December 09, 2015

The media’s constant reporting on the results of what seem like hourly public opinion polls about the 2016 election has greatly increased the sense that many American voters have simply gone mad. Lately, it seems particularly apparent that “likely Republican primary voters” have lost it, given the enthusiastic support of about 30% of them for people and ideas that are demonstrably and indisputably… well… nuts.

Pop theories abound. These folks may not be serious, rather are just expressing frustration with “politics-as-usual or the GOP “establishment.” Could be that these folks haven’t begun to focus on their 2016 presidential preferences yet, or that they are merely reflecting the ubiquitous media presence of crazy candidates with crazy ideas. While all of these notions have value and are worth consideration, the political science literature on the impact of party polarization on public opinion formation seems particularly valuable to me.

In a 2013 APSA article researchers from Northwestern, Stanford, and Aarhus Universities argued that voters are forming their opinions about politics and public policy through a partisan lens, taking positions on issues and candidates in response to elite partisan cues. These researchers found “stark evidence that polarized environments fundamentally change how citizens make decisions. Specifically, polarization intensifies the impact of party endorsements on opinions, decreases the impact of substantive information and, perhaps ironically, stimulates greater confidence in those—less substantively grounded—opinions”

This notion compliments a phenomenon I have called “trickle down tactical partisanship,” defined as “the deployment (or at least conscious exploitation) by political elites of non-professional, uncompensated individuals as partisan attack dogs unleashed from ethical, moral, or intellectual restraint. In the age of social media and the internet, this means steering and distributing political propaganda generated by opposition researchers, partisan bloggers and media outlets to individuals who use social media sites like Facebook as the primary venue for their self-appointed role as shock troops in America’s culture war.” With trust in experts, political party organizations, and the commercial news media at all-time lows and politics as polarizing as ever, it seems plausible that this democratization of propaganda dissemination has had measurable impacts on the way voters formulate and express their political preferences. The alarming opinions frequently revealed by public opinion polls in recent years, not to mention some of the difficulty pollsters have been having lately accurately measuring voter preferences, may be indicative of such measurable impacts.

The fact that voters’ “party identification” is the single best predictor of their votes, combined with the notion that in the age of partisan polarization and culture war voters’ “party IDs” have merged with their social identities, produces the outlines of a fairly straight forward theory about what looks like an alarming degree of public support for fascism at present.The idea is that a voter’s political postures, positions, and even rhetoric, reflect those of political elites operating on the same side of the polarized political divide. In this atmosphere both rank-in-file and elite partisans operate (rhetorically) as insiders, or partisan operatives, which is actually a lot easier to do in the age of Google than becoming a substantively informed voter. We may be seeing a new form of what scholars call “rational ignorance” here.

Likely GOP primary voters presently registering support for fascism, theocracy, and a number of other absurdities, may really be engaging in “tactical partisanship” as members of Team Conservative or Team Republican.The ubiquity of partisan “talking points” in the Information Age suggests that an instrument once reserved for professional pols and media spokesmen is now a tool of voter mobilization, used by voters themselves. Increasingly, voters are enlisted as political spokesmen and many (judging by internet comment sections, Facebook, and Twitter) are embracing the role.

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