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What Politicians don’t get About the American Public

By Gail Sahar, author of Blame and Political Attitudes

The idea that politicians and political pundits are out of step with the general public is not new. However, one could argue that the gap between what politicians think we want and what most of us really want is particularly large at the present moment. What is the cause of this gap? There are plenty of possible explanations, but one of them is certainly that politicians and pundits don’t really understand how people think about issues. Specifically, they likely imagine that all Americans are as ideological as they are, viewing policies strictly through the lens of their worldview. And although Americans are influenced by their ideology or worldview, terms I use interchangeably, research documents that they are not as ideological, nor as polarized, as are political elites. 

In addition to exaggerating the influence of worldviews, politicians and political pundits take a simplistic approach that assumes a direct path from ideology to attitude toward specific issues. For example, Susan is pro-life just because she’s highly religious or James is in favor of welfare merely because he’s liberal. Thus, they imagine that knowing whether someone is, for example, liberal or conservative accurately predicts their attitude on a range of issues and that these attitudes are automatic responses, arrived at without much thought. This analysis is missing what goes on between the worldview (being religious or liberal) and the attitude (being against abortion or in favor of welfare). They do not account for the fact that human beings think. What do they think about? As social psychologists have known for decades, human beings spend considerable time trying to understand the causes of events that happen to themselves and others. Attribution theory, the study of how we attribute causes for events and how those judgments influence us, has generated hundreds of research studies, and though the early studies were in academic contexts (such as trying to understand how a child responds when he thinks failing a test was caused by lack of effort vs. low ability), the theory has been more recently applied to the political realm. 

I have spent my academic career trying to understand how our beliefs about the causes of social problems are related to our attitudes. In these studies, on topics from poverty to unwanted pregnancy to terrorism, I have found that although worldviews influence our attitudes toward a range of political policies, they do so partially by influencing our perceptions of the cause of the problem, that is, who or what is to blame for it. Those blame perceptions then influence our emotions and our attitudes. 

For example, a number of years ago, I conducted a series of studies aimed at illuminating how the cause of the unwanted pregnancy affected abortion approval. I asked participants to consider twelve possible causes of pregnancy that had been identified in a previous investigation. In addition to responding to questions about their approval of abortion in each case, they also indicated how controllable the cause was by the pregnant woman, how much they blamed her, and how much anger and sympathy they felt toward her. Not surprisingly, the results indicated that respondents who were conservative, religious and morally traditional approved less of abortion than those who were liberal and less religious and morally traditional. The former were also more likely to endorse causes that put the blame on the pregnant woman for the pregnancy. However, the studies further demonstrated that abortion approval depended on the cause of the pregnancy. Causes that were not under the personal control of the pregnant woman (such as rape) were responded to with less blame, more sympathy, and higher abortion approval than causes that were perceived as controllable by her (such as not using birth control). Thus, the studies documented that individuals’ judgments are not dictated by ideology alone but are also influenced by the degree to which the woman is blamed for her situation. And although worldviews affect how we place blame for the problem by nudging us to endorse causes that fit with our ideology, people of different ideological stripes respond to a given cause similarly. Both liberals and conservatives prefer helping someone who is perceived as not to blame over someone who is held responsible. This sequence: ideology—cause—blame—emotion—attitude, is common to liberals and conservatives alike. They may come to different conclusions, but they do not really think so differently about issues. 

Thus, I was not terribly surprised by the fact that most Americans were against the Supreme court decision that overturned Roe V. Wade last year. Why? As far right politicians were disappointed to discover, the majority do not take a strong ideological position on abortion. Rather, survey after survey for decades has revealed that most Americans are ambivalent about abortion, approving of it in some situations and not in others. Most Americans have what might be called an “it depends” attitude toward the right to an abortion, with many more approving when the woman’s life is threatened or the pregnancy was due to rape than when the woman does not want a child for other reasons. There is, of course, a partisan gap, with more Democrats favoring abortion rights than Republicans, but only 13% of Republicans favor making abortion illegal in all cases. Though abortion attitudes are affected by the political ideology, religiosity, and moral views of the survey respondent, they are also affected by the circumstances and trimester of the pregnancy. Were abortion a purely ideological or moral issue, one would expect it to be deemed simply right or wrong in all circumstances. Thus, the evidence suggests that most Americans actually take a more pragmatic approach, varying their approval depending on the situation. 

This reality fits with the argument put forth by political scientist Morris Fiorina and colleagues that the “culture war” dividing Americans into left-right ideological camps with vastly different views has been grossly exaggerated. He provides convincing evidence that in fact, most Americans are pragmatic moderates, not nearly as driven by ideological differences as is currently represented in public discourse. Moreover, he demonstrates that the actual policy preferences of Americans are not nearly as far apart as we imagine and that they are largely influenced by non-ideological practical considerations. What sorts of pragmatic factors affect American attitudes? A great deal of evidence points to the importance of the perceived cause of the problem. That is, American attitudes rest partly on whom they hold responsible or to blame for the issue. 

This analysis extends to social issues other than abortion. For example, there is evidence that attitudes toward gay and lesbian rights, such as legalized same-sex marriage, are strongly influenced by people’s beliefs about the causes of homosexuality. Those who view sexual orientation as a choice (controllable by the individual) are much less supportive of these rights than those who believe it is something with which we are born (uncontrollable). Causal perceptions have changed over time in favor of the uncontrollable attribution. And a majority of Democrats and Republicans now endorse legalized same-sex marriage.

The so-called culture war over race issues is also related to perceptions of causality and blame, and again the idea that liberals and conservatives are on opposite sides is not entirely accurate. Though conservatives have historically tended to believe that police violence against Black Americans was caused by a “few bad apples” in police departments whereas liberals viewed it as a systemic problem, Americans have shifted their views in light of new evidence. A recent poll reported that a majority of Americans now believe that the killing of George Floyd by police in Minnesota was indicative of a “broader problem” in law enforcement, and a majority of both Republicans and Democrats agreed that the police forces need to change and expressed support for the protests. The results reflected a huge shift since similar questions were asked in 2014. Faced with the shocking attack on Mr. Floyd and many other Black Americans, many Republicans changed their perception of the cause of the problem of police brutality. 

It is clear that though it might be difficult to change a liberal into a conservative or a fundamentalist Christian into an atheist, it is possible to modify perceptions of the causes of social problems. And changing those perceptions will likely lead to changes in attitudes. Hence, another reason politicians should talk about causality and blame: unlike worldview, perceptions of the causes of the problems we face can be altered. Thus, they offer hope for finding common ground among ideological camps, something our country desperately needs. 

Unfortunately, many politicians and especially media figures benefit from increasing rather than decreasing polarization. The more animosity is created by representing the other political camp as extreme and perhaps even dangerous, the more politicians can frighten constituents into voting for them and the more political pundits can count on an audience. 

The revelation last month that Fox news stars did not themselves believe what they were telling the public about the 2020 election being stolen is a case in point. Not even they were responding based purely on their ideology but rather engaged their brains and thought about the likely cause of the election results: Biden simply got more votes. That they banked on the rest of us believing the far-fetched story that they themselves did not shows how little faith they have in the American public’s ability to think critically. Sadly, many Americans, conditioned to distrust the other party, accepted this fake cause as the real cause of the election results.

Prominent linguist Noam Chomsky and colleagues noted in a recent guest essay for the New York Times that what human beings have over artificial intelligence like ChatGPT is the ability to generate and evaluate the causes of events in the world. Unlike AI, the human mind, in the words of the authors, “seeks not to infer brute correlations among data points but to create explanations.” And yet, politicians rarely appeal to us in a way that engages this type of thinking. They assume that those who share their worldview will automatically get behind whatever policy they wish to promote without regard for the fact that human beings are capable of nuanced thought and strive to understand the causes of events in the world, including the political world. The public can only come to appropriate causal conclusions if they have reasonable information to guide them. We can no longer count on politicians or pundits to provide that.

Gail Sahar is Jane Oxford Keiter Professor of Psychology, Wheaton College, Massachusetts USA. Professor Sahar has been researching the effects of causal perceptions on political attitudes for over 30 years. Her research focuses on the links between political ideology, perceptions of the causes of social problems, blame, emotions, and attitudes toward controversial social issues, such as poverty, abortion, and terrorism.