It is Wednesday and so a short blog. I am working on a number of things at present but getting the material sorted for my next book with Thomas Fazi is a priority at the moment. My snippet today though is about a study that has just come out in the American Political Science Review – Bias in Perceptions of Public Opinion among Political Elites – by two US academics. The title is indicative. They explore what they argue is a disjuncture between what the politicians think voters want and what the voters actually want. This lack of congruence is also biased towards right-wing views. So, the politicians “believed that much more of the public in their constituencies preferred conservative policies than actually did”. They trace this bias to biases in the way the politicians get their information. The takeaway is that the progressive side of the debate has to be more active in framing distinctive messages and using multiple ways and avenues to communicate those messages to the candidates seeking election and the politicians that have been elected. And it must refrain from using conservative frames which advisors think neutralise difficult concepts etc. I think this sort of research provides some hope. I will be writing more about this in the weeks to come. And after that listen to some really classic minimalism from the C19th, which you might suspect on listening is very contemporary such was the genius of the composer.
Bias in Perceptions
The research I referred to in the Introduction is very interesting and ties in to the sort of work I mentioned I was doing yesterday’s blog post – Reclaiming our sense of collective and community – Part 1 (August 21, 2018).
You need relevant library access to get the copy that has been published in the 2018 edition of the Review (Vol 112(3), 542-563).
You can access the paper in Working Paper form – HERE.
As an aside, Dr Louisa Connors and I will present some of this work at the MMT Conference in New York at the end of September. I hope as many of you that are able can attend that conference and help us widen and deepen the network to extend our advocacy.
The ‘Bias’ paper by David Broockman and Christopher Skovron sets out to examine what they call a “puzzle” – the “conservative asymmetry of elite polarization”.
What does that mean?
They write that there has been a “sharp increase in elite polarization” in US politics which has seen the “movement of the Republican Party to the right” driving most of the skew.
They cite literature that suggests that:
Republican candidates often take positions more extreme than would be electorally optimal, while Democrats do so far less often.
This suggests a lack of congruence between the behaviour of politicians and public opinion but so far there has been little coherent research that can explain why that lack of congruence persists.
While there is a vast body of literature that establishes that “politicians seek to represent the median voter” and demonstrate a “strong responsiveness to public opinion”, the persistence of these biases suggest that it is:
… biases in politicians’ information environments common across politicians can lead politicians as a whole to systematically misperceive constituency opinion and, in turn, to contribute to systemic breakdowns in dyadic representation like asymmetric polarization.
That is a very interesting conjecture.
It comes down to whoever gets in the ear of the politicians can have a major influence on the way they perceive what public opinion is.
And because the ‘in-crowd’ that do get audiences with politicians – via networks, their advisors, etc – my not be fully representative of public opinion, it is easy for these politicians to form a biased view of what that public opinion is.
As a result, they develop strategies and narratives with their advisors that they think are clever responses that will garner them political support but, which in reality, bear little resemblance to what the public perceive as being in their best interests.
This is very relevant to what I have been discussing with respect to the sort of advice that traditional social democratic (and Labour) parties have been getting on the macroeconomics front.
My view is that they are being badly advised by people who think it is ‘clever’ to adopt the language and frames of neoliberalism to articulate what they see as being a ‘progressive’ policy stance.
What they fail to understand is that in adopting that language and framing they reinforce the neoliberal structures, which ultimately, preclude the pursuit of progressive policy positions.
So these social democratic-style parties become ‘austerity lite’ outfits talking up fairness and well-being but delivering nothing of the sort.
The Socialist Greek government is at the extreme end of this ‘progressive’ betrayal. The Blairites were disasters for Britain (never forget Gordon Brown’s ‘light touch regulation’ of the financial sector). The US Democrats are so poorly led that they allowed Donald Trump to beat them.
And so on.
David Broockman and Christopher Skovron focus on the US political scene to demonstrate the veracity of their conjecture about the source of this bias or incongruency.
They note the rising mobilisation of right-wing ideas in the public sphere “since the mid-2000s” – in the media, “talk radio programs”, “town hall meetings”, etc.
This ‘uprising’ of conservatism has been instrumental in shaping “how politicians perceive the public’s demands”.
The authors accumulated survey evidence from “American politicians … collected 11,803 elite perceptions of constituency opinion in total”.
The data was mostly collected in 2014.
Seven issues were explored in the surveys, which corresponded to the sort of information that the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) run by YouGov for through Harvard University, generates.
CCES is a “50,000+ person national stratified sample survey” designed to assess “general political attitudes, various demographic factors, assessment of roll call voting choices, and political information”.
The seven issues were (as worded in the surveys):
1. “Allow gays and lesbians to marry legally”.
2. “Let employers and insurers refuse to cover birth control and other health services that violate their religious beliefs”.
3. “Require background checks for all gun sales, including at gun shows and over the Internet”.
4. “Ban assault rifles”.
5. “Allow police to question anyone they think may be in the country illegally”.
6. “Grant legal status to all illegal immigrants who have held jobs and paid taxes for at least 3 years, and not been convicted of any felony crimes”.
7. “Always allow a woman to obtain an abortion as a matter of choice”.
Note there were no questions about macroeconomics but I think the findings they produced can be extended to the sorts of issues I focus on in my work.
The politicians were asked to estimate what proportion of voters would support these propositions – specifically, “What percent of the people living in your district would agree with the following statements?”
What did they find?
I won’t go into the statistical techniques they deployed to make their inferences here. You can read the paper if you are interested. I found their technical methodology very interesting.
In summary, they found that:
1. politicians “believed that much more of the public in their constituencies preferred conservative policies than actually did”.
2. “Republicans were prone to severely overestimating support for conservative positions. Democrats’ perceptions also typically overestimated the public’s support for conservative positions, although by less, suggesting our findings cannot be attributed to motivated reasoning by Republicans alone.”
3. These biases are “pushing Republicans to the right and discouraging Democrats from making a similarly strong move leftward.”
4. One “implication … is that relatively simple informational interventions would lead to legislative outcomes that are more congruent with public opinion.”
5. “politicians with the most severe overestimation of conservatism told us they took the most extremely conservative positions”.
6. “politicians overestimated conservatism the most in districts where Republicans were especially likely to contact legislators”.
7. “Politicians’ incentives are difficult to change, but their information environments are demonstrably malleable”.
So the takeaway is that the progressive side of the debate has to be more active in framing distinctive messages and using multiple ways and avenues to communicate those messages to the candidates seeking election and the politicians that have been elected.
I think this sort of research provides some hope.
I will continue writing about these strategic issues in future blog posts as I learn more.
Music I was listening to just now …
Éric Alfred Leslie Satie is one of my favourite pianists and composers and his works in the late C19th and into the early part of the C20th were the precursor to what emerged in the 1970s and beyond as ambience and post minimalism.
His music was also influential in the French drama style referred to as Théâtre de l’absurde, which sought to attack “the comfortable certainties of religious or political orthodoxy”. My sort of drama!
Satie died from the effects of his alcoholism in 1925. He was a rebel. And produced beautiful music.
This piece (which I listen to regularly) is called Gymnopédie No.1 – which is the first piece in his three-part set of compositions called the Gymnopédies.
It was released in Paris in 1888 and was so far ahead of anything that was going on at the time.
The structure of the pieces was distinctive:
1. 3/4 time.
2. disjunctive chordal pattern in the first bars which defied concepts of harmony at the time but produced the haunting beauty.
John Cage is the contemporary interpreter of Satie’s work.
I hope you like it as much as I do.
London Event – Launch of the Gower Initiative for Modern Money Studies
As part of my next Northern Hemisphere speaking tour (first US, then UK and Europe), I will be helping to launch the Gower Initiative for Modern Money Studies on October 5, 2018 in London.
The Initiative (GIMMS) is an activist group in the UK that is dedicated to advancing an awareness of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) in the public and political spheres.
To achieve fundamental change in the way our governments operate so that the well-being of all of us and not just the elites is forefront, groups like the GIMMS are necessary.
I hope you can support them.
Apart from the Launch, I will present two workshops in the late afternoon on MMT and the Job Guarantee.
For full information, please see the – Event Page
That is enough for today!
(c) Copyright 2018 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.