How do we explain the utter failure of President Obama's attempts to forge a bipartisan solution to the stimulus plan?
The theory suggested by Stimson (1991) assumes that we can identify distinct 'policy moods' representing powerful tides rippling and surging through the body politic that are capable of leading national sentiment in a consistent direction. Small shifts in public opinion may represent nothing more than random and capricious fluctuations in the polls. Other shifts, however, may gradually transform the policy mood, or the common bundling of policy preferences over time. The depth and breadth of the current economic crisis appears to be one such event which has shifted American public opinion in a more Keynesian direction, demanding that government intervenes in the face of dramatic market failures. The American public increasingly favors public services, not private-sector tax cuts, to lift us out of the recession. Policy moods become evident as a consistent aggregate pattern linking attitudes towards issues. If the distribution of public opinion is imagined as a Downsian left-right continuum (Figure 1), some policy options may be located too far left or right for the public's acceptance, and the asymetrical zone of acquiescence between them can be understood as the range of policy choices acceptable to the public. It is rational for the public to be fairly uninformed about policies located in the center zone, given the minor differences between options, as the costs of paying attention exceed its expected benefit. The public becomes more aware of the issues if policymakers seek to implement policies outside the zone of acquiescence.
Figure 1: The Theoretical Model of Party Competition
The concept of a policy mood is not particularly novel. But Stimson's account goes one step further in assuming that changes in policy moods may display three distinct patterns: they may be the product of meandering fluctuations back and forth, like a drunken walk, or they may be consistent trends flowing in one direction over time, or alternatively they may be the result of systemic cycles in response to what government is currently doing. The distribution of policy preferences and the zone of acquiescence at mass level is not static since, although there is some time lag, public opinion moves relative to the actions of policymakers. The public gains experience of the impact of policy changes gradually, as they become aware of the costs and other trade-offs produced by particular government decisions that move policy towards the left or right. The existence of cycles in the public mood, responding to government actions, has been supported by much of the empirical evidence in the United States.
Following Stimson, we can theorize that in democratic societies with competitive party systems, elected representatives respond fairly sensitively to policy cycles. Rational vote-seeking politicians seek to maintain popular support (and hence office) by remaining within the 'zone of acquiescence', where the public is in accord with policy proposals, rather than moving too far across the ideological spectrum to the left or right. Rational vote-seeking politicians therefore implement policy changes in terms of their perceptions of what the public wants. At a certain stage of the cycle, the theory suggests, public preferences shift in a contrary direction in response to government actions. Policy changes continue to overshoot the new public consensus, until policymakers become aware of the shift in the public's mood and move back into line with the zone of acquiescence. If politicians fail to perceive the change in public sentiment, or fail to respond to the shift, they face the threat of electoral defeat. In general, if seriously lagging or leading public opinion on important issues, politicians face the threat of a serious electoral penalty. It is rational for politicians to pay little attention to public opinion for much of the time, because the zone of acquiescence allows politicians considerable lassitude, especially for governing parties with comfortable majorities in the mid-term period. Minor parties facing almost certain electoral defeat in the electoral system may also rationally prioritize ideological purity over electoral expediency. But there is a substantial incentive (the ambition for government office) for politicians in the major opposition parties to pay the closest attention to public opinion when crafting their policy program, choosing their party leadership, and marketing their party image.
This argument suggests that where rational vote-seeking politicians are sensitive to the public mood; once leaders perceive any switch in national sentiment, they will eventually tack across the political spectrum to maintain popular support. This incentive is strongest for major opposition parties. But this strategy depends upon how accurately politicians understand the shifting tides of public opinion. Multiple barriers may prevent political parties from rationally adapting to the public mood in pursuit of office, including the blinders of partisan ideology.
Politicians may not perceive the need to change if they believe that they are already in tune with public opinion, even though in fact they may be lagging behind or running ahead of the zone of acquiescence. Social psychological theories of selective perception hold that people's interpretations of events are slanted toward their previously held convictions. Evidence for this phenomenon is drawn from a variety of sources. Early work on selective perception emphasized the cognitive costs of holding inconsistent views (Festinger 1957). By this account, an individual is motivated by a desire to maintain harmony among his or her beliefs. In Lord et al's (1979) classic experiment, opponents of the death penalty were more likely to find fault with a study suggesting that it deters serious crime; death penalty supporters were similarly resistant to a study that drew the opposite conclusion. In fact, exposure to discordant evidence only made people more set in their ways. The most influential statement of selective perception concerns the role of partisan attachments functioning as a 'perceptual screen' for information in the electorate (Campbell et al 1960:133). Zaller extends this argument, proposing that "partisan resistance" causes voters to filter out information when it does not conform to their existing political predispositions. (Zaller 1992: 241).
There are many ways in which selective perception could operate among political elites. Successive election victories could be expected to reinforce the perception that the party in government was in tune with the electorate, even if the policy mood had been gradually shifting over the years in reaction to government policy. Any electoral defeat can always be attributed to multiple scapegoats rather than to the unpopularity of the party's basic principles and programmatic policies. Of course multiple opinion polls are published in modern campaigns, as well as focus groups used by campaign professionals. But this evidence can always be discarded ('the only poll that matters is the one on the night'). In interpreting the public mood, Herbst (1995) suggests that politicians commonly follow many different cues, such as communications with activists, conversations with local constituents, and debates in the news media, as much as more scientific techniques of opinion polls and focus groups.
The recent obdurate behavior of the GOP over the stimulus bill is extremely similar to that of the British Conservative party when it experienced a resounding defeat, following Tony Blair's landslide victory in 1997. Blair, like President Obama's search for bipartisan solutions, sought to govern by straddling the middle ground. The Conservatives had been in power for eighteen years, and they had become increasingly out of touch with public opinion, which progressively shifted away from a Thatcherite philosophy of ever more tax cuts towards favoring management of better public services. Moreover the 1997 and 2001 elections led to the loss of the more moderate Conservatives, holding marginal seats, reducing the party to a rump of ideological true believers.
Downsian theory assumes that major opposition parties with ambitions for government will move towards the median voter in the pursuit of votes and therefore office. But any successful strategy of casting for votes requires that politicians can identify where these are located. The Conservatives thought that they were articulating popular polices against Blair, but they were stranded far from reality due to errors of selective perception. It took the experience of several resounding election defeats to bring new blood into the opposition party, moving the Conservatives in a more moderate direction under fresh leadership, and bringing a restoration in their viability in the opinion polls.
The GOP currently remain the ideological rump party, out of touch with the median voter. Too many years trumpeting dogma when in power, and isolated from reality, means that they have lost touch when the public mood shifted back towards believing that right now, for many issues, in the current crisis, government is the solution, not the problem. President Obama's best efforts at cocktail bipartisanship will not be able to move them. It will probably take the shock of successive election defeats to bring them back to more moderate ground closer to the center ground of American public opinion.
For more details: see
Pippa Norris and Joni Lovenduski. Why parties fail to learn - Electoral defeat, selective perception and British party politics
Source: PARTY POLITICS Volume: 10 Issue: 1 Pages: 85-104 Published: JAN 2004
Festinger L. 1957. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press
Herbst, Susan. 1999. Public Opinion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Stimson, James A. 1991. Public Opinion in America: Moods, Cycles and Swings. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Zaller John R. 1992. The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press