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.