Are partisan cues necessarily a bad thing?

I spent a couple of days last week at the Scottish National Party (SNP) conference for the day job. One of the things that struck me while I was there was just how strong partisan cues are. Ordinary SNP members didn’t need much convincing that reducing harmful drinking should be a government priority because their party leadership had already made that judgement, and they were content to follow. Indeed, a couple of people more less explicitly told me that they support minimum pricing for alcohol simply because it is SNP policy.

This dynamic, where ordinary voters make their assessment of whether certain policies or trends are good or bad based on whether parties or politicians they support favour them, is often referred to as taking ‘partisan cues’. Partisan cues are particularly prescient at the current moment in British politics, with some political scientists suggesting that Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal is likely to be more popular because he is more trusted by people who support Brexit. Meanwhile, in the US, perceptions of the economy are highly partisan: Republicans started thinking the economy was doing well as soon as Trump took office, and Democrats that it was doing badly.

My instinctive reaction is to be dismissive of partisan cues: to say that people should think for themselves, and that it is dangerous for a democracy if facts are viewed through the prism of partisanship. Indeed, the academic literature on partisan cues stresses the potential for people who identify strongly with a party to vote the ‘wrong’ way i.e. contradicting their stated policy preferences.

On second thoughts, I’m not so sure though. The more I learn about public policy, and social science more generally, the more I realise how damned complicated everything is, and how few issues it is possible to have a fully informed view on. It just seems unrealistic to expect ordinary voters or party members, who have day jobs and other things in their lives beside politics, to sift through mountains of evidence and consider the range of arguments on every political question. So some division of labour is inevitable.

Moreover, the refusal to be influenced by partisan cues, to delegate some of the hard policy thinking to the specialists on your side seems to me a bad thing. At the very least, that seems to reflect a lack of trust that probably extends to wider social and political institutions. It also feels like a close cousin to the denial of expertise that I think has had a negative impact on our discourse.

I suspect the issue is less with partisan cues per se, but more that the cues are coming from the wrong people. Instead of bemoaning people’s failure to come to reach an independent judgement on every possible policy issue, perhaps we be focusing on the trustworthiness of the people they follow. I’ve written before about the lack of coherence in political debates over which qualities make for good leaders. An emphasis on how well different parties and leaders can promote different values could make it easier for people to figure out who to take their cues from.

2 comments

  1. Kieran Latty · · Reply

    The problem here is not deferring to ‘experts’ but to the sort of ‘experts’ who are attached to the current political class, and who are more or less intellectually and sociologically incapable of breaking with neoliberalism, and therefore for dealing with the first order social and economic problems of today – eg. excessive inequality and secular stagnation.

    I think this is also evident in the example you cite – eg. minimum prices for alcohol. Regressive sin taxes are almost a canonical case here. From a welfare economic standpoint we can endorse them only if the net effect is neutral or progressive. But some sort of progressive offset is almost never raised by the proposers of the policy. And politically they are toxic for the left – when proposed by left wing parties they tend to reinforce the idea that the left are a bunch of out of touch middle class moralisers.

    And now on a lot of these questions, the membership tends to have much better ideas than the leadership. To give an example – the Australian Greens parliamentary causes seemingly came to some consensus in favor of sugar taxes. But a significant proportion of the membership could see that such a policy was going to at best be a political liability. But then another section who were under the spell of the partisan cue prosecuted the other side of the argument, but in my opinion in a very dogmatic way, which prevented them form even considering any sort of amendments to the proposal which could have partially allayed the critics by making the policy net progressive.

    1. Thanks for reading, and thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      On your point that the problem is not partisan cues per se, but that too many people are following the wrong ‘experts’, that’s basically where I come out at the end of the blog.

      I don’t think I agree that regressive sin taxes can never enhance welfare – what if they correct for an externality or internality (harmful failure of rationality)? But that’s by the by, and of course, all else equal it is better to make a regressive policy less regressive through offsetting policies.

      I think the idea of ‘offsetting’ certain policies leads us to an interesting issue though, which is that it’s sometimes rather difficult or arbitrary to hive off one policy from another, because policies interact in complex ways. Obviously, you might need policy A to fund policy B (eg tax increases to fund investment in public services). Or policy C might give you the political capital to do policy D (eg fund border security in order to win support for increasing legal migration). And if it’s hard to know what we think of policy A, B, C or D in a vacuum, it is *incredibly* difficult to judge from the outside how interdependent they are. I think, ultimately, it comes down to whether you trust eg the Australian Greens to do net progressive things, rather than trying to judge them policy by policy.

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