In a recent column, I noted how minority rule over the last two years has kept Congress from acting on important issues (e.g., stricter gun control, a higher minimum wage, single-payer health insurance, and tougher environmental regulations) that are supported by super majorities of Americans. This shunning of the people’s preferences has stemmed primarily from systemic barriers like the Electoral College, disproportional state representation in the U.S. Senate, and partisan gerrymandering. However, these are not the only factors contributing to government’s lack of responsiveness; scholarly research has also revealed some behavioral causes of this frustrating lack of concern for citizens’ clear policy priorities. Consider the following anecdote.
A while ago, a friend of mine, a physician considerably knowledgeable about health care, became frustrated with the relentless efforts by Congressional Republicans to overturn Obamacare. Armed with statistics about the popularity of Obamacare, and real-life examples of how it had improved access to health care for her patients, she decided to pay a visit to her Congress member, a Republican who consistently voted with his party. As she tried to impress upon the Representative’s assistant how his boss’s votes were undermining his constituents’ interests, she was airily dismissed by the aide who retorted that the Congressman did not support Obamacare, and because he’d been re-elected, his district’s voters obviously did not support it either. My friend left completely exasperated.
What explains this disconnect between polling data showing support for Obamacare, electoral outcomes, and legislator voting behavior? Part of the answer in this case is that this member of Congress represents a gerrymandered district, and doesn’t have to worry much about public opinion that runs counter to Republican orthodoxy. However, there’s more to it. Decades of research has shown that legislators often lack detailed knowledge of their constituents’ preferences, and therefore value communication from voters to help them decide on issues. Yet, recent research has demonstrated that politicians systematically discount the opinions of constituents with whom they disagree. This “disagreement discounting” is grounded in what psychologists refer to as “motivated reasoning” which inclines individuals to accept arguments and facts that coincide with their own beliefs, and to reject information that challenges their views. More disturbingly, though, research has also shown that “disagreement discounting” is even more likely as politicians attempt to explain and defend their positions to constituents. In other words, simply performing a key representative task—justifying one’s issue positions—exacerbates the tendency for politicians to discount the opinions of constituents who disagree with them, and hardens their propensity to assume that these constituents surely must be ill-informed.
These findings raise questions about the efficacy of citizens’ efforts to contact their elected politicians. Before we surrender in dismay, however, it’s important to note that when individuals are made aware of their behavioral biases, there’s a strong tendency for them to make corrections. If citizens keep talking, politicians might start listening more. Imagine that.