The biggest secret in political science
And why it matters to political behaviour
All occupations have secrets. Reading the insider accounts of footballers and barristers, one notes how the realities of these professions differ from received wisdom. Academia is no different, the findings of several fields being at odds with public perception. Political science’s secret is intriguing, enabling analysis of political behaviour. The secret is this; whichever party is in power, policies tend to be similar. In other words, government ideology has little effect in areas such as taxation, welfare and foreign policy.
Literature on partisanship demonstrates this. In most circumstances, the ideology of governing parties has indiscernible to small influence on policy, one meta-analysis establishing that the ‘average correlation between the party composition of government and policy outputs is not signiﬁcantly different from zero’. Factors such as economic conditions, globalization and public opinion are more important, forcing the hands of governments. This is counterintuitive, but becomes plausible if one reflects upon governing records. Since the Second World War, Britain has had Conservative governments which have expanded the state and Labour governments which have retrenched it; these governments followed the spirit of the age.
Admittedly, there are caveats. Sometimes, voters are confronted with stark choices, the 2019 Brexit election being an example. As populists have thrived, there have been more of these choices. In such cases, parties can matter. Effects are also pronounced in certain domains, such as welfare policy. Details will differ. Had Labour won the 2010 election, a Brown government would almost certainly have implemented austerity, yet may have done so less aggressively and targeted different areas. But some effects are counterintuitive, certain studies finding that left-wing parties more reliably cut welfare, reflecting greater trust among low-income voters. One may interpret findings in different ways, some researchers emphasizing party influence, yet one thing is clear; findings in political science are very different from the assumptions of politicians and media, sometimes radically so.
The foundations of this phenomenon are intriguing. Were people aware of this, our political culture could be healthier. Activists might forsake narratives which stigmatize opponents; politicians might be more honest. Why does this not happen? At one level, it is not in the interests of politicians and media. Politicians maximize electoral prospects by exaggerating influence and denigrating opponents. The media loves this, such talk driving engagement. At a deeper level, electorates do not want to know this. Humans like the feeling of being in control, privileging narratives which affirm this.
We may draw two lessons. Firstly, this phenomenon shows that social need drives the interpretation of academic findings. Admittedly, this is not always the case. In little time, the discovery of the Omicron variant has instigated major societal change, reflecting its lethal potential. But normally, the process is inverse. This occurs at macro level, epochal needs determining paradigms, and micro level, inconvenient findings (e.g. those on partisanship) being discarded. Often, controversial results meet this fate, several inconvenient findings about race and sex being absent from public debate. Consequently, notions of being ‘led by evidence’ are suspect. Undoubtedly, academic evidence should be at the heart of policymaking. Yet those who propose this often misunderstand complexities.
Secondly, this phenomenon demonstrates alternative foundations of political behaviour. Given weak links with policy outcomes, the politically engaged have other motivations. Comparison with sports fans is useful. At one level, sports fandom shows how people behave when consequences are insignificant; all agree that the strict outcome of a sports match is trivial. But even without real world stakes, tribal behaviours still thrive. These sentiments tend not to be as strong as political rivalries, hooliganism aside(!), yet many fans have negative views of opposing teams. As a Swansea fan, I cannot purge a feeling that Cardiff fans are the enemy, despite living in Cardiff for over a decade! I blame my father. The foundations of this are primal, meaning that my conversations with myself (‘your friends support Cardiff!’; ‘your daughter was born in Cardiff!’) are fruitless.
But whilst the strict outcome of a sports match is trivial, sports have real consequences for fans; research on fandom shows that team performance predicts health and self-esteem in fans. This explains the persistence of political tribalism. Prior to elections, Twitter partisans write that they ‘need’ a Labour government/Democratic president, citing their material position. As we have seen, such assertions are unfeasible. But if these statements are read like those of sports fans, they make sense. The material consequences of an election victory may be small, but emotional consequences are considerable. The greater one’s investment in politics, the greater the payoff. Consequently, activists emphasize partisan differences, heightening emotional stakes. If I were convinced that Cardiff success would double homelessness or crime, my passions would intensify. And such behaviour is addictive. Depressingly, humans enjoy stigmatizing outgroups. My feelings towards Cardiff fans, which exist independently of meaningful outcomes, show this.
Perhaps we should be glad that politicians and the media do not emphasize the limits of politics. This could be counterproductive, fuelling disengagement and populism. Yet the status quo needlessly poisons political discourse, dividing citizens. At the very least, flames might be occasionally doused; certain tribalists should be disabused. Oddly, some academics downplay partisanship in their work, yet are highly partisan on social media. This is not good practice.
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