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Study: Politicians think voters are way more conservative than they actually are

We've been through roughly two years of successive battles over taxes and spending -- first over the Bush tax cuts, then the so-called "fiscal cliff," then the
house republicans graph
house republicans graph

So why do politicians seem convinced that the American people want austerity? A fascinating new working paper published this week by two political science graduate students may offer an answer: Politicians tend to vastly overestimate just how conservative their constituents really are. The paper, co-authored by Christopher Skovron of the University of Michigan and David Broockman of the University of California Berkeley, finds that conservative politicians in particular are terrible at gauging the political views of their constituents. For example, they tend to underestimate support for policies like universal health care and same-sex marriage by as much as 20 percentage points. Liberal politicians underestimate support for those policies, too, but not by nearly as much.

The authors report this especially stunning distillation of their findings: "Nearly half of sitting conservative officeholders appear to believe that they represent a district that is more conservative on these issues than the most conservative legislative district in the entire country."

The paper -- which has not been peer-reviewed or published in an academic journal yet -- has the potential to explain so much about American politics, about how the contours of the national political dialogue are set and about the behavior and strategic choices of our politicians. For one, it would explain why Americans' faith in Congress as an institution has dipped to historic lows. It would also explain why the political "center" seems so far out of step with the policy priorities of the median voter. And, perhaps most of all, the findings might offer an explanation for the asymmetric polarization we've seen take hold in Washington over the last 30 years or so: Conservatives have gotten much, much more conservative, while liberals have remained just as liberal as they were decades ago.

That asymmetric polarization has essentially paralyzed Washington. And, moreover, it is completely disconnected from the actual political attitudes of American voters over the last 30 years. For example: According to the DW-NOMINATE scale, a tool for rating the ideologies of lawmakers devised by political scientist Keith Poole, House Republicans are now more than three times as conservative as they were in 1976. In fact, today the most moderate House Republicans are more extreme than the most extreme House Republicans were in the 1970s. But that unprecedented rightward drift is completely divorced from the American electorate: Since 1976, for example, the share of Americans describing themselves as "conservative" has remained virtually unchanged.

There are a number of possible explanations for this disconnect. For one, politicians are much more beholden to the donor class that funds their campaigns than they are to their actual constituents, and as political scientists have found, the priorities of the wealthy are vastly different from the priorities of the public at large. Another possible explanation is that voters are generally bad at expressing policy preferences in the abstract. They're much more accurate -- and, generally, more liberal -- about their own views when answering specific questions about discrete policies, like whether we should raise taxes on the wealthy.

Whatever the explanation, it seems clear that politicians think Americans are much more conservative than they actually are. And that  finding explains so much about how broken and dysfunctional our politics have become.