I spend a good bit of my academic life thinking about partisanship. What does it mean to be a partisan? How do partisans differ from other partisans and from non-partisans? What are the behavioural consequences of partisanship?
Our understanding of partisanship has changed over time. Beginning in the 1960s, academics understood partisanship to be a deep attachment to a party formed early in life which subsequently acted as a perceptual screen on the political world. Think of it as similar to religious affiliation. Individuals may stray from their familial religious affiliations, but for the most part these act as an anchor throughout the lifecycle and serve to influence how we experience and perceive the world.
This understanding of partisanship was later challenged by a ‘running tally’ perception in which partisanship was taken to be an active evaluation of the parties on offer, where an individual ‘updated’ their partisanship as new events unfolded and changed it as their affection for one party increased over another.
I think it’s fair to say that the first view has better stood the test of time, both inside American and outside. Principal in the defense of this view is a great book by Green, Schickler, and Palmquist called Partisan Hearts and Minds.
My own work has examined the behavioural and material foundations of partisanship in Canada. For example, I’ve shown that revealed material concern for the well-being of other partisans explains much of the decision to vote in Canada. I’ve also shown that material concern for others varies with our own and others partisanship. Finally, I am working on a larger (though still very preliminary project) on whether behavioural differences characterize different partisans. My own contribution is very small.
The most important contribution in recent years, and this is the point of this post, has just been made by Alan Gerber and Gregory Huber in this paper. Here’s the story: for a long time, we’ve had survey evidence that partisans have more positive economic expectations when their preferred party is in power in Washington. In other words, Republican partisans say they expect the economy to perform better when there is a Republican president than when there is a Democratic president. The same applies (in reverse) for Democrats. However, this could merely be an artefact of surveys. If partisanship really matters in a deep way, then what is needed is evidence that partisans behave differently when their preferred party is in office. Gerber and Huber provide evidence of this. They demonstrate that changes in the rate of expenditures at the county level following an election correlate with the partisanship of the county. So, more Democratic counties would increase their rate of spending more than Republican counties (or more accurately, decrease it less quickly, as spending is generally lower in the winter than in the fall) following the election of a Democratic President. The same applies for Republicans.
This is an extremely important finding as it shows that partisanship has deep behavioural consequences. It is not simply a tally of one’s preferences, but instead an affiliation which influences how one approaches not only the political but also the commercial world.