Americans often change their ideologies based on partisan priorities, says Michael Barber, a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. This includes how Americans respond to sex scandals — partisan responses to the President Trump-Stormy Daniels story are almost exactly the opposite of party reactions to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal in the ’90s.
Barber (@mbarber83) speaks with Here & Now‘s Meghna Chakrabarti about how both parties show willingness to change moral standards to fit a partisan agenda.
On whether partisanship is taking precedence over moral underpinnings
“I think sadly, yes. Partisanship is an incredibly strong identity among Americans, and once people begin to affiliate with a party, either party, that tends to color nearly everything that they see: the news that they consume, the type of news that they consume, how they process that news and then eventually the opinions that they form based on the news that they’re consuming. And so it touches not only on political issues that seem relevant to partisanship — taxes and other policies that partisanship should have an effect on — but they touch in many cases every aspect of people’s lives, well beyond the kind of immediate political considerations.”
On if one party has historically been more likely to believe “immoral” behavior impacts a politician’s ability to govern
“If you look at the survey research that’s been done recently and in the past, there’s really not one party that claims a kind of moral right to this question. So, right now Democrats overwhelmingly believe that a candidate or a legislator’s morality is important in whether or not they can govern effectively. But if you look back several decades to the Bill Clinton era, it basically reverses, and Republicans were the party that said that a politician’s private life was absolutely essential in making a decision as to whether they could govern effectively.
“Going back prior to that, it’s really harder to get at. There’s not a lot of public-opinion data that asks the question. It’s only been within the last few decades that we’ve really discussed the private lives of politicians as much as we do. We have a number of prior presidents and other quite famous politicians who have had quite a number of personal foibles, I suppose you could say, but they didn’t necessarily make it into the public discourse like they have recently.”
On voters who are willing to change their opinions or views based on party affiliation
“So the research that we conducted, and my co-author Jeremy Pope and I worked on this, was we wanted to see, ‘Well, are people conservative because they are Republican, or are they Republican because they are conservative?’ And what we found was that in many cases, people’s conservative issue positions really aren’t that fixed. In fact, they’re very willing to move their issues in a liberal or a conservative direction if they think that that’s the direction that their party is moving. And so when we told people that Donald Trump had taken a liberal position on a variety of issues, we actually found that a number of Republicans were very happy to quickly adopt that very liberal position, which indicated to us that in fact partisanship was a much more powerful motivator of people’s opinions than actual kind of ideological underpinnings of those issues. So yeah, we thought that was really interesting, that in fact partisanship can kind of lead people in directions that they may not actually think at first.”
On whether their research found something similar on the Democratic side
“You know, we wanted to look at that and we would love to study that. But at the moment, it was a little difficult, because we couldn’t find an analogous Democratic leader who has taken so many both liberal and conservative positions. So the president allowed us to study this among Republicans because he’s the leader of the Republican Party, but he’s also taken a number of conservative and liberal positions on a variety of issues. When we went looking for a Democratic leader who has done something similar, we kind of came up short. We weren’t able to find anyone who could quite fit that position. Hillary Clinton has been consistently liberal on a number of issues, Bernie Sanders, much the same way, Obama, former President Clinton, more or less the same thing.”
On what his findings say about polarization in America
“I think that if you discuss the issue outside of the political realm, I think that we find there’s actually quite a lot of agreement among Americans about what is moral and ethical behavior. The problem is that once you attach that to a partisan leader, then it begins to take on more of a political and almost kind of battle-hardened approach. And so people are no longer kind of considering just the issue, they’re considering it in the context of, ‘My group, and will my group or party come out the victor in this fight with the other party.’ And so once things become politicized or brought in under the umbrella of politics, I think that’s when we see people can’t agree on these what would seem to be pretty easily agreeable issues.”
On lessons for how to depoliticize and find common ground
“Yeah that would be great. Much of our research shows that it’s possible to do that, but it really depends on the leaders of the party, that they do in fact lead, and that the regular rank-and-file members of the party tend to follow the positions that they have. And so if Donald Trump were to come out tomorrow with a new policy that flew in the face of traditional Republican policies, there’s a good proportion of Republicans that would probably immediately say, ‘Yeah, we are for this now.’ There’s still a number of people who would probably reluctantly say, ‘Well I don’t know about that.’ I think his recent announcement of of tariffs is a great example of this. There’s a number of people who have said, ‘OK, yeah, we’re for tariffs now,’ even though traditionally Republicans have been very much the party of free trade.”