Just the Facts

How can we cut through the polarizing partisanship that has gripped political discourse? Focus on evidence, not ideology, says Stephen Chapman, assistant professor of political science.

Q: Your research has shown how continuous partisan control in state governments affects policymaking. Can you explain?

My main argument there is about institutional control, and how in the absence of an electoral threat—when one party controls the state government and doesn’t have to worry about losing power—[elected officials are] more likely to shift away from the wishes of the public and create policy more in line with their party’s ideal point.

For example, if a state’s citizenry is center-right, and the Republican Party knows it’s going to get re-elected over and over—instead of creating policy that’s center-right, [that government will] create policy farther right than the preferences of the citizenry. So a duration of institutional control induces bias, by which I mean a divergence between the wishes of the public and the policy products of the state government. The longer one party holds onto control due to the lack of electoral competition, the more that bias grows and the gap between the wishes of the citizenry and the policy products of the government grows.

Why is that?

I’m a rational choice theorist, and at the fundamental level that theory states that actors will maximize their utility.

Think about what motivates elected officials: They want to keep getting elected, they want to advance in the party, and they want to make “good” public policy. If they don’t have to worry about re-election, they can focus on advancing in the party and making “good” public policy. If you think about what makes “good” policy for advancing within the party, it makes sense why elected officials move away from the wishes of the public. They’re maximizing their utility from the party perspective rather than looking at it from the electorate’s standard.

Fact Checking Itself Has Become a Political Issue.

So what should the average citizen do because of that?

That’s not for me to say. One of the things I say at every level of my teaching is that I am a positive political scientist, and keeping with that framework, it’s not my place as a scholar to talk about policy prescriptions. It’s more about the about the public recognizing that the lack of an electoral threat can bring about negative outcomes.

I always tell people that if you want to talk evidence related to social and economic policies, I can anger both sides of the aisle. For example, we can talk about GMOs [genetically modified organisms]. Most people on the left hate GMOs even though the thrust of the scholarly evidence shows no evidence of harmful effects from GMO crops. For the right, climate change is usually a heated topic. Again, there is overwhelming scientific evidence that it is occurring and is man-made.

You would have no idea of my political leanings by reading any of my research. And I think that’s what’s undervalued and underrepresented in our current political climate: We, as a society, need to employ objective research to reach policy positions.

It seems like opinion trumps objectivity in politics today.

We live in a world where my opinion is just as good as your opinion, where there’s this paradigm that we should respect everyone’s opinion [all of the time]. But if someone tells me the world is flat, I’m going to tell them they’re wrong, and I’m going to show them that I have this accrued knowledge and evidence as to why they’re wrong.

What I’m saying is, instead of looking at any concept or issue from a preconceived-notion basis, let’s use an evidence base and not be so frightened to change our opinions in the face of new evidence. Most of my research and teaching focuses on the idea of using evidence in place of ideology to reach policy decisions.

I can’t help but think of climate change as an issue where evidence and ideology are battling it out when it comes to policymaking.

When we think for example about President Trump…wavering on the possibility that climate change is real, it’s up to academics and experts in the field with confronting that and saying, no that’s not true. We have this long body of research that yes it’s happening, and yes it’s man-made. And while there are a handful of studies that might say that it doesn’t exist or they don’t find a significant relationship, we have a mountain of evidence that says it does. I think it’s going to take more engagement from the scholarly realm into the mainstream to really bring about change like that.

In the last election we saw a proliferation of fake news. Now we’re hearing terms like “alternative facts.” What challenges does that present academics who value evidence over opinion?

I think as far as this movement toward a post-truth America—
it’s frightening not just for academics but for anyone who places stock in understanding the larger issues within the context of each other. It’s also important to be able to critically analyze the full breadth of evidence available. A good example of this is the study Trump continuously cites as evidence of voter fraud—a study that has been debunked repeatedly by other scholars and no political scientist in their right mind would cite it in their research.

So in a word it’s…

Frustrating, but it’s nothing new … and again I think it should motivate scholars to become more accessible, to coming out of the ivory tower…and doing something that is going to enact real change.

Prior to the internet, I think we gave more credence to experts in the field and trusted them more. Now I think you’re seeing more skepticism about what both social and natural scientists do because we have more access to information. To counter that, I think we need to offer more perspective on the scientific process—what it means to engage in a question and look for and evaluate evidence. That’s the key to weeding out the more scrupulous aspects of the information we’re bombarded with every day.

Do you think this lack of demand for objective evidence and facts is causing the increasing polarization we see in politics today?

There has been some research that’s not fully developed that looks at the effects of gerrymandering, and how it creates safe districts, allowing more extremist candidates to get into power, therefore creating more and more polarization. There is also research that says gerrymandering does not explain polarization, that it has to do with the manner Democrats and Republicans represent their constituents. This is an area where we need to look at multiple factors instead of trying to find the one factor that explains everything. But I do think the lack of evidence-based policy discussions contributes to the extremism we’re seeing, because if an extremist candidate says something that’s completely off the wall, on the right or left side of the aisle, no one is there to fact check them. Fact checking itself has become a political issue.

How can we get past that, and make it easier for the average citizen to better understand the evidence and facts on both sides of the issues?

[One way] is to move away from what I call the CNN model, where we have a moderator and somebody from the right and the left and they clash, and anybody who’s watching doesn’t learn anything except talking points. Instead of having that modality, I think what we really need is a move from the normative—that is, what should be—to a positive—that is, what is and why? Then we can approach policy—any issue really—from a more level-headed position and a less polarized, less partisan point of view. When we’re able to look at more than what one pundit says to the other—that is what could progress us as a society.