chase martyn

Cognitive load in an era of political self-examination

Published 07 November 2014, 3:31 pm

In "The ideological right vs. the group benefits left: Asymmetric politics in America," Matt Grossman and David A. Hopkins examine the differences between what motivates the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States:

[T]he two sides perceive politics differently and behave asymmetrically. The right is built on ideological commitment; the left is built on the policy demands of constituency groups. Their distinct governing styles reflect these consistent underlying differences. At both the mass and elite levels, Democrats think and act very differently from Republicans, in ways that have important implications for the American political system. 

This isn't a completely new analysis, but the authors' empirical methodology is interesting and compelling:

To assess our claims, we analyze a variety of empirical evidence to substantiate the fundamental asymmetry of the American left and right. We begin by examining this phenomenon among the mass public, finding that citizens are attracted to the Republican Party due to shared ideological affinity and to the Democrats on the basis of specific policy positions and social group identity. This distinction endures as we move from party identifiers in the electorate through the activist and donor classes to party leaders and elected officials.

Voters -- and humans in general -- have always made decisions and formed preferences that are irrational or inconsistent with one another. Perhaps one result of our culture -- of super PAC ads, talk radio rants, cable news "facts," and news by meme -- is that some of these inconsistencies are actually more difficult to sustain. We're living more self-examined political lives, for better or worse, and ticket-splitting between candidates who seem like the best potential drinking buddies is no longer the path of least cognitive resistance.

Ideology is now the intellectually-easiest framework for voting: it tells you exactly what to care about and, more important, what not to care about. The things it tells you to care about usually sound respectable -- and often sound downright inspiring -- when distilled into the format of a conversation among friends. And figuring out which candidates to support doesn't usually require any work.

Unfortunately for Democrats, as Grossman and Hopkins explain at length, our campaigns and governing styles just aren't wired for this phenomenon.1

None of this means that voters are less smart or less worthy than they used to be. I don't think every voter will ever make decisions like a dispassionate public policy expert or academic, though there's probably a (boring) dystopian film idea in that. Specialization has existed since the dawn of society, and cognitive load has been a factor in every human decision since the dawn of cognition. 

As Democrats, we should simply remain conscious of this and make it a goal in our campaigns to reduce the cognitive load required for each voter to choose to support our candidates. We need to reduce friction and make it easier to be a Democratic voter however we can -- legally, physically, temporally, and cognitively.


  1. Straight-ticket voting, which Democratic campaigns are in many cases wired for, may also seem like an intellectually "easy" framework for voting. But I'd argue that these days, continuing to justify total party loyalty can be cognitively difficult. For example, our culture has long fetishized "voting for the person, not the party," which shames straight-ticket voting but does little to offer an alternative.
Chase Martyn Chase Martyn is a political consultant, web developer, and (former) journalist. He currently lives in Chicago, and his opinions are purely his own.