How Economic Informality Constrains Demand for Programmatic Policy

The forthcoming article “How Economic Informality Constrains Demand for Programmatic Policy” by Jessica Gottlieb is summarized by the author below.

Consider two middle-class individuals who make similar income. One is self-employed and doesn’t have a formal tax ID.  The IRS finds them from time to time and asks for income tax payment. The other works in a company and has income tax deducted monthly from their paycheck. The self-employed person mostly works alone and when they have problems with their business, they don’t have anyone to commiserate with. The employee works with colleagues who regularly talk about problems with their job – pay, taxes, benefits, etc.  

Even though they make similar amounts of income and may even face similar financial challenges, I argue that these two individuals should have very different expectations of and demands on the state. Relative to the company employee, the self-employed individual who pays tax irregularly is less likely to think other people pay tax and views the state as having lower overall revenue and capacity to implement programs. They are also less likely to coordinate demands on the state with others like them. 

In the developing world, most democracies are still clientelistic in nature – voters and politicians trade electoral support for targeted benefits. Most older democracies also started this way but eventually transition to a more programmatic form of politics where parties campaign on policies that apply more universally, not just to those who vote for the incumbent. Because most people in the developing world work in the informal economy, my argument helps explain why clientelism is so stable. Those in the informal sector are unlikely to expect the state can implement programmatic policy, and to coordinate with others to make such demands. 

The article uses data from Senegal to test this theory. I surveyed middle-class individuals in the informal sector and in the formal sector. Compared to the formal sector, informal business owners pay tax in a much more irregular way. But even within the informal sector, tax payment varies – both how often and to whom tax is paid. Both within and across sectors, greater informality of tax payment is associated with weaker perceptions of tax compliance, lower expectations of government, and weaker coordination capacity. Using data from a recent election that pitted one programmatic party against a highly particularistic incumbent, I also find that informality is associated with weaker support for the programmatic party.  

This argument and evidence highlight the role of beliefs about the tax-paying behavior and subsequent political expectations of other citizens. Uncertainty around how others experience the state contributes to the coordination problem faced by voters who may prefer to hold their politicians accountable for programmatic policies but cannot coordinate on such demands. The article uniquely reveals the role of the informal sector in propagating state weakness – both through its effect on muting citizen demands and coordinating capacity, and potentially through the resulting incentives this provides politicians to maintain high levels of informality. This latter implication should give pause to external actors attempting to boost the level of economic formalization in developing country contexts without sufficient consideration of the strategic incentives of elites and politicians. 

About the Author: Jessica Gottlieb is an Associate Professor at the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. Their research “How Economic Informality Constrains Demand for Programmatic Policy” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Military Culture and Institutional Trust: Evidence from Conscription Reforms in Europe

The forthcoming article “Military Culture and Institutional Trust: Evidence from Conscription Reforms in Europe” by Vincenzo Bove, Riccardo Di Leo, Marco Giani is summarized by the authors below.

Did the suppression of military conscription contributed to decreased institutional trust in Europe? Most European countries discontinued military conscription from the early nineties onwards. This was an uncontentious decision. Obsolescent mass-armies were perceived as a relic from the past, ill-suited for high-technological contemporary warfare, while burdening public finances and undermining the skill development of young men. From a symbolic point of view, the introduction of all-volunteer forces represented a milestone in the fortification of the pax Europaea. Yet, in recent years, politicians and experts have blamed low levels of civic virtues and institutional trust to the decision to suppress conscription. They argue that forgoing the transmission of values of loyalty, patriotism, and a respect for the law and the interactions between individuals from varied backgrounds during their “impressionable” years has weakened the tie between the citizen and the state. We provide evidence in stark contrast with the romantic idea that conscription served as a ‘school of nation’. 

Based on fifteen European countries that discontinued military conscription during the last decades, our study compares the level of institutional trust among cohorts of men who reached the drafting age just before its abolition, with institutional trust among those who were just exempted.    We find that trust in the legislative, judicial, politicians and political parties later in life is about 5% higher among the latter group. This gap in institutional trust is unlikely to simply reflect underlying attitudinal trends, unrelated with the approval of military policies. Indeed, such gap cannot be observed among women from the same cohorts, unaffected by the conscription reform.  Conscription appears to coalesce young men around the primacy of the military over mistrusted democratic institutions. Accordingly, attitudes towards institutions are more homogeneous among conscripts than among non-conscripts. And the positive impact of avoiding conscription on institutional trust is stronger in post-socialist countries, where the pervasiveness of military and political corruption at the time of the reform was relatively higher, the abolition of military conscription was part of a broader reorganization of defence policies, and the reform occurred later in time, compared to Western Europe. 

Overall, our findings indicate that discontinuing military conscription cannot be blamed for the widely acknowledged and worrying corrosion of institutional trust, thus invalidating the policy rationale of some conscription-enthusiasts, such as President Macron, who strongly defended the re-introduction of the Service National Universel as a way to transmit French values and strengthen social cohesion among the youth. 

About the Authors: Vincenzo Bove is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Warwick, Riccardo Di Leo is a PhD Student in Economics at the University of Warwick, and Marco Giani is a Lecturer of Political Economy at King’s College London. Their research “Military Culture and Institutional Trust: Evidence from Conscription Reforms in Europe” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Political Phantasies: Aristotle on Imagination and Collective Action

The forthcoming article “Political Phantasies: Aristotle on Imagination and Collective Action” by Avshalom M. Schwartz is summarized by the author below.

In recent years, growing levels of polarization and political tensions have raised concerns about the future of liberal democracies around the world and our capacity to act together as democratic citizens. In my paper, I turn to Aristotle in asking how, despite these challenges and the constant threat of conflict, we might be able to sustain a political partnership (what the ancient Greeks called koinonia) that would allow us to act together as fellow citizens of a democratic society.  

I argue that we can find important resources for answering this question by exploring Aristotle’s theory of imagination, phantasia, and its political implications. In Aristotle’s psychological work, phantasia appears crucial not only for our capacity to process various sensual inputs and produce “mental representations” but also for generating animal movement and action. Among other things, phantasia can make things appear to us as pleasant, painful, and above all as good or bad, and is thus essential for motivating and generating individual movements and action. 

Aristotle’s theory of phantasia is traditionally read and interpreted at the level of individual psychology. Yet, I show that phantasia is crucial for our understanding not only of individual movement but also of collective action more generally. In fact, I argue that it provides the psychological micro-foundations of collective action and thus helps explain how we can move from individual psychology to collective agency and action. To demonstrate this argument, I offer a reexamination of the famous Wisdom of the Multitude passage (Politics 3.11), showing that the capacity of many individuals to act together is tied to their ability to share in a single, collective phantasma: a mental representation of the practical end or goal of their collective effort as good and thus worthy of pursuit.   

My analysis of the Wisdom of the Multitude passage not only provides an analogy for the conditions under which collective action is possible but also reveals some of its challenges and limitations. Given the subjectivity of individual phantasiai, generating the kind of imaginative unity required for collective action might be hard. I show how certain instances of failure of collective action in Aristotle (stasis and radical democracy) are connected to the lack of a shared phantasma. I argue that since our phantasia is shaped by our character, a community may overcome these challenges by means of habituation and education.  

I conclude by generalizing these Aristotelian insights and applying them to our contemporary moment. While an attempt to control the imagination from above is incompatible with basic liberal values, I suggest that we view the Aristotelian collective phantasma as a product of collective effort, shaped by multiple individuals in their daily activities as citizens and in their relation to and interaction with one another. Thus, such Aristotelian collective phantasma may offer us the potential of a shared imagination that will guide our collective endeavors while maintaining a strong commitment to pluralism, multiple identities and communities, and the creativity of the individual imagination.   

About the Author: Avshalom M. Schwartz is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University. Their research “Political Phantasies: Aristotle on Imagination and Collective Action” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Politicians’ Private Sector Jobs and Parliamentary Behavior

The forthcoming article “Politicians’ Private Sector Jobs and Parliamentary Behavior” by Simon Weschle is summarized by the author below. 

The influence of money on politics is a hotly debated topic. Most research so far has focused on the effect of campaign contributions. However, a more direct way to gain access to politicians has been hiding in plain sight: In the vast majority of democracies, corporations can legally employ legislators at the same time as they hold public office. However, we know little about the consequences that these “moonlighting” jobs have. In my article “Politicians’ Private Sector Jobs and Parliamentary Behavior”, I show that they have systematic effects on how MPs behave. 
I assembled the most comprehensive and detailed data on politicians’ outside income to date, covering all members of parliament (MPs) of the UK House of Commons from 2010 to 2016. Between 20% and 30% of legislators hold private sector jobs in a given year, and this number is higher for MPs of the governing center-right Conservative party (30-40%). Second jobs are not only common, but also lucrative: In 2016, Conservative MPs with outside jobs earned, on average, more than £50,000 from them, on top of their parliamentary salary of about £75,000.  
Perhaps the most common concern about money in politics is that it influences how MPs vote on the floor of parliament. To find out if this is true, I look at whether MPs’ voting behavior changes when they take up or leave a moonlighting position, compared to their colleagues whose employment status does not change. Private sector jobs have little effect on MPs’ parliamentary votes. There is no change among Labour MPs, and Conservative MPs are only about 0.2 percentage points more likely to rebel against the vote recommendation of their party leadership when earning outside income. This translates to one additional rebellious vote every two years. 
Another common concern is that MPs spend less time focusing on their parliamentary work when they have a private sector job. However, I actually find that moonlighting increases participation in parliamentary votes among Conservative MPs. The reason for this counter-intuitive finding is that MPs’ employers are mostly located in London, and when legislators from constituencies that are far away from the capital take up a job, they spend more time there. This makes it easier for them to be present in parliament. 
Finally, I find a 60 percent increase in written parliamentary questions when Conservative MPs hold a private sector job. These questions are a way for legislators to request information from specific government ministries. I demonstrate that the increase in questions is largest among MPs in leading company positions, and among those working in knowledge-intensive industries like law and finance. Further, moonlighting Conservative MPs target more questions at ministries that are larger and oversee more procurement spending, and submit more questions that ask about department-internal policy information. This suggests that the additional questions that Conservative MPs ask are related to their private sector employment. 
Taken together, these findings are both reassuring and worrying. On the one hand, second jobs do not change which bills become law and do not reduce parliamentary effort. On the other hand, the targeted increase in questions among some legislators is clearly problematic, and raises the possibility that moonlighting MPs change their behavior in other ways too. My article thus shows that one of the most common, and yet least studied, forms of money in politics has important consequences for what politicians’ do. 

About the Author: Simon Weschle is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University. Their research “Politicians’ Private Sector Jobs and Parliamentary Behavior” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Centripetal Representation

The forthcoming article “Centripetal Representation” by Daniel Hutton Ferris is summarized by the author below. 

The complexity of systems of representation across much of the (post-)industrial world has exploded in recent decades: organizations and policy-making processes have stretched across borders, especially in the European Union; relatively stable patterns of post-war party competition have broken down; and rhizomatic governance networks have sprung up alongside older bureaucratic hierarchies. Technological developments including the growth of social media have compounded these changes, propelling us into an era of unprecedented communicative plenty characterized by a superabundance of new and diverse representative claims refracted across a broad spectrum of channels and sometimes directed at minutely segmented audiences. 

Leading theorists of representation tend to agree – despite substantial disagreement elsewhere – that this emulsification of representative practices is likely to bolster democratic legitimacy. Constructivists want to open electoral politics to a much more diverse range of competitors or surround it with a more vibrant ecosystem of representative claims made by the unelected. Deliberative democrats recommend randomly selecting legislators to make public political discourse more pluralistic, as well as lacing policy processes with deliberative assemblies containing “citizen representatives” of diverse publics and perspectives. 

Yet the fragmentation of the representative system poses a serious threat to democratic legitimacy and democratic simplifications can help ordinary people engage with, understand, and influence their representatives, pushing back against gridlock, collusion, and capture by the powerful. Multiplying veto-points and “voice points” makes it harder for ordinary people to monitor and sanction representatives, who thereby become liable to shirk their duty to represent constituents and vulnerable to capture by well-resourced minorities. Powerful representatives in fragmented institutional environments often also face a dilemma: should they collude with opponents to get things done or risk gridlock by providing principled opposition? Furthermore, discursive fragmentation can distract, deceive, and disengage people by making it harder for them to contextualize and interpret claims by and about representatives and less sure of how or whether those claims relate to each other and to outcomes. Ordinary people may be dangerously alienated from powerful representative institutions if high-profile public justifications look like window-dressing for policies cobbled together in labyrinthine processes of networked bargaining and highly personalized political communications can threaten their understanding of what political disagreement is really about and why it might be reasonable.  

This article develops a general theory about how representative systems might best promote democratic legitimacy – one that recognizes the potential benefits of networked responsiveness between diverse kinds of representative but is alert to the threat of fragmentation and the value of democratic simplicity. It argues that systems of representation are most likely to capture the benefits of pluralism and heterogeneity whilst avoiding fragmentation when their structure is “centripetal”: with power and influence moving inwards, via processes of networked responsiveness, from broadly inclusive peripheries to democratically simple cores. 

About the Author: Daniel Hutton Ferris is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University. Their research “Centripetal Representation” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Time in Office and the Changing Gender Gap in Dishonesty: Evidence from Local Politics in India

The forthcoming article “Time in Office and the Changing Gender Gap in Dishonesty: Evidence from Local Politics in India” by Ananish Chaudhuri, Vegard Iversen, Francesca R. Jensenius, and Pushkar Maitra is summarized by the authors below. 

Increasing female representation in public office has been widely promoted as a way of reducing corruption. Research suggests that women are more trustworthy, more risk averse, more honest, and lack the political networks necessary for engaging in malfeasance. Cross-sectional evidence shows that a higher share of women in parliament or in the state bureaucracy is associated with lower corruption. There is less corruption in municipalities with female mayors both in industrial (France) and developing countries (Brazil). In India, the annual rate of asset accumulation among female members of state legislative assemblies is significantly lower than among men.  

Much of this work treats women’s greater pro-sociality and risk aversion as static. Recent literature demonstrates how time in office and experience change the behavior of politicians, including their propensity towards corruption. This points to the need to consider the gender gap in corruption as dynamic rather than static.   

Researching political corruption is challenging. Survey responses often suffer from self-reporting biases, and elected politicians represent a hard-to-recruit subject pool. We address this knowledge gap using comprehensive survey and experimental data for a sample of 400 male and female local politicians in West Bengal, India. We compare incoming politicians with no prior political experience (“inexperienced”) with outgoing and re-elected politicians who had entered office without prior experience (“experienced”).   

In addition to answering survey questions, politicians participated in a series of incentivized experimental tasks. Of particular interest here is a die-tossing task, which is a standard behavioral measure of dishonesty that captures willingness to cheat for personal gain. Behavior in this game has been found to be strongly correlated with the propensity to act in a dishonest or corrupt way outside of the lab too, as well as with country-levels indicators of corruption. 

In the task, participants are asked to throw an unbiased die 30 times in private, with payment received according to the number of sixes they report. As there is no monitoring, one cannot know for sure whether individuals report truthfully. We use the deviation of the reported number of sixes from the expected number in 30 throws of the die as a group-level measure of (dis)honesty.   

Figure 1 shows the distribution of reported sixes for inexperienced and experienced politicians.  Among inexperienced politicians, women report significantly fewer sixes than men; among experienced politicians, the gender gap disappears – indicating that women become more inclined towards corrupt behavior with time in office. These patterns are robust to the inclusion of a host of individual-level control variables. 

Our analysis of possible mechanisms suggests that the greater dishonesty among experienced female politicians is driven primarily by reduced risk aversion and a strengthening of political networks. We do not find that the gap is associated with changes in pro-sociality or time-horizons in office.  

Our findings indicate that that women, like men, are socialized into local political cultures  and that effects on corruption levels by increasing the share of women in politics may be short-lived unless those local political cultures are also changed.  

About the Authors: Ananish Chaudhuri is a Professor of Experimental Economics at the University of Auckland, Vegard Iversen is a Professor of Development Economics at the University of Greenwich, Francesca R. Jensenius is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Oslo, and Pushkar Maitra is a Professor of Economics at Monash University. Their research “Time in Office and the Changing Gender Gap in Dishonesty: Evidence from Local Politics in India” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Crowd Cohesion and Protest Outcomes

The forthcoming article “Crowd Cohesion and Protest Outcomes” by Lisa Mueller is summarized by the author below. 

When do protesting crowds win concessions as opposed to coming up empty handed? This is a question that activists have asked themselves throughout history, and one that has long perplexed academics. Although researchers have identified several ingredients of effective protest—nonviolence, high turnout, international support, etc.—they have largely ignored the composition of the crowd itself. Typically, scholars and journalists assume that everyone who attends a protest wants more or less the same thing. We tend to describe a demonstration as “pro-democracy,” “anti-austerity,” or “environmentalist,” as if a single broad theme could capture the goals of everyone present. However, existing research shows that activists often have mixed reasons for attending the same event. My new article confirms this, and explores whether such diversity affects the chances of protesters getting what they nominally want. 

I hypothesize that cohesive crowds, in which most protesters express similar demands, are more likely to win concessions than crowds in which protesters voice a hodgepodge of demands. That’s because cohesive messages are cognitively easier for decision-makers to understand, and are hence more persuasive. 

Consider two twenty-first century examples from the UK. “Take Back Parliament” was a protest where Britons insisted that the government replace winner-take-all electoral rules with a more proportional system of representation. Activists’ message was clear and united, resulting in a landmark referendum (even though activists did not ultimately win proportional representation). In contrast, the “Occupy London” protests around the same time conveyed a jumble of demands for income redistribution, clean energy, health services, and a host of other concessions. Occupy London prompted no major response from decision-makers. Some members of Parliament remarked that they could not even comprehend what “Occupiers” wanted, let alone how to redress such a long wish list. 

To see whether my theory generalizes beyond these two cases, I conduct two additional analyses. 

First, I use computerized natural language processing to measure the cohesion of protesters’ self-reported motivations at 97 protests in Europe and Latin America. After controlling for other variables, I find that higher crowd cohesion corresponds with a higher probability that protesters win concessions within three years. 

Second, I conduct an experiment where I randomize the cohesion of messages depicted on signs at a hypothetical protest in South Africa. The more cohesive the messages in an image, the likelier survey respondents are to say they would vote for a tax increase to give the demonstrators what they want, such as access to education. 

Taken together, my results imply that protesters can enhance their odds of success by coordinating around a unified message. This strategy may clash with some activists’ preferences for “intersectional” messages that address the interests of multiple constituencies all at once. For example, Black Lives Matter spokespersons have sometimes argued that it is wrong to seek justice for Black Americans without simultaneously pursuing justice for women, trans people, and other marginalized communities. A compromise would be to voice specific demands sequentially, so that each protest event has a cohesive theme (and a decent shot at success) but every issue eventually has it moment in the spotlight. 

About the Author: Lisa Mueller is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Macalester College. Their research “Crowd Cohesion and Protest Outcomes” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

In Strongman We Trust: The Political Legacy of the New Village Movement in South Korea

The forthcoming article “In Strongman We Trust: The Political Legacy of the New Village Movement in South Koreaby Ji Yeon Hong, Sunkyoung Park, and Hyunjoo Yang is summarized by the authors below. 

A common perception of democratization is that it is a fresh start for a country’s politics. Nonetheless, an increasing volume of scholarly work has shown that democratization is not as fresh a start as is often assumed. Authoritarian legacies prevail and persist in many places, sometimes long after democratic consolidation. So, why do citizens support authoritarian successor parties or politicians with a direct connection to a country’s authoritarian past? In this paper, we show that large-scale distributive policies implemented under dictatorships may have persistent effects that linger long after democratization.  

We draw evidence from the New Village Movement (Saemaul Undong in Korean) that took place in South Korea in the 1970s. It was a nationwide rural development program that was initiated and implemented by then-dictator Park Chung-hee. We analyze government subsidies to villages under this program and regional voting patterns in recent elections, finding that the program has had a long-term effect on election outcomes. In a highly polarized election in 2012, Park Chung-hee’s daughter, Park Geun-hye, was democratically elected president. Villagers who benefitted from greater government subsidies in the 1970s were more likely to vote for Park Geun-hye in the election. 

Our further analysis of the mechanisms behind this effect reveal that the beneficiary voters did not support the dictator’s daughter because the program benefited them in the long run, either economically or non-economically. Using night-time satellite imagery as a proxy for economic activity, we find that villages that received greater subsidies actually have less economic activity today. In addition, the level of social capital in these villages does not differ from that of other rural villages. Instead, our analysis shows that the beneficiary villagers have a strong psychological affinity for the former dictator. Their support for him has not wavered despite several decades having passed since his regime. 

Our study sheds new light on the potential long-term effects of distributive policies under authoritarianism. Authoritarian leaders have considerable discretion in the distribution of economic resources. Often, their distributive programs target groups that are less privileged in terms of region, ethnicity, or class in the hopes of gaining their political support. Although democratization grants political rights to all citizens, these marginalized groups may experience economic and social disadvantages in a new democracy, and this has been the case for most rural residents of South Korea. These voters may thus show strong support for a former dictator who implemented a distributive policy that favored them, and in turn for a political party or politician that inherits the dictator’s legacy. 

About the Authors: Ji Yeon Hong is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, Sunkyoung Park is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Incheon National University, and Hyunjoo Yang is an Associate Professor of Economics at Sogang University. Their research “In Strongman We Trust: The Political Legacy of the New Village Movement in South Korea” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

“A Sacred Effort”: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and the Problem of Justice

The forthcoming article “‘A Sacred Effort’: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and the Problem of Justice”  by Richard S. Ruderman is summarized by the author below. 

At a time when growing numbers of Americans are concerned that we are headed toward a new civil war, it is well worth re-examining Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to bring the original to a close in such a way as to avoid the recidivism so often associated with civil wars. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural has both impressed and perplexed audiences since its initial delivery. While most have been deeply moved by his call for “malice toward none” and “charity for all,” they have often been equally puzzled and even put off by the stern religiosity on display in the paragraph prior to his peroration. He was even accused, at the time, of “substituting religion for statesmanship.” In this article, I argue that it is his statesmanlike use of religion—indeed, of a new hybrid (still unnamed) religion, Judeo-Christianity—that provided the moral and psychological ground for overcoming the “malice” that so often attends the end of wars. Unlike the essentially post-religious (and uncharitable) statesmanship of the Allies in World War One that contributed in no small measure to the outbreak of World War Two, Lincoln’s statesmanship in the Second Inaugural provides a model for how to keep the “settling of scores”—the desire for punitive justice—from snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Above all, we can learn from Lincoln that the punitive aspect of justice constitutes a moral and even philosophical “problem.” By this, I mean that Lincoln moved beyond our understanding of “the problem of justice”—namely that an action, law or policy may not live up to a (or “our”) standard of justice—to the deeper question of whether and how responsibility for an injustice can be assigned. Discerning Lincoln’s answer requires us to resolve the puzzle he inserts at the start of the speech, whereby he makes, in quick succession, the arguments that both sides are responsible for the war and that neither side is responsible. Finally, Lincoln offers the unusual argument that punishment must chiefly serve the purpose, not of punishing past injustice, but of laying the necessary ground for future “charity for all.”

About the Author: Richard S. Ruderman is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of North Texas. Their research “‘A Sacred Effort’: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and the Problem of Justice” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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