14 July 2017

Study: On climate change and elsewhere, politicians more conservative than citizens

Dana Nuccitelli

Dana Nuccitelli

Dana Nuccitelli is an environmental scientist, and author of Climatology versus...

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Academics have identified a skew in American politics, in which policies that are implemented are much more conservative than average Americans prefer. A new paper  by David Broockman at Stanford University and Christopher Skovron from the University of Michigan suggests a cause for this disparity: American politicians perceive their constituents’ positions as more conservative than they are in actuality on a wide range of issues; for example, Republican politicians tend to overestimate support for their conservative health care views by a whopping 20 percentage points. As Broockman and his colleague Christopher Warshaw of MIT put it in an article for the New York Times: “Research shows that politicians are surprisingly poor at estimating public opinion in their districts and state, Republicans in particular.” This in turn appears to be caused by greater political engagement among conservative constituents, who contact their members of Congress more frequently than liberal voters.

The study's authors looked at data surveying thousands of American politicians’ perceptions of their constituents’ opinions, and compared those results to actual public opinion. They found that both Democratic and Republican politicians perceive that public opinion is more conservative than it is in actuality, but it’s especially true among Republican legislators. That matches patterns in grassroots mobilization—Republican voters are about 40 percent more likely to contact their member of Congress’ office than Democratic voters, especially when their member of Congress is a fellow Republican.

The conservative bias in Republican politicians’ perceptions of constituent opinion extended to every question in the survey, on issues such as firearms background checks, where GOP politicians perceive 36 percent more support for their conservative positions than there actually is among the general public—something that statisticians call “skew.” Similar overestimates occur regarding the depth of support for conservative positions on the banning of assault rifles (overestimated by about 18 percent), granting amnesty to illegal immigrants (9 percent), banning abortion (9 percent), and gay marriage (7 percent). This again matches statistics on grassroots mobilization—conservative constituents are especially well-organized and vocal on the issue of gun control.

The survey didn’t include any questions about climate change, but that’s another issue on which Republican politicians’ perceptions of constituent opinion appear extremely skewed. For example, 75 percent of Americans support regulating carbon as a pollutant, and 62 percent of Trump voters support a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system. But despite the sentiments of an overwhelming number of their constituents, the vast majority of Republican Party politicians oppose all climate policies and the GOP stands alone as the only climate-denying major political party in the world. In fact, Republican politicians’ climate policy opposition is so strong that 22 of 52 Republican senators sent a letter to Donald Trump urging withdrawal from the non-binding Paris climate accord. This position was again out of step with Republican voters, a majority of whom supported participation in the Paris agreement, including a strong plurality of Trump voters.

The question then arises—how do Republicans keep winning elections if the policies they implement are more conservative than voters prefer? Broockman and Skovron suggest an answer: “Others have shown that the public does not appear to pay enough attention to what their representatives do to hold them accountable and that legislators appear more interested in responding to their wealthy constituents than the median voter.” And political polarization and tribalism has never been higher—Trump voters simply don’t care that he lies, for example, according to studies quoted by Vox. On top of that, legislators think their constituents are more conservative than they are, and thus don’t realize how truly unpopular their policies are.

A vicious cycle has taken over American politics in which legislators overestimate conservatism in voters, their constituents don’t hold them accountable for passing unrepresentative policies, and in fact are more likely to vote along party lines due to increased tribalism. On top of all that, House Republicans have created a structural advantage through gerrymandering says a study for the Associated Press, which makes them even less accountable because they’ve essentially chosen their own voters. The only solution to this problem is for citizens who are more moderate and liberal to become more politically engaged and contact their members of Congress.

That has in fact begun to happen since the election of Donald Trump. Increased engagement of liberal and moderate Americans at congressional town hall events, for example, may have had some effect on the now-floundering Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The bipartisan grassroots organization Citizens’ Climate Lobby has also implemented this engagement strategy for the past decade, most recently sending 1,300 volunteers to lobby members of Congress in Washington DC to support a revenue-neutral carbon tax. The group’s strategy of maximizing engagement with members of Congress appears to be precisely the best way to get policies implemented, and is the best hope for breaking through Republican legislators’ unrepresentative climate denial and policy obstruction. Those efforts have paid dividends so far, with 24 House Republicans joining 24 Democrats on the Climate Solutions Caucus, whose purpose is to develop economically viable bipartisan climate policies. So far that accounts for just 10 percent of House Republicans, but the caucus only began this year and has been growing rapidly. It’s proof of concept that directly engaging members of Congress is the most effective way to convince them to support a particular policy, and to overcome the conservative skew in American politics.