Follow the leaders: Study finds political parties lead, and voters fall in line

BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — Traditionally, a political party fights for the ideals and policies of its members. However, researchers from Binghamton University report that the opposite tends to take place in American politics. Voters tend to change their beliefs based on their party’s platform. It may sound backwards, but the study finds those already in power politically “lead the way,” and the voters largely do as their told.

“We typically think of democracies as systems where political elites represent and respond to the interests of citizens, but we found less support for this idea than you might expect,” explains study co-author Robin Best, an associate professor of political science, in a university release. “I was surprised that we didn’t find more support for the expectation that parties polarize in response to citizen preferences, and that it really seemed to be parties that were leading the process.”

Is government really working for the people?

Using more precise terms, researchers conclude that party polarization typically occurs before voter polarization. Political polarization refers to how far apart people or political parties are on a topic.

“There are reasons to think that citizens respond to party polarization by adopting more polarized political positions of their own, and also reasons to expect political parties to change their positions in response to the preferences of their citizens,” Prof. Best says.

Ideally, a political party should follow the views and opinions of its targeted voter base. The research team wanted to determine if this is actually the case in real-life scenarios, both domestically in the United States and among other democracies abroad.

“Polarization has become quite noticeable here in the United States, where the two major parties now stand apart on almost all issues, but less is known about how polarization works in other democracies,” Prof. Best continues. “We were interested in exploring how party polarization and citizen polarization moved together over time, particularly in established democracies other than the U.S.”

Parties polarizing the voter base

Researchers put together a dataset of 174 election surveys, facilitating the analysis of both party and citizen polarization within 19 democracies between 1971 and 2019. The analysis showed that it is mostly citizens who follow their parties, not the other way around. Notably, the study finds particularly well-informed and politically interested citizens are most likely to polarize after their parties polarize, and in a fast manner too.

“Citizens often take their cues from political parties on how to think about political issues. We are seeing this a lot in the U.S. lately regarding the pandemic, but it applies to lots of other issues as well. People often rely on political parties as a source of information, so it makes sense to expect them to follow the lead of parties and other political elites,” Prof. Best concludes.

The study is published in the journal Party Politics.

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