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The Informational Role of Political Parties in Citizens’ Opinion Formation

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - PARTYOPINION (The Informational Role of Political Parties in Citizens’ Opinion Formation)

Reporting period: 2020-08-01 to 2022-01-31

In any democracy, it is crucial to understand how citizens form political opinions. A long-standing, but little researched, claim in political science is that citizens can participate meaningfully in democracy because political parties provide a vital informational basis citizens can use to inform their policy opinions. However, despite decades of research on political parties, this fundamental idea about how democracy works has received surprisingly little attention and never been developed or tested. We simply lack a theory of when, how – or even if – parties provide policy information citizens can use to inform their opinions.

Scholars widely agree that the positions parties take on policy issues exert a major influence on citizens’ policy opinions. However, current literature emphasizes how parties distort citizens’ decision-making and make them dogmatic defenders of their party. Alternatively, scholars see parties as “shortcuts” citizens use parties to avoid engaging any policy-relevant considerations. In contrast, we lack a theoretical model of how citizens can use parties to inform their opinions. This is a serious shortcoming because we do not know whether – or to what extent – citizens use parties in a sophisticated manner to pursue their interests, or if parties merely seduce citizens to support policies that confirm their partisan identity but might go against their interests.

PARTYOPINION seeks to advance the long-standing debate about how parties influence citizens’ opinions by developing a novel theoretical model of the informational role of parties and by proposing a new methodological approach combining experiments with a comparative, cross-national design. The overall research question of PARTYOPINION is: When and how do citizens use political parties to inform their policy opinions?

The project will provide new theoretical and empirical tools to analyze how the current dramatic changes in party systems across Western Europe might affect the ability of political parties to inform citizens’ policy opinions. Given the significant differences across party systems in Western Europe, we should expect substantial variation between countries, parties, and individuals in the extent to which parties’ policy positions inform citizens’ policy opinions. Yet, we have no systematic evidence on how – or even if – this variation affects citizens’ use of parties to inform their opinions.

The PARTYOPINION project will help understand how the current transformations of Western European party systems affect citizens’ ability to participate meaningfully in democracy, and whether parties play a central role in that process. If modern democracy, in Schattschneider’s celebrated phrase, is “unthinkable” without political parties, what happens if their legitimacy and potential relevance are challenged? Will citizens still use parties to inform their policy opinions, and can party leaders exert political leadership?
During the initial phase of the project, the PARTYOPINION research team has elaborated and refined a theoretical model of how and under what conditions citizens use parties to inform their policy opinions. Moreover, the first empirical studies are in progress, in part exploiting relevant existing data, in part developing novel survey instruments to measure how citizens view parties’ “policy reputations” and experimental designs to test how citizens use parties’ policy positions to interpret policy issues and form opinions. The first survey experiments have been conducted in Denmark and the United States and further data collection in various countries (e.g. Denmark, Italy, Sweden) is planned or ongoing in Spring 2022.

A first publication from the project is: Slothuus, Rune and Martin Bisgaard. 2021. “Party over Pocketbook? How Party Cues Influence Opinion When Citizens Have a Stake in Policy.” American Political Science Review 115 (3): 1090-1096. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003055421000332
The ambition of PARTYOPINION is to advance a new research agenda examining the informational role of political parties in citizens’ opinion formation. The project studies the possibility that parties play an informational role in opinion formation that is currently neglected by the literature.The project examines this idea by developing a novel theoretical model and testing it with innovative experimental and quasi-experimental designs that will make it possible to draw causal inferences about when and how citizens in Western Europe use parties to inform their policy opinions. Methodologically, the project seeks integration macro-level party behavior with micro-level opinion formation in a way that will help scholars ask new questions and seek novel answers on how parties matter for citizens’ opinions. On this basis, the project aims to make scientific discoveries to be published as high-impact research articles. Moreover, the PARTYOPINION project yields high societal value as it seeks to address the urgent need for better understanding how parties work in modern democracies and how they affect the relationship between citizens and politicians.