Political Science

03.28.13

Science! Study Finds Voters Don't Trust the Other Side, But Do Trust Their Own Elites

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Two Rutgers professors "discover" the powerful influence of elites on party opinion:

[W]hile we find no evidence that the conservative advocacy frames alone influence Republican support at the mass level, attaching a Republican elite to the “golden rule” frame seems to make a notable difference. When we show that Mehlman supports same-sex marriage and does so for reasons consistent with his partisanship and ideology, it appears to give Republicans “permission” to be more inclined to do the same – or to at least considerably reduce their opposition in exchange for increased indecision. This result suggests that as more Republican elites “come out” in support for the issue, their personal endorsements of the “conservative case” for same-sex marriage may have the potential to change the game among Republicans, who are otherwise lagging greatly as overall attitudes rapidly move in a more supportive direction. As Mehlman states, he fights for same-sex marriage “because [he is] a conservativ[e], not in spite of it.” And that’s likely to be the key to attitude change among conservatives as Mehlman and others lead by example to show that the values underlying same-sex marriage are ones that their fellow partisans already have.

Two things about this rather funny post, and one side-note I'd like to see explored:

First, the authors tested the "conservative" frames of

individual freedom, limited government, and the teachings of the “golden rule.”

Yet they failed to test the most compelling case offered by conservatives: that welcoming gay and lesbian couples into the institution of civil marriage stabilizes families, provides a better home environment for the nurturing of children, and strengthens society. This is the basic argument offered by conservatives like Ted Olson, and the one that I find works best when advocating for gay marriage within conservative circles. Here's Olson on the subject:

We encourage couples to marry because the commitments they make to one another provide benefits not only to themselves but also to their families and communities. Marriage requires thinking beyond one's own needs. It transforms two individuals into a union based on shared aspirations, and in doing so establishes a formal investment in the well-being of society. The fact that individuals who happen to be gay want to share in this vital social institution is evidence that conservative ideals enjoy widespread acceptance. Conservatives should celebrate this, rather than lament it.

As David wrote in the speech he delivered Tuesday, this is about far more than freedom or liberty:

For a conservative, the remarkable thing about the movement for same-sex marriage is that it is a civil rights movement that is less about claiming rights than it is about accepting responsibilities.

Marriage is a source of great joy. But - and I speak as one who'll celebrate a 25th anniversary this summer - it's also a solemn undertaking: an undertaking to care for another person, to nurse that person when ill, to sustain her or him in time of trouble, to raise children together, to provide for those children, to mourn when it comes time to mourn.

These are the arguments that I know appeal to conservatives, because I've spent countless hours in heated debate on the topic. Conservatives can and will be swayed on marriage equality if and when they're told how marriage equality strengthens marriage, helps children, betters civic life and provides stable economic and personal lives for our nation's citizens.

And yet where is the place of such arguments in this study of how conservative arguments shape conservative opinion?

Now, as to why voters trust their own elites... well, obviously, right? I make a living by thinking about, talking about, and writing about politics, but when I hear President Obama tell Republicans and conservatives they should do things because what he says is better for us, I'm disinclined to believe a word he says. Sorry, I'm partisan, but I doubt I'm an unusual case in our polity.

But if Ken Mehlman or the other 130-odd conservatives who signed on to support marriage equality make arguments I recognize as conservative, you bet I'll be willing to listen. Unlike the president, I assume these people have the best interests of conservative principles at heart, so of course I'll hear them out. Better yet: you don't have to give me a PhD to tell you this valuable insight!

And, as the side-note, I'm curious if the authors could apply a similar idea to Democrats and entitlement reform. Any time I so much as mention cutting payroll taxes, even within frames like helping the working poor, providing economic stimulus, and helping encourage economic growth to better the programs' long-term outlook, I'm met with serious hostility. But if President Obama were to make similar arguments, I imagine he'd receive a very different reception.

That's partisan politics 101. Can anyone fund a study on the subject?