Diversity and partisanship

Nice analysis from Brookings’ William Galston:

A Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) survey released earlier this week found that while 64 percent of Americans regard increasing demographic diversity as mostly positive, there are deep partisan divisions: Democrats believe that it’s mostly positive by an overwhelming margin of 85 to 13 percent, as do Independents by 59 to 34 percent, but 50 percent of Republicans regard it as mostly negative, compared to only 43 percent who favor it.

A closer look at the data reveals the sources of this cleavage. There are no gender differences, and age differences are much smaller than expected, with 57 percent of Americans 65 and older taking a positive view of rising diversity. Racial and ethnic differences are significant but not dispositive: 78 percent of both African-Americans as Hispanics see diversity as a plus, but so do 56 percent of white Americans. Much the same holds for regional differences: although 72 percent of respondents from the West and Northeast approve of increasing diversity, so do 60 percent of Midwesterners and 57 percent of Southerners.

The key drivers of partisan division are educational and religious differences among white Americans. Sixty-nine percent of whites with a BA or more have a mostly positive view of demographic diversity, compared to just 50 percent of whites without college degrees.  [emphases mine] As for religion, 52 percent of white Catholics and 56 percent of white mainline Protestants think rising diversity is mostly positive. By contrast, just 42 percent of white evangelical Protestants favor these changes, while 52 percent think they’re mostly negative. Two-thirds of whites without college degrees supported Republicans in the 2016 elections, as did eight in 10 white evangelicals.

The bottom line: the core of the Republican base is deeply uncomfortable with the central demographic trend of our time, which public policy is powerless to resist. Even if the U.S. slammed shut the doors of immigration, differences in birth rates between native-born citizens and newer arrivals would ensure the steady erosion of the population’s white majority, albeit at a slower pace.

Go ahead Democrats, “abolish ICE” and provide “Medicare for all”

Really liked this piece in Vox from Dylan Matthews that summarizes a lot of Political Science on how little issues actually seem to matter in elections.  The conclusion is the Democrats need not be so tepid and don’t need to fear more bold policy pronouncements:

An unspoken assumption of most political punditry is that the political positions taken by, and the policies supported and enacted by, politicians play a significant, perhaps decisive role in determining the outcomes of elections.

This is the premise of basically every piece of commentary about, for example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise victory in the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th District…

Each of these arguments has specific problems. But all of them share one big issue: They dramatically overestimate how much the actual issue positioning of candidates matters for how people vote. [emphases mine]

What I want to propose is a null hypothesis for political punditry: Outside of truly extreme proposals, there’s basically no plausible position a politician or political party can endorse or enact that will have a meaningful impact on their likelihood of retaking political power. The US has for decades had a stable system where liberal and conservative policy coalitions (which have sorted out under the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively) semi-regularly alternate in power, with long periods of divided rule and gridlock in the middle. Dramatic shifts in the ideological makeup of both parties during that same period did not upset that alternation of power. It continued apace.

The upshot of this phenomenon is that parties should be a little less nervous about sticking to their guns and arguing for what they believe, whether or not it polls well. Call it, if you like, the “do what you want” theory of politics…

But as a baseline position, I think assuming a null effect is a more reasonable guess than assuming that voter preferences are heavily influenced by candidates’ issue statements. We just have too much evidence that this isn’t how voters really make their decisions.

Instead, we see evidence that Democrats and Republicans exchange power at regular intervals, in spite of massive changes in the beliefs of those parties’ elected representatives. Maybe it’s time to argue that parties should adopt positions by arguing for those positions on the merits, not because they’re electorally useful or mandatory…

“Most people have strong feelings on few if any of the issues the government needs to address and would much prefer to spend their time in nonpolitical pursuits,” University of Nebraska political scientists John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse write in their book Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs About How Government Should Work. “The people as a whole tend to be quite indifferent to policies and therefore are not eager to hold government accountable for the policies it produces.”

There’s tons of research reaffirming this finding. The University of Michigan’s Donald Kinder and Louisiana State’s Nathan Kalmoe show in their book Neither Liberal nor Conservative: Ideological Innocence in the American Publicthat most Americans don’t really have stable ideologies in a way that matters. This isn’t an original insight of theirs; they view themselves as replicating the work of Philip Converse, who laid out a similar argument in 1964.

American voters aren’t down-the-line liberals or conservatives the way the people they elect are. Astonishingly, what a respondent said their ideology was — liberal, conservative, moderate, etc. — had “little influence over opinion on immigration, affirmative action, capital punishment, gun control, Social Security, health insurance, the deficit, foreign aid, tax reform, and the war on terrorism.” Ideology seemed to matter on LGBTQ rights and abortion, but even that went away after they controlled for religion…

“Numerous studies have demonstrated that most residents of democratic countries have little interest in politics and do not follow news of public affairs beyond browsing the headlines,” Vanderbilt’s Larry Bartels and Princeton’s Christopher Achen conclude in their 2016 book Democracy for Realists. “They do not know the details of even salient policy debates, they do not have a firm understanding of what the political parties stand for, and they often vote for parties whose long-standing issue positions are at odds with their own.”

Good stuff (as almost always) from Matthews, but I was a little disappointed that he did not include what strikes me as the best evidence for the fact that Democrats should just be more bold– Republicans have continued to have widespread electoral success despite embracing all sorts of unpopular policies.  Paul Waldman addresses this in a recent column about pundit advice (especially from James Comey) for Democrats to move towards the center:

While that may seem perfectly logical if you’re a political junkie, in the real world it seldom works. The reason is that most voters don’t think in ideological terms. They aren’t maintaining a running tally of positions candidates have taken, then assigning each candidate a score (plus 1 for her positions on abortion and health care, minus one for her position on NAFTA), then seeing which candidate’s total comes closest to the ideological score they’ve assigned themselves. That’s just not how voters make decisions.

Nobody understands this better than Republicans. After all, it’s the reason they can keep winning elections despite the fact that most of the things they want to do are absurdly unpopular. Tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, stopping any increase in the minimum wage, taking away protections for people with preexisting conditions, opposing even universal background checks for gun purchases? These are not popular ideas. Yet Republicans don’t spend a lot of time worrying about whether they’re moving too far to the right, because they find ways, like stoking culture war issues and playing on racial resentment, that push them over the finish line.

Personally, I’m for reforming ICE and for universal health care (not necessarily Medicare) for all (because, damnit, policy details matter).  But, politically, Democrats may as well go for it.

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