As a scholar of long-term partisan change in the United States, my work explores how partisanship, ideology, and group attachments have historically anchored political behavior – as well as their unique patterns of influence in the current party system. In my book manuscript (in progress), I argue that compared to the pre-1960s United States, it is easy for Americans to understand the programmatic substance of partisan conflict. However, I explore an important implication of our competitive, polarized two-party system: Americans understand elections as victories for groups in the party coalitions, but understand political parties in terms of the left-right divide.
Voting in Groups, Thinking Like Ideologues
At present, my primary project is a book manuscript based on my dissertation: Voting in Groups, Thinking Like Ideologues: The Paradox of Partisan Conflict in the United States. I tackle a puzzling trend: Americans’ perceptions of parties have shifted to emphasize ideology and policy – factors usually regarded as dull, esoteric, and far removed from group-based models of mass politics. At first glance, this makes little sense; by outward appearances, group conflict anchors partisan politics more dramatically than any point since the mid-1960s. Why do Americans bother to learn the policies that divide Republicans and Democrats, but vote as if this information were a moot point?
To explain this paradox, I suggest that Americans understand political parties much differently than they understand campaigns and elections. On the one hand, most Americans understand that Republicans and Democrats advocate different things, and that the left-right divide accounts for these differences. However, while Americans might intellectually understand that partisan conflict is about ideology, it does not follow that they marshal this logic on Election Day. For most Americans, voting remains the only political exercise that evokes realistic competition. Campaigns remain the only political event that consistently spills over into social life. Thus, it makes sense that Americans would understand election outcomes in terms of the parties’ constituent groups – even if they understand the parties in terms of liberal-conservative ideology.
To test this theory, I designed original survey experiments for the 2018-2020 Cooperative Election Studies (CES). For example, on the 2020 CES, I asked respondents to rank-order two lists of party-stereotypical groups. Half the sample indicated which groups were most likely to identify as Republicans or Democrats. The other half indicated which groups would be most pivotal to Donald Trump’s or Joe Biden’s path-to-victory in the event that each candidate won the upcoming election. Of the groups listed, respondents overwhelmingly signaled that “conservatives” were the most likely to be Republicans – more likely than Whites, Southerners, rich people, or evangelicals. Similarly, they considered “liberals” the most likely to be Democrats – more likely than union members, college graduates, or African Americans. However, when respondents considered which groups were most pivotal for Trump’s and Biden’s coalitions, response patterns showed more variation. Instead, respondents variously cited racial, religious, socioeconomic, and ideological groups. Consistent with my theory, this suggests that most Americans believe that ideology, rather than social groups, differentiates Republicans from Democrats. But they also believe that social groups, in addition to ideological groups, determine which party prevails at the ballot box.
Ultimately, these findings inform an important debate: whether Americans see partisan conflict as a “war of ideas,” or a battle between competing groups. Rather than ask which narrative is correct, I explain why both the ideological and social foundations of party ID have strengthened. The group-based model of party ID is correct that voting behavior turns on attachments to parties and the groups that parties represent. The issue-based model of party ID is correct that most Americans understand the programmatic substance of partisan conflict. Yet, because Americans understand political parties differently than they understand elections, it makes sense that both paradigms are increasingly credible. Precisely because the parties’ policy differences are well-known, the parties have nothing to gain by reminding voters of these differences. This means that elections turn on group conflict not because Americans cannot understand the parties’ ideological differences, but because these differences are well-understood. At IU, my work was supported by a College of Arts and Sciences Dissertation Research Fellowship (2019-20) and competitive grants from the Center on American Politics.
Political Sophistication and Independent Judgment
In parallel work, I explore another consequence of long-term partisan change: new ways for Americans to acquire political sophistication and demonstrate their independence from political parties. For several reasons, the polarization of American politics demands that political scientists revisit standard assumptions about political sophistication. First, polarization suggests that previously apolitical activities are rich with political significance. Second, because polarization promotes strong partisan loyalties, we must consider how citizens demonstrate their political independence within the constraints of polarized choices. I look forward to synthesizing several existing projects into a richer account of political sophistication and independent judgment.
For example, my 2018 Political Behavior article suggested that polarization has expanded citizens’ options for acquiring political knowledge. Using original measures on the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, I assessed religious-political sophistication (RPS): whether citizens could accurately characterize their religious traditions’ positions on abortion and same-sex marriage. Results indicated that Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants were more likely to oppose abortion and same-sex marriage if they could accurately characterize their churches’ positions. Indeed, RPS – in conjunction with regular church attendance – had a stronger influence on cultural attitudes than the standard interaction between Republican partisanship and political knowledge. However, for members of mainline Protestant traditions – which emphasize political compromise and often eschew “culture war” politics – policy attitudes were unaffected by perceptions of church teaching. These results spoke not just to the religion-and-politics literature – but to broader conversations about how partisan change has expanded and complicated the concept of political sophistication.
Alongside my single-authored work, I’m proud of the research collaborations I’ve built – and look forward to forging similar connections in the future. Most recently (in P.S.: Political Science & Politics), Ted Carmines and I document partisan asymmetries in citizens’ reluctance to support presidential candidates from specific, under-represented groups. In our forthcoming book chapter (in The Palgrave Handbook of Populism), Carmines, Matthew Fowler, and I pilot and validate an original index of populist attitudes in the United States — showing that both right and left-wing populism have fundamentally reshaped how Americans think and reason about politics. And I’ve published additional, co-authored contributions in the Journal of Political Institutions and Political Economy, Social Science Quarterly, Oxford Bibliographies Online, and Perspectives on Politics.