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. To fellow democratic socialists, Ocasio-Cortez’s victory is evidence that ideas like Medicare-for-all or a job guarantee aren’t just popular in opinion surveys: They can win elections. Even radical-sounding ideas like abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement might fly! To conservatives and squishy moderates, Ocasio-Cortez’s defeat of a 10-term incumbent is proof that Democrats are willing to commit electoral suicide for the sake of ideological purity.
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.
“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 Public that 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.
Read the full article at Vox.