Much of the political world believes that public opinion binds politicians. Change the political terrain upon which they operate and you change political behavior. Tremendous time, energy, and money is spent by the Left and Right to “wage and win the war of ideas” outside of Washington so as to force politicians to adopt preferred political positions. The reigning conceit is that public opinion leads and politicians follow.

Regression analyses, however, find no relationship between public policy preferences and political outcomes. But why? There are a number of reasons, but one of the most important is that partisan conflict between political elites has a huge impact on how we arrive at our policy opinions in the first place. The public falls into the lines ordered by their political champions.

One of the best demonstrations of this point can be found in a paper published a few years ago by political scientists James Druckman (Northwestern) and Rune Slothuus (Aarhus University). The authors asked self-identified political partisans their opinions on two different policy issues; increasing immigration and allowing for more drilling for oil and natural gas. Subjects were divided into groups and given questions which varied by (1) how strongly the case was made for and against the issue, and (2) the degree to which those questions included information about where the two parties stood.

Their findings?

  • When information about party disagreements are absent, opinions move in the direction of the strongest arguments.
  • When party disagreements are lightly referenced, opinions again move in the direction of the strongest arguments. When presented with arguments of equal strength, however, opinions move in the direction their party’s position.
  • When party disagreements are strongly referenced, opinions move in the direction of their party regardless of the relative strength or weakness of the arguments for or against the party’s position. Moreover, respondents become dramatically more confident of their opinions.

Their conclusion?

Partisans in a polarized environment follow their party regardless of the type or strength of the argument the party makes. Moreover, when individuals engage in strong partisan motivated reasoning, they develop increased confidence in their opinions. This means they are less likely to consider alternative positions and more likely to take action based upon their opinion (e.g., attempt to persuade others). In short, elite polarization fundamentally changes the manner in which citizens make decisions … citizens turn to partisan biases and ignore arguments that they otherwise consider to be “strong.”

The authors sum up their findings this way: “Intense party competition degenerates opinion quality.”  But another important takeaway is that partisans tend to embrace whatever ideas they’re told to embrace by their political leaders. Those who hope to bind political actors with the rope of public opinion – or who hope to move a party’s base into new political fields – should take note.