Social scientists who study elections tend to assume that voters have public policy preferences, and that parties and candidates design their platforms to conform with those preferences. In fact, the direction of causation (mostly) goes the other way. Members of the political elite draw up their platforms, and voters adopt the policy preferences of those candidates and parties.
Public policy issues are numerous and often complex, with compelling arguments on all sides. Meanwhile, citizens and voters, as individuals, have no influence over public policy outcomes, so they have little incentive to become informed.
Voters know that their one individual vote will have no influence over an election outcome. Think about this yourself. If you had voted for Joe Biden for president in the last election, who would be president today? If you had voted for Donald Trump, who would be president? And if you didn’t vote in the election, who would be president? The answer to all those questions is: Joe Biden.
Realizing that their one vote will have no influence over public policy, voters vote for candidates and parties that make them feel good about themselves rather than considering whether the policies those candidates and parties support are good policies. If their friends or family members support a candidate, people get a good feeling of group solidarity by supporting that candidate. If voters think of themselves as having a certain ideology or political orientation, they will vote that way to reinforce that political identity.
Citizens and voters anchor on a political identity. It might be a party, a candidate, or an ideology. Most of their political preferences are then derivative of that identity. People don’t think: I support a woman’s right to have an abortion, I support more gun control, I believe the government should be more involved in health care, and I think impediments to voting should be relaxed. Therefore, I am a Democrat. The reasoning goes the other way. People identify as Democrats; therefore, they support a woman’s right to have an abortion, more gun control, and so forth.
Citizens and voters adopt their public policy preferences from the political elite–the people who actually determine public policy. One implication is that citizens and voters have less influence over public policy than a romantic notion of democracy would suggest. The political elite tell voters what to think, and they fall in line behind their leaders.
For those who are interested in reading more, an extended version of this line of reasoning, written for an academic audience, can be found here.
Dr. Holcombe is DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His primary areas of research are public finance and the economic analysis of public policy issues. You can learn more about Dr. Holcombe here.