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Howard Lavine on ‘democratic inversion’: When party loyalty is stronger than a person’s values or beliefs

Instead of having values and beliefs and policy instincts that determine which party or candidate one will support, the theory of “democratic inversion” suggests that more and more voters have turned over what you might call their values and priorities calculator to their party. 

University of Minnesota political scientist Howard Lavine
University of Minnesota political scientist Howard Lavine: “When Donald Trump says things like: ‘We’re winning; we’re going to win so much, you might get tired of winning,’ it might sound as if he’s referring to the country, but sometimes he’s really referring to the party.”
University of Minnesota

This is the first of five pieces in an occasional series, derived from recent interviews with scholars at the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts. 

In a properly functioning democracy, what is supposed to come first, a voter’s beliefs about what kinds of government policies would be best for oneself, or for the nation, or for one’s party? Hold that thought for a beat, and think about the concept of “democratic inversion,” as explained by University of Minnesota political scientist Howard Lavine. 

In a traditional and perhaps idealized version of how democracy works, a voter has some values, thoughts and beliefs about how the government should govern, and votes for candidates whose policy positions are most in sync with those values, which may be deeply rooted in aspects of that voter’s identity or beliefs. In that scenario, your voting behavior flows from your values and identity.

But, according to Lavine’s research on and understanding of “democratic inversion,” partisanship itself, a loyalty to one party or the other, has become a larger and more dominant part of many citizens’ identities, so much so that voters asks less “How do I feel about this issue?” and more “What is my party’s position on this issue?” 

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That’s the inversion. Instead of having values and beliefs and policy instincts that determine which party or candidate one will support, the theory of “democratic inversion” suggests that more and more voters have turned over what you might call their values and priorities calculator to their party. 

Lavine has a Ph.D. in psychology and is director of the U of M’s Center for the Study of Political Psychology, which focuses on the psychological underpinnings of political behaviors, such as the growing power of “democratic inversion.”

Let me interrupt myself to let you know that this post is part of an occasional series I’ll offer this month passing along the insights of five U of M scholars. The U’s College of Liberal Arts asked me to interview the five and published the interviews in a special 150th anniversary issue of its  magazine, “Liberal Arts,” which the CLA community has now received. They called my five-scholar section “Work In Progress: Revisiting the American Experiment.” With CLA’s permission, I’ll pass along the five interviews as an occasional series. Now back to the first installment, on “democratic inversion.”

Team over policy outcome

As more and more people think of their partisan orientation as an important aspect of their identities, seeing their team win has become more important to them than any policy outcome they might have once thought was worth pursuing through the political process, Lavine told me.

Personal policy inclinations might once have led them to question whether the leaders of their party were backing the best policy, and whether they might need to switch teams on Election Day. But the “inversion” theory suggests that, as Lavine put it, “more and more, people are sticking with the team. … Their higher priority is ‘beating’ the other team,” which is the other party.

“When Donald Trump says things like: ‘We’re winning; we’re going to win so much, you might get tired of winning,’ it might sound as if he’s referring to the country, but sometimes he’s really referring to the party,” Lavine said.

Part of human nature craves a feeling of belonging in the world, Lavine said. Belonging to groups helps one create a social identity, helps reduce uncertainty, and trends over recent decades have elevated the degree to which partisan identity has become a growing piece of personal identity. 

Participatory groups have declined

Lavine referred to Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone,” which was about the fact that Americans used to participate in more groups (like bowling leagues, which the title references) and drew portions of their identities and feeling of belonging to those multiple groups, most of which had little to do with politics.

But those kinds of memberships and associations (Putnam’s title refers to bowling leagues, for example) have declined. Meanwhile, “other social identifications that we have always had, by race or gender or geography, by urban or rural identity, by religiosity including what religious denomination we belong to, these are lining up more and more with the political parties,” Lavine said. 

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“So all of who you are aligns with whether you are a Democrat or a Republican,” Lavine said. Being Republican is now associated with being white, being a born-again Christian, not having a college education, and living in a small town or a rural area, he said. Those are powerful components of identity, and they now combine with partisan identification in what Lavine called a “mega-identity.”

To support the “other” party would feel somewhat like breaking ranks with your race or your religion. And sticking with the party, for reasons separate from the party’s policy positions, can contribute to that sense of belonging that humans crave.

“So the policy preferences that go along with being a Republican or a Democrat may be overshadowed by the identities that go along with it,” he said. “It may be more about who you are than about any policy positions or the laws that you’d like to see the government pass.”

Policy positions not in sync

In fact, in many instances, partisans do not like and will not benefit from the positions advanced by their parties, Lavine said: “Take the easiest example. The Republican Party works to pass tax cuts that benefit almost nobody but the very wealthy, at the expense of cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. That’s the Republican agenda at present. And that would have very little popular support.”

The Republican Party gets about 90 percent of its votes from whites, Lavine said. Many white voters, on the other hand, are not rich enough to benefit much from tax cuts, but are poor enough to benefit from the kind of wealth redistribution policies associated with the Democratic Party.

Rather than thinking about such matters based on their individual benefit, the “inversion” theory suggests that many nonaffluent white voters see political choices through a prism of party and group identity. If their group is white, “they may tend to view those very policies as designed to redistribute wealth from whites to nonwhites,” Lavine said. 

“Instead of thinking ‘What would I get out of this?’ they are thinking ‘Where does my group stand, and how does it affect my group versus the standing of other groups?”’ And if the calculation is: ‘I would benefit, but my group would become less dominant over say another group, nonwhites,’ then there is a strong likelihood that they would oppose a policy that would hurt their group and benefit the standing of another group, say, racial minorities.”

With Dems, it’s more on social policy

Similar factors are at play on the Democratic side too, Lavine said, although more on the social policy than on economic policy. The Democratic base includes most African-American voters and many working-class whites. But Democratic social policies – for example advocacy for gay rights and protection for trans-gender individuals – is of little benefit to those groups, and is of direct benefit to just a sliver the existing Democratic base.

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But contemporary African-American identity includes strong association with political support for Democrats. Some of the substantive policy matters that pure democratic theory suggests should work in determining which groups will support which parties are overcome by these elements of racial or class identity. So “people are less motivated by policy substance than they are with showing their loyalty to the team,” Lavine said.

Traditional theories of democracy do not suggest that things should work this way. “The way things should work is that you form policy preferences. Those should come first — substantive political preferences. ‘I want the government to move to the left or to the right in this or that policy area.’ Then their party identification and candidate choices should reflect their substantive policy preferences,” Lavine said.

The idea of “democratic inversion” suggests that more and more it’s working the other way around. 

“What many people are doing is identifying with a party first, or perhaps a particular candidate,” Lavine said. “Then they find out what the party, or the candidate’s preferences are; then change their own minds, to move into alignment with a candidate or partisan position. That’s the ‘inversion.’

“It’s not what their concrete personal interests are. But it dovetails with the psychological part, where it’s less about personal beliefs or personal policy benefits, it’s about the psychological benefits of party loyalty. The idea of self-esteem is related to the idea that my group is right. Social psychologists call this ‘positive distinctiveness.’ My group is different, and better than other groups. So what’s good for my group benefits me, even if doesn’t benefit me personally.”

“So when Donald Trump says ‘we’re winning,’ sometimes he means the country is winning,” Lavine said. “But sometimes he means the party. But it’s about a social identity and the benefits that come from identifying with the party. Those include things like a sense of belonging, self-esteem and the reduction of uncertainty about the world.”