Social Studies

When Policy Preferences are Sacred

Public policy is complicated. Political scientists have long argued that most voters do not have the time or energy to become experts on the issues, and so they take shortcuts. Citizens often figure out their policy preferences by leaning on other, stronger identities, following the agenda of their party or their faith.

This works for things like fiscal policy and social security, but what happens when policy issues cut to the core of basic social conflicts about what is right and wrong? In work published at American Political Science Review, Paul Goren and Christopher Chapp find that “culture wars” policy views, such as opinions about abortion regulation and attitudes about same-sex marriage, are much more powerful than we think. In their study, specific attitudes about these policies actually pushed respondents to change their political and religious views later on.

Using panel data from three national surveys covering twenty years of public opinion, the authors find that respondents weren’t just loyal followers, but actually “habitually updated their party loyalties…and their religious commitments to better reflect their preferences on divisive culture war issues.” In other words, while we would expect people to use political and religious identities as shortcuts to decide about policy later on, these results show the opposite: policy preferences actually had a stronger effect on changes in partisan identity and religious ideology later on.

This finding is important because it shows how American voters are not always just rooting for the red team or the blue team without noticing the details. Certain policies, especially those tied to deep moral commitments, are so important that they actually get woven in the fabric of our political and religious cultures. When social policy is sacred, people tend to pay attention.

Photo by Andrea Maria Cannata, Flickr CC