While scholars debate whether voters’ belief in the very idea of democracy is diminishing, few doubt democracies face serious challenges. These challenges, both old and new include the rise of populism, increasing polarization, and declining trust in politicians and democratic institutions. At the same time, we have witnessed a legion of democratic experiments. Many of these more actively include citizens in decision making, for example deliberative minipublics — randomly selected groups of citizens tasked with rendering recommendations, judgments, or decisions on public issues.
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My research agenda centers on these two developments: the challenges facing democracy and the ways to navigate them. Through my research on I hope to contribute to our understanding of various broader theoretical issues, such as intergroup-conflict, motivated reasoning, social identity, the role of emotions in politics, deliberation, state and civic-society relations, and public opinion formation.
Affective Political Polarization
This project focuses on the increasing animus between Republican and Democratic partisans towards each other’s party. Over the past three decades, these rival-party feelings have grown significantly colder. In fact, rival-party feelings of stalwart partisans are now among the lowest on record, comparable to how white Americans feel towards undocumented immigrants. This gradual cooling of rival-party feelings has been labeled “affective polarization” (Iyengar, Sood and Lelkes, 2012). In this paper, published in Public Opinion Quarterly, I break down and decompose the over-time trend of affective polarization, using a Blinder-Oaxaca approach and data from the American National Election Studies, to identify three processes that help explain how rival-party and own-party feelings changed. I find, contrary to previous research, that “sorting” – the “correct” matching of liberal-conservative ideology and party membership – has a limited effect on the cooling of rival-party feelings. In fact, social sorting among Republicans works against the trend. Instead, I find rival-party feelings grow colder across all Democrats, whether white or black, religious or secular, rich or poor; a process I call fortification. Among Republicans, there is evidence suggesting the trend is driven mostly by white partisans rather than those of color; a process I call entrenchment.
Minipublics, Motivated Reasoning, and Trust
A large literature shows how voters’ decision making is often biased due to various mechanisms often referred to as “motivated reasoning” (Druckman, 2012). For example, people are more likely to uncritically accept (reject) information that confirms (disproves) their previous beliefs. Such motivated reasoning has been shown to be exacerbated in politics, especially in a polarized setting (Druckman, Peterson and Slothuus, 2013). Less attention, however, has been given to exploring the “boundaries” of such motivated reasoning. How and when are voters motivated to form an accurate or informed view on an issue? My paper (co-authored with professor John Gastil at the Pennsylvania State University), published in Political Psychology, utilizes a real-world case and survey experiment data to explore this issue. We tested whether information from a deliberative minipublic – who met over a short period of time to deliberate on a proposal to ban GMO in their county – helped improve voters’ knowledge about the upcoming ballot measure. Contrary to expectations from extant theory, we found information from fellow citizens significantly improved voters’ knowledge. More importantly, those who should have resisted the new information the most were often those who improved the most. While more work is needed to confirm and better understand the mechanisms in play, this work gives hope minipublics can help inform voters more generally on political issues. Currently, we are working on a new project where we explore minipublic trust and legitimacy, in addition to whether some groups are more likely than others to be influenced by minipublic statements.
Many scholars suspect that people view minipublics as trustworthy information shortcuts because they’re composed of lay citizens—people like themselves. But who trusts these minipublics? And does their influence hinge on that trust? This is exactly what me and John Gastil examine in our paper published in Political Behavior. Is minipublic trust (or “legitimacy”) the secret ingredient? Drawing on evidence from three minipublics held in Oregon, Massachusetts, and California, we ask whether people trust minipublics, who trusts them, can we increase that trust by describing the minipublic more fully, and are only those who trust minipublics susceptible to their recommendations? We found that most people are ambivalent about minipublics, with around 30-40% unsure about their merits. This isn’t surprising given most people haven’t learned much about them. Nevertheless, a significant number of people did trust these minipublics. About 25% of respondents in the three states we sampled were willing to trust minipublics to “make decisions on behalf of the wider public” while 39% did not. On average, US citizens seem to be cautious about these minipublics. Next, we explored whether information about how the minipublic was designed could boost its legitimacy. Many practitioners argue that the use of random selection, exposure to experts and advocates, and generous time for deliberation are all necessary for a successful minipublic. We asked whether telling respondents about these features increased their trust in minipublics. It did not. In fact, we found that being told that the minipublic met with pro and con advocates decreased perceived legitimacy, particularly for politically conservative respondents. Finally, we asked whether those who trust minipublics were more likely to update their policy knowledge or shift their voting intention in line with the final report produced by the minipublic. Surprisingly, we found that those who trust minipublics are about as likely to learn from their recommendations as are their distrustful counterparts. Future research needs to confirm these findings and find out exactly why so many people follow their recommendations, even when unsure about the overall legitimacy of the minipublic process.