A recent survey in the US presented voters with three different plans with regard to the looming “sequestration“, without telling them which political party was behind each plan. 47% of Republican voters preferred a plan called The Balancing Act. This plan, it turns out, was the one offered by the progressive Democrats. And the Balancing Act plan was the most popular overall.
Further, a clear majority of Republicans rejected the plan put forward by their own leadership in House.
These results indicate a kind of mis-alignment. On this issue at least, a substantial portion of the US population supports the Republican party even though their own views conflict with the party position. Crudely put, they’re supporting the wrong party on this issue.
What about alignment more generally? To what extent do voters support – and vote for – the parties whose platforms are the best overall fit to their actual views?
I’ve been searching for data on alignment in the Australian context. For example, how many Liberal voters have sets of views which are in fact more similar, overall, to the platforms of Labor or the Greens? Or would have, if they had a chance to systematically consider what their views were, independently of how the parties stand on those issues?
This being the real world, where nothing is perfect, we can assume that there is at least some degree of mis-alignment. At least some people, probably unknowingly, vote for the “wrong” party.
But how many? And in what direction, if any, does mis-alignment tend?
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any data on this. However I did find something which provides at least a clue.
The above-mentioned survey uncovered a second kind of mis-alignment. The Balancing Act plan had received the least attention in mainstream media’s coverage of the sequestration issue. So the national public debate was framing issues in a way which tended to exclude the option which voters found most attractive.
What about Australia? How well do the political debates in the national mainstream media accommodate the range of views held by the public?
On his Pollytics blog, Scott Steel wrote a very revealing post about this, called “What Australians Believe.” After a lengthy and nuanced discussion of polling results, he concludes:
What comes out from this broad snapshot is that what Australians believe about the role of government in our society and economy isn’t necessarily what our institutions believe or practice, and probably hasn’t been for a while. Our beliefs as a country are certainly far removed from many participants in the national debate that pretend to speak on behalf of our population and on behalf of our interests.
Whatever the faults, foibles or otherwise of these national beliefs – and this isn’t an exercise in either support of, or opposition to them – our national debates on the role of government in our society and economy are becoming increasingly isolated from what the majority of the country actually believes.
Our public debates assume that the benefits of privatisation have reached a conclusion – the public believes that privatisation was and is a catastrophe and that government should own a larger sector of the economy because we trust government more than large private sector corporations.
Our public debates assume that smaller government and less regulation is universally beneficial – the public supports substantially higher levels of regulation on just about any topic you care to name and struggles to find something they’d like the government to become smaller in.
Our public debates assume that economic reform has been such an obviously beneficial thing to ordinary Australians that it no longer needs explaining – the public believes that corporations took all benefits of that reform, leaving them with little more than a casualised workforce and reduced job security.
In short, Steel seems to have revealed a quite dramatic mis-alignment between the actual views of Australians and the national public debates. If true, this strikes at the heart of our democratic system. Steel pessimistically concludes:
If we keep having our national debates like this – excluding larger and larger sections of our population and ignoring what they believe – they won’t be national debates, we’ll just be talking among ourselves generating ever increasing quantities of public opprobrium, contempt and general unhinging. If you haven’t noticed – this is where we are at right now.
Indeed. Recent years have seen a chorus of complaints about the quality of public debate, and at the same time increasing disengagement by citizens from political parties and from politics more generally.
The mis-alignment between public debates and what Australians believe is not of course the same as mis-alignment in party support and in the polling booth. But it surely strongly suggests significant such mis-alignment. It would be strange if people ended up always supporting the parties which best represent their views, when those views tend to be sidelined in public debates which frequently reference party positions.
But this is just speculation. What I’d like to see is real data. Does anybody know of any?
Also posted on the YourView blog.
Fascinating post Tim, and something I had never thought about. Of course, it makes sense that such mis-alignment would exist. People hold a complex set of views and when there are only 2-3 major parties to vote for, it would be miraculous to find a perfect mapping of their views against the policies of any one party.
I think it’s important not to read too much into misalignment on a particular issue though. If there was some way of mapping out the range of views a person holds on different issues, you might find that there is substantial overlap with the party they vote for, but some particular views lie outside that area of overlap. The ‘centre of gravity’ of their views may well be closely aligned with the party they vote for.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt in my mind that what passes for public debate in the media completely excludes perspectives that many Australians might find appealing. Like you, I haven’t seen any real data that could illuminate this, but I’ll keep an eye out from now on.
Thanks for a great post!
Hi Chris, thanks for your comment. A couple of clarifications. First, the kind of mis-alignment I’m interested in is where the *set* of views a voter holds is *most* similar to the *set* of views of a party other than the one they vote for. I’m not so concerned with the kind of misalignment where a voter has at least one view inconsistent with the set of views of the party they vote for. That would be much more common, perhaps even normal. Second – and this is really the same point, I think, in a slightly different guise – I agree with you that we shouldn’t be overly concerned about misalignment on single issues. Since your comment was posted, I’ve made some minor edits just to try to clarify these points. Basically, I’m interested in the situation captured by the following: “If you had a clear, systematic understanding of where you stand on the full range of issues, and could properly appreciate how your stands cohere or conflict with the platforms of the various parties, you’d realise that although you tend to vote for party X, you probably should be voting for party Y (other things being equal).”
Thanks for the clarification Tim.
The problem with the situation you’ve outlined is that people don’t have a clear, systematic understanding of their own views and don’t necessarily base their voting decisions on a rational assessment of the policy issues. We are emotional creatures and we are just as likely to vote the way we do because we see one politician as untrustworthy and another as a good bloke who pitches in to help when Aussies are in trouble. Maybe a lot of people vote for the person they identify with the most, rather than the one that best represents their views. There must be research out there on why people vote the way they do, but it’s not an area I’m very familiar with.
I agree absolutely that people (a) don’t have a clear systematic understanding of their own views, and (b) don’t vote based on a clear systematic comparison of their views with the platforms of the parties, but rather for all sorts of other reasons (or “reasons”). I’d add (c) that people generally don’t have a clear systematic understanding of the party platforms. But these points help explain why mis-alignment exists, as it surely does. My query is about the extent and direction of this misalignment. But at this point I’d add that, even granted point (b), mis-alignment may be *partially* correctable if people are helped to have a clear systematic understanding of their own views and how their sets of views compare with the various parties. And this partial correction, on a sufficiently large scale, may be enough to make some difference to elections.
this is an interesting issue, though I do not have to contribute any data or the link here a couple of experiences, views and thoughts.
In my view what you describe is a global phenomenon. Interestingly, I can not only confirm it in its general nature to take place here in Germany, but its also the exact same issues that you list, such as privatization, where the mis-alignment is greatest.
I am very concerned about the issue as I think that a continuous mis-alignment greatly endangers out democracies. The decrease of people voting tells a story.
A good further example, I find, is the perception vs. actual distribution of wealth (as discussed in the video you recently tweeted and that now also got picked up by infosthetics). And surely it is the case in one of the topics you are very concerned about, being climate change, where there is a huge gap between the current status of science (99:1) and the published opinion (50:50 – greatly varying between countries and media outlets) with the public fortunately still rather leaning towards the first.
I would be very interested in assessing and evaluating the degree of mis-alignment and hope that you will come forward with something. Doing it in a sound manner I think will be tough, though, as this is a largely qualitative and fuzzy matter with many equally justifiable approaches. One problem is what the parties actually stand for. Here one example: The German Federal Agency for Civic Education (bpb) offers prior to state and federal elections the Wahl-o-Mat (Elect-o-Mat) where voters can enter their choices on a broad set of issues and as result you get which parties are closest to you. The analysis is done by comparison with the respective party or election programs. As these are pre-election promises this is in my view rather remote from what parties actually do (speaking: Influence of lobbies, blank deception, etc.). But what else take as a reference – how the parties are represented in media. Probably nothing you would want to do in Murdoch’s home country. Judging parties by their deeds would also introduce the uncertainty of who does the judging.
So maybe a two-fold analysis would make sense: A historic analysis of citizens’ views vs. a meta analysis of what a government did in one term.
The second matter would be to take an inverse approach, putting forward the hypothesis that it is not only citizens and political parties that are actors in our game but that there is also media and lobbying (under the latter I would subsume corruption). Now an analysis could be done who held which views and about the respective power (reach of media, stock value of corporations, number of (registered?) lobbyists, etc.) and then see whether that helps explain the mis-alignment.
All the best!
Thanks for this comment making many interesting points. I agree that “mis-alignment” could be assessed in a variety of ways, and that some of these would be quite difficult to implement. So there’s unlikely to ever be any single definitive measure of (mis)alignment. But as you suggest I think, it would be feasible to obtain at least some plausible measures of (mis)alignment.
Thanks for giving a pointer to the Wahl-o-Mat – I wasn’t aware of this before. There isn’t any such thing in Australia, and this year YourView Australia (www.yourview.org.au) will be doing something with strong similarities (though also with important differences.
What we need is an online tool that people can go through that quizzes them and then recommends a party to vote for based on an alignment of their views to the matching policy platform. Of course most people would choose not to believe it if it didn’t confirm their existing voting intentions. :-)
I have some data that is in the same basic area, only more generalised.
In Feb 2004 (some time ago), I paid for my own poll with McNair Ingenuity. It cost about $4k, but I really wanted the data. It was phone-based data and worked into their general process (549 respondants, weighted), part of which was a question on who they voted for in the previous election (not who they would vote for). I had this cross tabulated against my two questions, one being on knowledge of the electoral system (not what you need) and the other being this.
Q1. When filling out the ballot paper for your local electorate you have to number all the boxes. Even if you do not put a major political party at the top of your list of preferred candidates you will always have to put one ahead of the other at some point. When you do this would you say that you generally…
1. Agree with all of the polices of your preferred major party candidate (2.7%)
2. Agree with most of the polices of your preferred major party candidate (30.7)
3. Agree with more of the polices of your preferred major party candidate compared to the other major party, but not most of them (31.1%)
4. Feel that they are just the ‘lesser of two evils’ (29.2%)
(with 6.2% Not Stated)
I am now critical of this question because the 4th option contains a “popularised” wording and by being the last spoken it may have more weight that is warranted. Still here is a basic rundown of Labor, Liberal and National voters and note percentages are of the total sample pool.
1.8% of ALL respondents voted for Labor and agree with all their policies.
11% voted Labor and agree with most.
10.3% voted Labor agree more but not most.
9.2% voted Labor as lesser of two evils.
0.7% voted Liberal/National and agree with all policies.
15.3% voted Liberal/National and agree with most.
11.4% voted Liberal/National and agree with more not most.
7.4% voted Liberal/National as lesser of two evils.
The rest were spread out amongst minor parties but a not insignificant number 5.2% could ‘not remember’ who they voted for but still felt they were the lesser of two evils.
Later that year we ended up with a final term of Howards government, where (based on this sample) only 27.4% of the population voted for Lib/Nat and agree with ALL, Most or More of their policies when compared to Labor (who only total 23.1 in these three categories).
The system sort of works, but it also sort of fails. Now, thanks to this article above and other things I’ve read, the explicit nature of that failure might be this ‘mis-alignment’ being discussed.
This data has not been published but I do have the original docs from McNair Ingenuity.
Why did I do it? Because I was sick of subjectivity in politics and wanted some hard data.
Hi Danny, thanks for this very interesting comment. Your results are certainly in the vicinity of my query, but as you hinted, not exactly what I was after. If understand your data, about as many Labor and Liberal/National voters agreed with *more* of their parties’ positions as agreed with *most* of their parties’ positions. In other words, substantial proportions of people voting for a party didn’t agree with most of the positions of that party. What’s not clear is how many people voted for a party even though (perhaps unwittingly) they agreed with more of the positions of another party.
I’d be interested to see your original data. Are you able to share it?
You seem to be making some assumptions here.
Let’s say we are voting for professor of physics. We poll people on their views about a physics problem. We poll people on who they want to be the professor of physics. Shock horror the people that the public want to be professor of physics have different opinions on physics problems than the general public.
There is no particular reason why our politicians should have the same views as we do. We delegate to them the job of researching policy and implementing it. Most people do not have the slightest clue about any particular policy issue. Very few people, myself included, have a good knowledge of most policy areas, let alone of the implementation issues. I spent several months researching global warming, and do not consider myself astonishingly confident of my views, and very few people can or would do even that.
It is not just a matter of unawareness. People may espouse political opinions in public that they actually do not want implemented. A friend recently told me, in confidence, that he publicly supported more liberal refugee policies so as to appear to be a modern and progressive person (otherwise he would be shunned by his friends), but intended to vote for the party that supported the toughest policies. We pay politicians to do the dirty work for us.
The issue about taxes is that people want contradictory things – higher spending, no deficits, and lower taxes. Even taking into account that taxes on the rich (people wealthier than moi) could be higher, and spending should be only directed to deserving people like myself, people’s views actually do not make sense, in that the numbers do not actually add up.
.Similarly with deregulation, people want regulation but without considering the costs, which are usually invisible. They want recreational drugs eliminated (except their preferred drug of choice), with no adverse effects (corruption, prison costs, incentives top create addicts etc).
I am sure you are aware of the disaster that has resulted in California from citizen referenda, which has ended up mandating much of the above contradictory policy with disastrous results.
tl;dr – successful representative democracy does not require the politicians to implement the policies that the public supports.