Democratization, Partisan Elites, and the Mass Public’s Interest

Co-authors: Carlos Algara & Isaac D. Hale

Status: Data gathering – accepted for presentation at APSA 2022

Abstract: The 21st century has seen great strides and great setbacks in the level of democratization of the United States, particularly with respect to participation in elections. Elites within the Republican Party have increasingly taken positions in opposition to further democratization of elections. Elites in the Democratic Party have generally supported more pro-democratic election reforms, but have repeatedly failed to pass national legislation to protect and expand voting rights. Furthermore, Democratic elites are relatively heterogeneous in their support, with some supporting measures such as strict voter identification or disenfranchisement of people convicted of felony crimes. While much scholarship has focused on the positions of American elites with respect to democratization, less work has examined the positions of the
mass public. The public is influenced by partisan elites with respect to policy positions, but democratization at its core concerns the ability of the mass public to influence government. Thus, there is reason to believe the mass public has divergent interests from elites on this topic and may differ from elites in their preferences regarding democratizing policy. We conduct an experiment to explore the determinants of public attitudes towards democratizing policies. We use endorsements from groups like the NAACP and the Chamber of Commerce to assess how partisan and racial cues affect the mass public’s preferences for democratizing policies recently proposed on the national level. The results of our study have important implications for understanding the relationship between elite partisans and partisans in the mass public on a policy issue like democratization. If partisans in the public hold markedly different preferences than their co-partisan elites, it represents a potential challenge to policy polarization and to the influence of political parties. Such a finding would also suggest party elites, unlike partisans in the mass public, may be making strategic considerations in their support for democratizing policies.

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