Following The Herd Off A Cliff

by Maggie Deichert

Illustrated by  Jacob Thomas

Illustrated by Jacob Thomas

Politics is stressful, frustrating, and trying; it can be complicated and convoluted, and frequently can seem irrelevant to our daily lives. Not only do we blame politicians for failing to address our primary concerns, but we also tend to think our ability to influence political affairs is limited, if not non-existent.

As a result, rather than collect and wrestle with enough political information to be thoroughly informed – many people reach their policy decisions by relying, often subconsciously, on various types of cognitive shortcuts.[1] For many of us, the cost of taking time to consume masses of political information far outweighs the perceived benefits, and, thus, we rely on cues to make quick, albeit potentially more inaccurate, political decisions.

One way to minimize the information gathering process is to consider the source of the information. This sort of cue downplays
a policy’s merits, and instead emphasizes our feelings towards the source – including our perceptions of the sources’ credibility.[2] If we like the source and view them as credible, we support the policy. Relying
on this shortcut of course varies by individual, but in today’s highly- polarized and hyper-partisan environment, our evaluations of sources are almost singularly shaped by whether the source shares our political identification.[3]

Although people have long held strong psychological attachments to their political party, akin to how people feel about their sports teams,[4] this attachment has become particularly strong in the past
few decades.[5] Party identity has become our political identity: we feel a visceral connection to, and trust in, our co-partisans, with whom we happily join in on disparaging the other side. The party’s success is our success, and this identity is now the guiding light of political (and in some cases, social) evaluations.[6]

So, in order to make otherwise complex decisions simple and easy, people in the United States ultimately rely on party cues, or source cues from party leaders, to formulate their policy opinions. Recently, several prominent liberal Democrat elites, like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, have adopted an “abolish ICE” position. As a result, the policy position is gaining support among some Democratic voters.[7] Partisans feel positively towards their own political elites and negatively towards opposing leaders, and they only see their own side as credible. As a result, partisans mindlessly adopt the expressed positons of their party leaders, including politicians and journalists (i.e. MSNBC or Fox News). Partisans also unthinkingly avoid, devalue, or discredit (referring to something as fake news, for example) policies and opinions expressed by the other side.[8] For instance, Republican elites strategically rebranded the Affordable Care Act as Obamacare to directly connect the Democratic President with the policy and firmly establish a negative attitude towards the policy among the Republican masses.[9] Situations where the parties hold more distinctly divergent issue-positions amplify this blind partisan support. In these contexts, like our current political environment, partisans’ opinions are moved by policy endorsements from their own party even when the other party’s argument is stronger and more logically sound.[10]

But, what if the position of our party changes, and the co-partisan sources we like now endorse a policy that we had previously opposed, based on party identification? Do we just blindly follow the rhetoric and advice of our party and switch our position with them, or do
we hold firm and point out the hypocrisy? For the most part, it’s the former. A study conducted in the early 2000s in the United States found that party supporters changed their positions to realign with the shifting policy positions of their party, across a broad array of issues. Only those who held strong preexisting beliefs about the issue were not swayed by their party’s shift and instead altered their partisanship.[11] Similar results have been found in other countries, too.[12]

These studies, however, are relatively optimistic, because they assume that people know and can track changes in parties’ policy positions. Gabriel Lenz (2012), however, finds that rather than changing policy opinions to realign with their party, the majority of partisans do not know parties’ specific policies at all; instead, they learn and adopt positions, based on source cues, in real-time.[13] There is no long-standing tracking of parties’ flips and flops, only short-term policy learning. And, because there is minimal knowledge of party policies, parties can move their positions quickly when it benefits them. In some instances, parties who hold unpopular issue-positions have adopted the opinion of the opponent party, when it is more popular, to minimize the difference between party platforms. This strategic behavior reduces the salience of the issue and preserves the parties’ support and, in some cases, electoral victory.

Essentially, the results of these studies suggest that politicians can, in terms of policy, say and do whatever they want (or need to do for reelection), and the public will use party cues to blindly follow: party first, policy second. In this sense, source cues are a double- edged sword: They help us by simplifying the political world, but hurt us by making us inconsistent, mindless, and easily-manipulated. It may be, then, that the costs of source cues outweigh their benefits.

To express educated and personally-reflective positions, we
need to engage in politics outside of the confines of our partisan tribes. Taking the time to educate ourselves on various policies and evaluate which of these are important to us, regardless of our partisan identity, can be a useful, but admittedly difficult, way to move towards less reliance on and susceptibility to party cues. (Indeed, evidence suggests that the people who are politically more aware are less reliant on party cues in their decision-making process.)[14] There are websites, like, that can be a helpful aid in this process and help people make informed policy-based vote choices.

Often this can seem challenging or not worth the time and effort because in the U.S., we only have two viable options from which to choose, one of which is usually unpalatable to us. However, there are party primaries, which often include an ideologically diverse array of candidates (think Clinton vs. Sanders or Trump vs. Kasich). These elections, which exist at almost every level of political office, are a place where we can make a policy-based vote and find a candidate (within our party) who more acutely embodies our personal policy priorities and positions.

This new empowerment from knowing where we stand on
the issues that matter to us can give us even greater, more genuine ownership over our political identities. Our conversations with members of the other party can be more informed, and we can know which lines in the sand to draw, why we are doing, and when it is best. Finally, by taking the extra time and effort to reorient political decision-making around policy evaluation, rather than affect toward a party, we can reinvigorate and reclaim our role in U.S. democracy as the “consent of the governed,” as thoughtful participants, rather than unthinking followers.

[1] Mondak, Jeffrey J. 1993. “Public Opinion and Heuristic Processing of Source Cues.” Political Behavior. 15(2): 167-192.

[2] Mondak, Jeffrey J. 1993. “Source Cues and Policy Approval: The Cognitive Dynamics of Public Support for the Reagan Agenda.” American Journal of Political Science. 37(1): 186-212

[3] Cohen, Geoffrey L. 2003. “Party Over Policy: The Dominating Impact of Group Influence on Political Beliefs.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 85(5):808-822.

[4] Campbell, Angus, Phillip E. Converse, Warren E. Miller, and Donald E. Stokes. 1960. The American Voter. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

[5] Hetherington, Marc. “Resurgent Mass Partisanship: The Role of Elite Polarization.” American Political Science Review. 95(3): 619-631

[6] Green, Donald, Bradley Palmquist, and Eric Schickler. 2004. Partisan Hearts and Minds. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.


[8] Kam, Cindy D. 2005. “Who Toes the Party Line? Cues, Values, and Individual Differences.” Political Behavior. 27(2):163-182; Cohen, Geoffrey L. 2003. “Party Over Policy: The Dominating Impact of Group Influence on Political Beliefs.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 85(5):808-822; Slothuus, Rune and Claes H. de Vreese. 2010. “Political Parties, Motivated Reasoning, and Issue Framing Effects.” The Journal of Politics. 72(3): 630-645



10] Druckman, James N., Erik Peterson, and Rune Slothuus. 2013. “How Elite Partisan Polarization Affects Public Opinion Formation.” American Political Science Review. 107(1):57-79.

[11] Carsey, Thomas M. and Geoffrey C. Layman. 2006. “Changing Sides or Changing Minds? Party Identification and Policy Preferences in the American Electorate.” American Journal of Political Science. 50(2): 464-477 Slothuus, Rune. 2010. “When Can Political Parties Lead Public Opinion? Evidence from a Natural Experiment.” Political Communication. 27(2):158-177

[12] Slothuus, Rune. 2010. “When Can Political Parties Lead Public Opinion? Evidence from a Natural Experiment.” Political Communication. 27(2):158-177

[13] Lenz, Gabriel. Follow the Leader? How Voters Respond to Politicians’ Policies and Performance. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.


14] Kam, Cindy D. 2005. “Who Toes the Party Line? Cues, Values, and Individual Differences.” Political Behavior. 27(2):163-182.

Illustrated by Jacob Thomas