In 2008, Senator Barack Obama was opposed to gay marriage and worried vaccines might cause autism. A few years later he said neither of those things.

Did Democrats flip to being pro-science and the party followed and then the President reflected those polls? Perhaps he changed from stating party platforms based on voter beliefs to his own once he was elected, then he changed the party, and then the party led its members, finds results in a new paper on party and personal political polarization

The humanities scholars in political science wanted to examine both sides of this relationship – whether parties follow citizens and vice versa, particularly in countries outside of the U.S. They compiled a dataset consisting of 174 election surveys which allowed the researchers to look at party and citizen polarization across 19 democracies from 1971 to 2019, which they believe to be the most comprehensive look at polarization across time and space.”

They found that it is mostly citizens who follow parties. In particular, more politically engaged and informed citizens are the ones most likely and immediately to polarize after parties polarize.

“We typically think of democracies as systems where political elites represent and respond to the interests of citizens, but we found less support for this idea than you might expect,” said co-author and Binghamton University political science professor Robin Best. “I was surprised that we didn’t find more support for the expectation that parties polarize in response to citizen preferences, and that it really seemed to be parties that were leading the process.

“Citizens often take their cues from political parties on how to think about political issues. We are seeing this a lot in the U.S. lately regarding the pandemic, but it applies to lots of other issues as well. People often rely on political parties as a source of information, so it makes sense to expect them to follow the lead of parties and other political elites.”

The researchers are currently writing a paper that investigates how political polarization affects how well the policy preferences of citizens match those of their governments.