While scholars debate whether voters’ belief in the very idea of democracy is diminishing, few doubt democracies face serious challenges, both old and new. These challenges 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.
Photo by Randy Colas on Unsplash
My research agenda centers on these two developments: the challenges facing democracy and the ways to navigate them. Currently I have several ongoing research projects. First, how did the feelings of Democrats and Republicans towards each other become among the coldest on record? Second, what are the varieties of populist voters in the U.S. and Europe and how do they feel towards minorities? Third, can minipublics help inform the — often uninformed and biased — broader electorate? Fourth, when the stakes are high, are citizen assemblies more likely to reflect the “will” of the people or concerted interest groups?
Below I offer a brief summary of each of these projects. Future projects include further research on polarization, populism and deliberative minipublics, but also on ideology, co-operative firms and volunteering, religiosity and volunteering, and social cohesion.
Through my research on democracy 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, forthcoming 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.
Populism, Affect and Ideology
The rise of populism in recent years has raised interest but also sounded an alarm. Subsequently, research on populism has increased dramatically, with most researchers focusing either on populist party leaders or their voters. However, this approach is limited when it comes to countries with marginal or no populist parties per se, as well as countries with a two-party system, such as the US. My research (co-authored with a fellow graduate student – I am the lead author) maps the constellation of populist voters in the US electorate. To overcome these limitations, we utilize Latent Class Analysis (LCA), which allows us to identify and compare populist voters across and within parties. Using data from the American National Election Studies, we identify six distinct classes – two of which we label populist, comprising about a third of the US electorate. These two classes, while similarly critical of political elites, have opposing views about US nationalism. Exclusionary Populists have a narrow and ethnically oriented view of who is “truly” American; while Inclusionary Populists, conversely, have a more fluid view of who constitutes “the people.” Furthermore, we find the two largest Republican groups – one of which are Exclusionary Populists – have very similar policy views but differ greatly in how they feel towards various social groups; with Exclusionary Populists harboring significantly colder feelings towards minorities. We do not find any evidence suggesting these populist classes are more likely to be more supportive of authoritarianism compared to fellow partisans. This paper has important implications for the study of populist voters, in particular the affective underpinnings of populist sentiment. We also aim to map populist sentiment in other countries and have already done some preliminary analysis of UK data, finding striking similarities to the US electorate.
Minipublics and Motivated Reasoning
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.
Citizen Assemblies and Public Policy
While democratic reformers agree that lobbyist and donor influence needs to be kept in check, they disagree about whether increased public participation can help mitigate the stagnant or declining legitimacy of democratic institutions. For good reasons, many are concerned that “more democracy” will simply aggregate uninformed public preferences, thereby entrenching and legitimating the domination of elite interests. Others are more hopeful that deliberative citizen assemblies—known as „minipublics“—can restore the ideals of representative democracy. Previous studies of such minipublics suggest they can render sound judgements and inform the broader electorate. Nevertheless, most minipublics are limited in their agendas and tasked with evaluating rather than generating public policy. This study explores a high-stakes case from Iceland, wherein a citizens assembly was tasked with writing a new constitution. The study explores whether the assembly was co-opted by powerful elites, blindly followed expert advice, or demonstrated independent judgment. Analysis of six different sources of evidence suggests that the Council relied heavily on experts, but it often went beyond and against their advice. I found no evidence suggesting that the process was co-opted by political or economic elites. On the contrary, the assembly’s draft went against well-known lobby interests and continues to enjoy significant support among the public. Despite its success in this respect, I found much in this case that suggests the need for procedural improvements. For example, voluntary comments from the public were overwhelmingly from men, as the existing design did not take into account such asymmetrical participation.
Other Current Projects
First, fellow graduate student David Skalinder and I have been exploring what Finlayson (2012) calls ideology “in the wild,” i.e. a bottom-up rather than top-down approach. Using data from the General Social Survey we map how the views of liberals and conservatives have changed (or not) on over 150 issue and value items since the 1970s. We innovate by identifying three types of alignments and disagreement across these groups in a two-dimensional policy space: consensus, asymmetric alignment and polarization. This approach helps us map the development of liberal and conservative ideology in the US. We find an increase in both the number and magnitude of polarization and asymmetric alignment. Our study challenges the conventional view about ideological sorting among partisans, and has important implications for the study of ideology and polarization.
Second, I am currently working on a paper with fellow graduate student Laura Hanson-Schlachter (she is the lead author) on worker cooperatives and civic and political engagement. Few studies have critically examined underlying assumptions of the civic spillover hypothesis that participation at work begets participation in civic life. We complicate extant theory by employing mixed methods and the most systematic dataset collected to date on firms fully owned and democratically governed by workers in the United States. Our findings about motivation to join participatory workplaces, substitution of workplace for civic engagement, and permeability of the boundary between professional and civic spheres lay the groundwork for a new conceptual model of civic spillover that illuminates the black box of this social process and sheds light on debates about the implications of workplace structure for democracy in America.
Finally, I am working on a project with professors Chaeyoon Lim and Dingeman Wiertz (lead authors) exploring the effects of (declining) religiosity on volunteering in the US and UK. We are interested in comparing the effects of religious values and attendance for volunteering behavior. Preliminary findings from different data sources suggest religious volunteering sharply declines among those who stop practicing religion and civic volunteering also, albeit at a slower rate. The evidence suggests that attendance, rather than values, are the driving force behind these shifts in behavior. This paper contributes to a longstanding debate on the importance of values versus other factors such as group identity and social networks.