Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Policy Polarization among Party Elites and the Significance of Political Awareness in the Mass Public

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Policy Polarization among Party Elites and the Significance of Political Awareness in the Mass Public

Article excerpt

This article analyzes opinions about abortion, racial, and social welfare policies, comparing their determinants among citizens with different levels of political information over the past several decades. Hypothesizing that growing elite partisan polarization may have exacerbated the political implications of differences in political awareness, the authors examine how increasing clarity of party-policy linkages among political elites influences party-policy linkages in the mass public. The results show that only the well informed responded to the growing elite polarization by becoming more partisan in their opinions. Apparently, in the absence of the motivation to develop coherent opinions, even a simplification of the political environment does not close the gaps between those who are more and less aware about politics.

Keywords: polarization; party identification; issues; political awareness

The political significance of the low and unequal distributions of political awareness, knowledge, sophistication, and engagement in the mass public remains one of the central questions for public opinion scholars. To some, the dual facts that many people are politically ignorant and that political ignorance is associated with ongoing social, economic, racial, ethnic, and gender cleavages in society are cause for great democratic concern (e.g., Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996; Althaus 1998, 2003). Others acknowledge the "low mean, high variance" aspect of the political awareness distribution but express at least some skepticism about the "minimalist" implications (e.g., Popkin 1991; Sniderman, Brody, and Tetlock 1991; Lupia 1994; Lupia and McCubbins 1998; Lupia, McCubbins, and Popkin 2000). Taking note of the ample availability and opportunities to use "shortcuts" and "heuristics," these scholars argue that many citizens are capable, despite their lack of political knowledge, to form coherent political views.1

Easily reconciling the divergent views is unrealistic. But there are commonalities from which to build to analyze the relationship between political awareness and the nature of public opinion. In this article, we focus on the "choice context" (Sniderman 2000), which refers to the larger political environment in which citizens acquire political information and form their opinions. Aspects of the choice context include the media environment (Althaus 2003; Jerit, Barabas, and Bolsen 2006; Prior 2007), electoral institutions (Lupia and McCubbins 1998), the level of policy debate (Claassen and Highton 2006), and location in the electoral calendar (Nicholson 2003). By investigating how the political context relates to the connection between political awareness and public opinion, we shift attention from whether political information matters to focus instead on the conditions that minimize or exacerbate the effects of political information on public opinion.

The part of the political environment we examine in this article is the party system, specifically the clarity of party-policy linkages among political elites (activists, party leaders, and elected officials). As many have documented, one of the most notable changes in the American party system over the past forty years has been the increased polarization of the major parties (Poole and Rosenthal 1997; Groseclose, Leviti, and Snyder 1999; Jacobson 2000; Fiorina 2005). The ideological and policy divides between Democratic and Republican political elites have grown substantially while the intra party variation has diminished considerably. Today, across many major policy areas the parties are more internally unified and stand in greater contrast to one another than at any time in the recent past.

The influence of this change toward increased clarity of party-policy linkages among political elites, an area of increasing interest for political scientists (e.g., Hetherington 2001; Layman and Carsey 2002a; Abramowitz and Saunders 2005; Brewer 2005; Fiorina 2005), is our substantive focus. …

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