Following Their Leaders: How Political Anchors Shape Policy Preferences

A romantic notion of democracy depicts democratic governments as being accountable to their citizens and acting in their citizens’ best interests. Academic models of democratic government depict citizens and voters as having public policy preferences, and candidates and parties adjust their platforms to conform to these preferences.

My new book, Following Their Leaders, explains that the direction of causation goes (mostly) in the other direction. Citizens and voters view their political identities as anchored on a party, a candidate, or an ideology and then adopt the public policy preferences of their anchors.

Citizens get their public policy preferences from the political elite rather than the political elite designing their platforms to conform to voters’ preferences.

People don’t think, “I am in favor of a woman’s right to choose on the abortion issue, I support stronger gun control measures, and I think government should be more involved in health care. Those are things Democrats favor, so I am a Democrat.” Instead, they anchor on a political identity and think, “I am a Democrat. Democrats favor a woman’s right to choose, more gun control, and more government involvement in health care; therefore, those are my policy preferences.”

Doing so imposes little personal cost because one voter’s vote trivially impacts who is elected or subsequent public policy actions. People are inclined to conform to the political identities of friends and family, and adopting the policy preferences of their anchors minimizes cognitive dissonance. Rather than feeling conflicted by agreeing with much of their anchor’s policies but disagreeing with others, they buy into the whole platform.

There are many public policy issues and substantial complexities underlying them. What should government policy be toward China? What business activities call for antitrust enforcement? Are there ways to improve the FDA’s approval process for new drugs? People do not have the time or inclination to research public policy questions and have little incentive to do so anyway because their individual preferences will not affect actual public policy.

So, they find a political anchor, much as sports fans anchor on a favorite team, and adopt the policy preferences their anchors offer.

This pattern casts some doubt on the ability of democratic political institutions to control the political elite—those who hold power and design public policy. Citizens and voters are simply echoing the preferences fed to them by the elite.

Democracy is a desirable form of government, but by itself, it is an insufficient check on the power of the political elite. The United States has been (relatively) successful in controlling the power of the elite because there are competing elites who can check and balance the power of each other. Citizen oversight is a mirage because citizens merely echo the public policy preferences of their leaders.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and author of the Independent Institute book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History.
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