Politics as tribal allegiance

How strongly wedded are people to their political preferences? The received wisdom amongst political journalists and pollsters is that most people can be counted on to vote for one major party or another, and only a relatively small percentage of people swing elections. It is these people – swinging voters, as they called in Australia – who decide elections. At very least, as an election approaches most have made up their mind and can’t be persuaded to shift.

Suppose most people are committed to a major party, at least in the days preceding an election.  Is this a matter of policy agreement or of something more like identification or tribal allegiance? A recent paper casts some light on this question, and along the way suggests that people might be more open to shifting allegiances than we might have thought, at least if approached in the right way.

The authors conduced a study of people’s political views in the lead up to the 2010 Swedish election. Specifically, they were asked about their voting intentions (the Swedish electorate is unusually polarized, with most people supporting either the social conservative/green parties or the conservatives) and also about their views on 12 issues that were central to the current campaign. They were asked to mark their level of agreement with a statement on a line, with one end indicating complete agreement with the left’s view and the other complete agreement with the right’s view. The experimenters’ then showed subjects the card they had completed and asked them to justify the views expressed, which subjects were typically able to do eloquently and knowledgeably. Unbeknownst to them, however, the views they were justifying often weren’t theirs at all.

The experimenters used a sleight of hand trick to replace the cards the subjects had filled in with others, in which responses were skewed in the opposite direction to the ones they had made. So if a subject had indicated that they were toward the social democrat end of the spectrum on, say, nuclear power, they might be shown a card on which they had ostensibly marked themselves at being toward the conservative end of the spectrum. Though 53% of the subjects noticed that at least one answer did not reflect their real views (in all but one case, they concluded that they must have misread the question), for a whopping 88% of the corrections subjects accepted the revised answer as theirs and defended it. They were then asked about their willingness to shift their support from one party to another; 48% said they were willing to consider a shift (while opinion polls indicated that only 10% of the electorate described themselves as undecided).

These results are interesting for a number of reasons. First, they seem to suggest that rather than policy views dictating political allegiances, it may be the other way round. Politics may be more a matter of identity and identification than considered views on particular questions, at least for many people. Second, they suggest that if we are able to draw people’s attention to this first fact, they may be more open to revising their voting intentions. People are, apparently, more understanding and accepting of views opposed to their own then they let on (perhaps then they let themselves realize). Third, they provide yet more evidence for the limited insight we have into our own views and preferences, as well as into the strategies we use to answer questions about our beliefs. Some philosophers have claimed that we often attribute beliefs to ourselves not by accessing some kind of internal representation from memory but by thinking about the subject matter at hand: rather than retrieve the answer to the question “do you like strawberries” from memory, we think about the taste of strawberries and see how enjoyable we find that taste. Results like these suggest that sometimes we use a more indirect strategy still: rather than think about, say, nuclear power and see whether we are well-disposed to the thought, we think about parties (or people) we admire or identify with, and try to imagine what they would say.

In increasingly polarized electorates, like those in the US and Australia, studies like this give us some reason to think that what divides people may be shallower, or at any rate different, than we tend to think.

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