Democratic government can only be held accountable if citizens acquire sufficient knowledge about politics and policies. In many cases, politicians are the most important sources of this information, and one of the well-observed features of current politics is that this information is often couched in the rhetoric of social identities. The appeals to social identities resonate with voters because voters may lack other sources of political information and because shared group membership guides voters on which information to use and which source of information might be reliable as they make their decisions. Yet because public officials typically know more about the content and consequences of policies than voters do, there might be a concern that appeals to social identities might bring voters to support policies that have unfavorable impacts on them. This project focuses on the potential tradeoff between the benefits and costs of social identity appeals.

Although social identity claims in politics are commonplace, we know little about the mechanisms by which social identification influences political behavior and we thus know little as well about what to expect from this tradeoff. This project seeks to advance our knowledge by addressing two related questions: when politicians should be expected to be more or less successful in using identity claims to increase support for their positions and when the electoral discourse may come to be dominated by identity claims. By developing a new theoretical model of identity discourse and implementing a series of laboratory experiments based on it, the researchers seek to pinpoint determinants of individual decision-making rooted in otherwise unobservable features of human behavior such as social identity, level of knowledge, and beliefs about the world.

The project draws on and contributes to the related disciplines of political science, economics, and social psychology. More broadly, it enriches understanding of citizen decision making in the electoral process. Given the central role that free and fair elections play in any democracy, the project sheds light as well the workings of democracy overall.

Project Report

Political Competition and Social identity -- Dimitri Landa and Dominik Duell Summary of project outcomes Relevance In an ideal democratic society, citizens make fully informed and well-reasoned decisions. In real societies, however, candidates' policy proposals arrive with rampant uncertainty about their consequences. In many cases, politicians are the most important sources of voters' knowledge about politics and policies, and one of the well-observed features of contemporary politics is that their information is often couched in the rhetoric of social identities. Candidates appeal to ethnic groups and religious denominations, they call upon "Main Street" to stand up against "Wall Street", or they declare to speak to "real America" and "soccer moms." Social identities instill emotions that can be heightened by group-based campaign appeals, and many observers fear that such heightened emotions overemphasize voters concerns with group welfare. Driven by such emotions, voters may fail to remove politicians from office even when they perform poorly or may support policies with negative consequences for the welfare of other members of society and even for those voters' own interest. Main findings Our research, both theoretical and empirical, based on several laboratory experiments, shows that, contrary to wide-spread concerns, representatives tend to work harder on behalf of voters with whom they share a social identity than on behalf of voters in other social groups. This is the case even with uncertainty whether politicians are actually responsible for observed political outcomes and with abundance of opportunities for effort-shirking in office. Further, we find that rather than heightening social divisions, identity appeals can increase representatives' attention to a social group's concerns in exchange for their members' electoral support. One reason for the emergence of such a mutually beneficial relationship between voters and their representatives who share a membership in the same social group is certainly the warm glow from treating someone nicely who comes from the same social background. More important, still, is the ability of social identities to sustain cooperation. While we find that voters are more favorably inclined towards representatives from their social group and believe that those representatives work harder, the voters do punish representatives for bad policy outcomes and incentivize good outcomes by discriminating between good and bad performance. Because the representatives from their social group respond more positively to their demands anticipating voters' group favoritism, those choices are mutually consistent. In this fashion, asymmetric treatment of group members based on their social identity become stable predictions, driven by mutual expectation of participants in the social exchanges. Politicians' attempts to appeal to social identities help facilitate this exchanges by creating awareness of the groups' preferences but also of the preferences of other groups in society. In this way they trigger considerations of feasible electoral coalitions. Identity appeals function as coordination device but one that goes beyond rallying members around prior preferences of the majority in their group.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Brian D. Humes
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New York University
New York
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