Issue Evolution In Political Science Research Paper

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Issue evolution refers to a model of partisan change in which issue competition among political elites gradually leads to a transformation in mass party alignments along the issue dimension. There are two characteristics that distinguish this model of partisan change. The first is the prominent role played by elites. Unlike most models of elite–mass linkage political elites are not seen as merely responding to the demands of the mass electorate but as shaping and establishing the reputation of political parties on a political issue. The masses are seen as eventually reacting to these elite cues (MacDonald and Rabinowitz 1987, Zaller 1992). However, since it takes time for parties to establish a reputation on a political issue and for citizens to perceive and act on this difference between the parties, mass partisan change typically occurs gradually over a lengthy span of time. Ultimately, the transformation of mass party alignments occurs when the issue moves current voters to change their partisan identifications and biases the recruitment of new partisans.

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1. The Standard Model Of Partisan Change: The Critical Election Perspective

The standard model of partisan change was provided by V. O. Key in the 1950s (1955). His model of critical elections postulates that dramatic events can quickly transform the fortunes of political parties, leading to a realignment during the course of a single election. His account seems to fit almost perfectly the New Deal realignment. The Republicans, ascendent in national politics since the 1860s, were held responsible for the Great Depression and, as a result, millions of voters deserted the ‘Grand Old Party’ and became Roosevelt Democrats during the 1932 presidential election. The New Deal realignment thus seems to be a case of partisan change that was both dramatic and quickly realized, resulting in the rapid replacement of an old majority party by a new one.

1.1 Criticisms Of The Standard Model

Key’s model of critical election realignments, especially as amplified in Burnham’s Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics (1970), became the standard framework for understanding changes in the US party system. Despite its popularity and influence, however, several major criticisms have been directed at the critical election realignment perspective. In the first place, it has been impossible to specify exactly what constitutes a critical election. This vagueness has led to claims of realignment for virtually every recent presidential election (Bass 1991). The generalizability of the theory has also been questioned since it is difficult to build a general theory based on a single historical case (Carmines and Stimson 1989, Silbey 1991). Finally, it has been argued that the critical election perspective overemphasizes short-term partisan change, while neglecting more gradual changes that extend over a long period of time (Carmines and Stimson 1989).

2. The Issue Evolution Model

Carmines and Stimson (1981, 1986, 1989) have developed an alternative model of partisan dynamics which they refer to as issue evolution. Unlike the classic realignment model, it presumes that most partisan change occurs gradually and incrementally over a lengthy span of time, unfolding over several elections and perhaps decades instead of a single election. At no single point in time is partisan change necessarily striking but its culmination through time can leave an indelible imprint on the party system.

Most issues, according to Carmines and Stimson, lack the capacity to generate significant partisan change. This is because most issues either reinforce the existing party alignment, never capture public attention, or have effects that are entirely short term. It is only those relatively rare issues that transcend these limitations that have the capacity to lead to fundamental and permanent change in the party system. In other words, an issue evolution only occurs when a new issue emerges that cuts across the existing party– issue alignment, captures the public’s attention for an extended period of time, and cannot be resolved in the normal policy-making process.

Carmines and Stimson (1980) put particular emphasis on the amount of cognitive processing required to deal meaningfully with a political issue as a critical dividing line between those issues that can and cannot lead to issue evolutions. Issues that are complex, technical, and obscure are not good candidates for issue evolution. Instead, if issues are to transform mass party alignments, they must be able to be understood at a ‘gut’ level, engaging the raw emotions of the citizenry.

Two basic aspects of an issue evolution are its structure and sequence.

2.1 The Structure Of Issue Evolution

There are two main actors in issue evolution: partisan elites and the mass electorate. Partisan elites include presidents, members of Congress, candidates for major political offices, as well as delegates to the nominating conventions. A party’s position and reputation on a political issue is established through the public acts and pronouncements of their elites. When a president sets out his position on an issue in the State of the Union Address or when senators express their opinions on an issue through their roll call votes, they are helping to build the position of their party on a given issue. When this process is repeated over time and in different political arenas, the party establishes a reputation on the issue.

A party’s reputation on the issue, in turn, serves as a partisan cue to the mass public.

But why do elites of different parties adopt contrasting positions on at least some political issues and how does this process begin? Riker (1982) suggests a plausible answer. A political party, finding itself temporarily in the minority, always has an incentive to defeat the majority winning party and, according to Riker, political issues are a natural vehicle for this purpose. New issues—if they can split the coalition of the majority party and are sufficiently attractive to the electorate—can turn old losers into new winners (and old winners into new losers) (Carmines 1991). Thus, for Riker, losing minority parties always have an electoral incentive to adopt distinctive positions on new issues in their never-ending quest to upset the current status quo. Riker’s logic can also be applied to minority factions within majority party coalitions. For example, the new left operating within the majority Democratic coalition appealed to anti-war forces and those on the left on the new moral and cultural issues of abortion and gay and women rights to help it take control of the party in 1972 (Layman 2001). The point is that it makes sense for losing and disadvantaged political elites to develop and advertise new issue proposals in an effort to improve their public standing and gain political leverage.

The other major group in the issue evolution process is the mass electorate. The political masses are not only less active in the political process than elites they also have no particular incentive or capacity to create new issue alternatives themselves. Their key role in issue evolution is to respond—or, more frequently, fail to respond—to the issue cues of party elites. Moreover, even when the citizenry does respond to elite issue cues, it does not do so instantaneously. Instead, the response is gradual, delayed, inert.

2.2 The Sequence Of Issue Evolution

According to Carmines and Stimson’s model of issue evolution, changes in elite partisan behavior do not lead directly to mass partisan response. Rather, two intervening steps are necessary to link elite policy shift to mass issue realignment. First, the mass electorate must perceive a difference in the issue positions of the parties. But awareness of party differences on an issue, by itself, is not likely to lead to mass issue realignment. Citizens must care about the issue. The changed perceptions of the parties on the issue must carry with them a strong dose of affection and disaffection for the parties if they are to overcome the stubborn inertia of existing partisan identifications (Campbell et al. 1960). Only when these two intervening conditions are met—clarified mass cognitive images of the parties and polarized affection toward them—will issue reorientation among partisan elites lead to changes in mass issue alignment.

Time ordering is critical. That is, the issue evolution process should follow a specific temporal sequence with changes in the cognitive and affective images of the parties occurring after elite reorientation on the issue but before mass partisan response.

3. Illustrations

What partisan changes have been illuminated by the issue evolution model? Three cases of issue partisan change in contemporary US politics have been examined through the lens of issue evolution.

3.1 Racial Issues

Carmines and Stimson (1989) offer a detailed account of racial politics in mid-twentieth century America as an example of issue evolution. Historically, Republicans—the party of Lincoln—had a more progressive racial tradition than did the Democrats with their support first of slavery and later of segregation. But during the 1950s and 1960s their positions on race became reversed. The Democrats became the party of racial liberalism while the Republicans became the party of racial conservatism.

Carmines and Stimson show that this partisan transformation on race closely followed the model of issue evolution. In the first place, the change was gradual and incremental, unfolding over several decades instead of within a single critical election. Through an analysis of presidential speeches, party platforms, and congressional roll-call votes, they also demonstrated that partisan elites altered their racial positions years before mass partisans reversed their positions. There was strong evidence, in other words, that elites initiated the issue evolution on race. Finally, the racial issue case follows the sequence of changes postulated in the issue evolution model. The process began with reorientation among partisan elites and ended with mass issue realignment but bracketed between this beginning and ending was the electorate’s increasingly accurate perceptions of the parties’ racial positions and polarized affections based on them. All in all, the partisan transformation of racial issues fits the issue evolution model extremely well.

3.2 Abortion

Changes in the abortion issue during the 1980s and 1990s provide another example of an issue that has undergone a partisan evolution, according to a study by Adams (1997). Examining roll-call votes in the House and Senate, Adams shows that Democrats and Republicans were only moderately divided over abortion throughout the 1970s. But, beginning in the early 1980s, the difference between these partisan elites grew steadily during the next 15 years. By the mid-1990s, congressional Democrats clearly had adopted the prochoice position just as Republicans had become overwhelmingly pro-life. This change unfolded gradually and incrementally over a two-decade period, a pattern predicted by the issue evolution model.

Mass partisans have also become more polarized on abortion during this period, as Adams demonstrates through an analysis of public opinion polls. Throughout the 1970s, and up until the mid-1980s, Democrats, in the aggregate, were actually more pro-life than Republicans. But during the 1990s a partisan shift occurred, resulting in Democrats becoming significantly more pro-choice than Republicans.

Adams shows, finally, that there is likely a causal connection between the elite and mass changes, with elite level changes producing mass level responses. Not only did the shifts in abortion attitudes occur earlier among partisan elites than among the partisan masses but the degree of issue polarization is sharper and more pronounced in the former than the latter.

In sum, in every major regard, abortion is consistent with the issue evolution model. Issue polarization gradually develops among both partisan elites and masses and as the issue cues of partisan elites become clearer and more distinct over time the partisan masses respond more readily to them. The process culminates in a mass issue realignment.

3.3 The New Religious Di Ide And Moral And Cultural Issues

In The Great Di ide: Religious and Cultural Conflict in American Party Politics (2001) Layman provides a comprehensive account of how the new traditionalist–modernist cleavage in American religion has come to shape the contemporary American political party system, the extent to which the religious and cultural divide between the Democratic and Republican parties has grown over time, and the process through which this growth has occurred. Similar to Carmines and Stimson’s discussion of the types of issues capable of creating issue evolutions, Layman contends that the traditionalist–modernist religious cleavage came to affect party politics because it is associated with political issues that are easily understood, arouse strong emotions in a large number of people, reflect a deep-seated social conflict, cut across the lines of party conflict that existed in the 1970s, and appealed to the strategic incentives of certain groups of politicians within both parties.

He draws on the issue evolution framework to develop a model of the process through which polarized stands by party leaders on cultural and moral issues such as abortion, gay rights, and the role of women have been translated into changes in the religious composition of the parties’ coalitions. Party activists have played a significant role in making this connection by sustaining and extending elite polarization and by providing cues to an inattentive public about the nature of issue change at the elite levels of party politics. The mass electorate gradually responded to elite-and activist-level change by first adjusting its perceptions of and affect toward the parties, and ultimately by reshaping its partisan ties along traditionalist–modernist religious lines.

Layman’s research shows that the process of partisan religious change generally has followed the patterns predicted by the issue evolution model. It began among party elites and activists and activists also provided the link between elite-level issue change and the response by a relatively inattentive public. Over time, the mass public has come increasingly to see differences in the positions of the parties on cultural and moral issues and to care about these differences. These changes in mass perceptions of the parties and affect toward them have led ultimately to a substantial shift in the religious and cultural composition of the parties’ coalitions.


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