be fostered by various electoral reforms, like early voting, online registration, and loosening of voter identification restrictions.  While it was once assumed that reducing legal obstacles to voting would inevitably lead to higher turnout, recent research finds that these electoral reforms have had little impact, and in some cases have actually depressed turnout levels.

An electoral reform that has nonetheless gained momentum in recent years is preregistration laws, whereby individuals younger than 18 are able to complete their registration application so that they are automatically added to the registration rolls once they come of age.  Preregistration laws have been implemented in a dozen states, debated in at least 19 other states in the last 5 years, and proposed in the U.S. Congress.

In our forthcoming article, we evaluate the impact of preregistration laws on youth turnout.  We argue that preregistration differs from many other electoral reforms in that it interacts with campaign context and supporting institutions.  That is, preregistration removes a critical obstacle to participation at precisely the right moment: during political campaigns when youth are more likely to be attentive to and interested in politics. Additionally, those eligible to preregister are typically still in school, where they are more likely to be exposed to in-school registration drives, civics curriculums, or other activities which complement preregistration’s effects.

We use two methods to evaluate the effectiveness of preregistration reforms.  In the first, we rely on the nationally representative Current Population Survey (CPS) to compare young voter turnout rates in states that implement preregistration to those that do not.  In the second, focusing on the state of Florida, we leverage a discontinuity in preregistration rates based on date of birth to estimate the effect of preregistration on future turnout among registrants in the Florida voter files.

Both methods indicate preregistration increases youth turnout, and noticeably so.  From the difference-in-difference models with the CPS, we find that preregistration laws increased turnout rates by 13%, with the lag model indicating a lower bound of 2%. From the regression discontinuity models using the Florida voter files, we find that, among those who comply by preregistering, voter turnout is about 8 percentage points higher than a comparable control group.  Even more striking, preregistration appears to mobilize Republicans and Democrats similarly.  Rather than just mobilizing a group of young liberals, preregistration helps both Republicans and Democrats bring active young people into their parties.

Despite this, preregistration faces a tenuous future. In 2013, North Carolina’s State Legislature abruptly, and controversially, repealed preregistration, claiming voter confusion. Our results challenge that perspective, suggesting instead that preregistration is an effective means to help young people become engaged citizens.

More broadly, our findings should be of interest not only to policymakers as they consider the potential electoral reforms, but also to scholars who might find possible lines of future research that marry the literature on campaign dynamics, education effects, and electoral institutions.

Those who vote are also more likely to contribute to other public goods

It is incredibly unlikely that any one person’s vote will change the outcome of an election and individuals derive no immediate benefit from the actual act of voting, making it a deeply altruistic act. Following this idea, Toby Bolsen, Paul J. Ferraro, and Juan Jose Miranda examine whether voters are also more likely to take action on other issues that have a positive societal impact, but no direct benefit to them. They found that when asked to conserve water during a drought, frequent voters, regardless of political affiliation, made more significant reductions to their water consumption than non-voters.

Are voters more cooperative in general than other citizens? Do conservatives and liberals respond differently when asked to contribute to the public good? In democracies, the answers to these questions can affect how governments solve the most pressing issues of our time. The answers also shed light on how social norms operate in a society. Take voting, for example. Despite the infinitesimally small chance that any one individual’s vote will affect an election outcome, millions of people participate in local, state, and national elections each year in the United States.

Credit: Eric Richardson (Creative Commons BY NC SA)

Decades of research provide insights into the reasons why people vote. People are not guided by cost-benefit calculations based on the likelihood that one’s vote will be the deciding ballot cast. They are guided by a belief that voting fulfills a social norm – it is viewed as “doing one’s part” to help provide something that benefits the collective. Democratic societies promote voting as a socially-valued obligation. On voting days, citizens walk around their offices and neighborhoods proudly sporting “I voted today” stickers on their chests.

If social norms motivate voters to vote, these same cooperative predispositions might also make voters more likely to take actions that benefit others in different settings. We recently examined whether frequent voters are more willing to take collectively beneficial action in the context of a request for water conservation during a drought in the southeastern United States. To do this, we merged data from a large field experiment (> 100,000 households) conducted in partnership with the Cobb County Water District, in Cobb County, Georgia, with voter turnout data for all primary and general elections between 1990 and 2008. We studied the amount of water each house used between June and September 2007.

Our measure for vote frequency was equal to the number of times every registered voter in the household voted in a primary, general, or special election (1990-2008) divided by the number of times every registered voter in the household could have voted, which depended on each person’s birth year. We created this measure to assess whether there is a relationship between past voting behavior and a household’s response to receiving a randomized letter requesting voluntary water conservation. If frequent voters are more likely than infrequent voters to reduce water use as a result of receiving a letter via first-class mail requesting cooperation, then it suggests that social norms motivate some people to take actions that are socially-valued, and which benefit others, across settings.

We find that registered voters who have no voting history and who received a letter requesting water conservation reduce their water consumption by 691 gallons on average over the summer. In contrast, the most frequently voting households who received a letter reduced their water consumption by an average of 2,507 gallons over this same period (a 6.2% overall reduction in water use over the summer of 2007). To give this some perspective, consider that a five minute shower uses between 10 and 25 gallons of water, and the average top-load washing machine between 40 and 45 gallons of water per usage.

Credit: Vinoth Chadhar (Creative Commons BY)

To plumb the depths of the role of social norms further, we explored whether Democrat or Republican households were more responsive to receiving a letter requesting cooperation for an environmental objective. Lots of survey data suggests liberals and conservatives have very different views on environmental goals, yet there is little evidence about how they actually react when asked to contribute to environmental collective actions. To address this lack of evidence, we explore whether Democrat or Republican households were more responsive to receiving a letter requesting water conservation. Our measure for partisanship was based on the number of times every registered voter in a household had voted in a Democratic primary election versus the number of elections each registered voter in a household had voted in a Republican primary election.

To answer this question, we looked at Democrat and Republican primary voters who received a pro-social letter and find that they are indistinguishable in terms of their response to a water conservation request – that is, both groups significantly reduce water use upon receiving a letter relative to non-primary voting households that did not receive a letter; however, in additional analyses that made use of pre- and post-experimental measures of household water use, we find that the decrease in water use among Democrat and Republican households is due to an unobservable characteristics common to both groups of primary voters, such as an internalized sense of civic-mindedness that motivates some individuals to participate in collectively beneficial endeavors.

Understanding why some citizens, but not others, take action for the public good lies at the heart of political science. The degree to which individuals are willing to make voluntary contributions to the public good determines the policies that need to be in place to reach outcomes beneficial for everyone. What is novel about our study is that it is the first to examine actual behaviors in different settings and look at whether frequent voters are more likely to participate in an unrelated collective action, in a different domain, when presented with an explicit request for cooperation.

This article is based on the paper “Are Voters More Likely to Contribute to Other Public Goods? Evidence from a Large-Scale Randomized Policy Experiment,” in the American Journal of Political Science.

Note:  This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of USApp– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics. 

About the authors

Toby Bolsen 80x108Toby BolsenGeorgia State University
Toby Bolsen is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University. His research interests include the study of political behavior, public opinion, media and communications, experimental methods, and U.S. energy policy.


Paul Ferraro 80x108Paul J. FerraroGeorgia State University
Paul J. Ferraro is a Professor of Economics at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University. His research interests include the design and evaluation of environmental policy, with an emphasis on biodiversity and ecosystem protection, as well as experimental methods and behavioral economics.


Juan Jose Miranda 80x108Juan Jose MirandaThe World Bank
Juan Jose Miranda is an economist at the World Bank. His research interests include environmental and natural resource economics, development economics, applied econometrics/program evaluation, and experimental/behavioral economics. You can follow him on Twitter @unicojm.


This post originally appeared on the LSE USAPP – American Politics and Policy blog here and 
is reposted with permission


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