Pearson-Merkowitz and Dyck: Politics is still both local and personal


Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz is a professor of public policy and the Saul L. Stern Professor of civic engagement at the University of Maryland. Joshua J. Dyck is a professor and chair of political science, as well as the director of the Center for Public Opinion, at UMass Lowell. This was first published via The Conversation.

Independent voters who live in communities with lots of gun violence are very concerned about gun safety and gun regulations, our research has found. That should not be surprising.

But what is surprising is our companion finding: Democrats and Republicans who live in those same communities have views on gun violence and gun regulations that line up more closely with their party leaders’ views than with the experiences of their daily lives.

The same is true for other significant political questions: Independents’ political views and perspectives on key issues also reflect the economic and social conditions they see and experience every day.

In contrast, Democrats’ and Republicans’ ideas of what problems deserve government attention and how to solve them are much less likely to be based on their own life experiences, and instead simply mirror the information they have gained from leading political figures on social media, on cable news networks or through other partisan information outlets.

Being independent is desirable

The United States’ two-party system means the political party that controls the government is more of an influence on what laws and policies get passed than just about any other factor. Yet, Americans strongly dislike political parties. Being politically independent is a large part of the American political DNA.

Being politically independent, indeed, is seen by most Americans as a desirable social attribute. Broadly, many Americans see eschewing party identification as a way to demonstrate that they are freethinkers, untethered to the restrictive confines of America’s two-party system and above the political fray.

However, when pressed, most people admit to preferring, and largely voting for, one of the two political parties. Only about one-fifth of Americans are so independent that they do not vote consistently for one party or the other.

How political independents decide

We collected a series of national surveys of Americans over the last 10 years and have repeatedly found that only independents are responsive to the information they gain through their lived experience.

For example, we found that an independent living in a neighborhood with the highest levels of gun violence in the U.S. is 70 percentage points more likely to say that they are very concerned about gun violence than an independent who lives in the safest U.S. neighborhood. That makes sense.

But, for Democrats and Republicans, there is no relationship between where they live and their level of concern about gun violence: Whether they live in a relatively dangerous community or a relatively safe one, their views on gun violence reflect their party’s messages on the issue.

Similarly, we found that independents’ personal financial situations factor greatly into their views on policies like the minimum wage and affordable housing. Independents who struggle to afford their basic essentials are almost twice as likely to support government investment in affordable housing in their neighborhoods and more than twice as likely to support increasing the minimum wage than independents who never struggle to afford their basic needs.

For Republicans and Democrats, their personal financial situations don’t influence their policy views — only the party they associate with matters. On average, Republicans and Democrats who regularly struggle to afford basic essentials have the same views on affordable housing and the minimum wage as their fellow party members who never face financial stress.

Though there is a lot of research documenting the growing polarization and nationalization of American politics, our research indicates that some politics is still local and personal, rooted in communities and people’s own life experiences — but only among political independents.

But that’s only about 20% of the nation’s electorate, though it varies considerably by state. Our research indicates that the remaining 80% may still walk around their communities, talk with their neighbors and pay their bills — but they are less likely to use those experiences to determine their political preferences and decisions.

Instead, they’re paying more attention to the strategic, partisan information streaming from their phones, computers, TVs and radios about what partisan elites have decided they should think and prioritize.

Reader reactions, pro or con, are welcomed at civiltalk@iniusa.org.

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