10/11/2012 11:26 am ET Updated Dec 11, 2012

Why Partisan Voting Makes Accountability Impossible

As the 2012 election nears, we are frequently reminded of the role partisanship plays in elections. As in other recent presidential elections, most states are proving to be consistently either "red" or "blue," with only a few being "swing states." The New York Times reported in August that "the actual share of voters nationally who are up for grabs is probably between just 3 percent and 5 percent in this election." And just as in other recent congressional elections, most House and Senate seats are likely to continue to be either Republican or Democrat, with very few seats switching parties. The same can be said for most other political offices around the country as well. Clearly, most Americans are partisans and vote the party line most of the time.

Do partisan voters really find that one party always serves their interests, while the other does not? Does a candidate's membership in a voter's preferred party automatically mean that a candidate will work in the voter's best interests, while a candidate from the opposing party will not? Is a partisan label more important than a candidate's qualifications, integrity, and grasp of issues? It seems odd that, despite so many government problems and with people (candidates) and government being so complex, Americans would so consistently use something as simple as party ID to choose who will run our government. What's going on here?

The theoretical justification for political parties is that they allow for collective accountability. Since decisions made in our democratic government require the agreement of numerous people and sometimes multiple branches of government, political parties, so the theory goes, are a way to hold a group of people collectively accountable. The assumption is that voters will maintain a running tally of each party's competence and appeal -- much like consumers do in the marketplace -- then adjust their partisanship based on this and vote accordingly.

But studies by political scientists have consistently found that only rarely do voters change their preferred party over time. People come to identify with a political party at a young age and, despite wars, recessions, and scandals, tend to maintain allegiance to and vote for candidates of that party throughout their life. This is a very important finding that has profound implications for democracy in America.

Political Scientists Donald Green, Bradley Palmquist, and Eric Schickler researched this situation and presented their findings in the book Partisan Hearts and Minds. What they found is that partisanship, rather than being based on objective evaluations of policies and party performance, can best be described as a social group, with the closest analogy being religious groups.

People who belong to a religion or religious denomination tend to adopt that religion early in life based on their family life and early adult socialization. Their choice tends to be made based on circumstance rather than a rigorous evaluation of various alternatives. Then, as members of that religion, they become indoctrinated into that religion's precepts, adhere to its distinctive underlying doctrines, and maintain (to varying degrees) an adversarial relationship toward other religions. Their religious affiliation becomes part of their social identity and self-conception, and tends to remain intact over time.

Party affiliation is similarly adopted early in life based on family life and early adult socialization, although politics may be less central to a person's thinking than religion is. Since political parties are somewhat associated with groups such as racial groups, religious groups, socioeconomic class, and geographic location, being part of particular groups tends to have a strong bearing on partisan identity. Once party identification is established it tends to crystallize, becoming part of a person's self-conception and social identity, and remains intact over time. As partisans, people become indoctrinated with their chosen party's issue positions and ideology.

Political scientist Matthew Levendusky has studied the process of political indoctrination, which he calls sorting, and wrote The Partisan Sort to describe it. According to Levendusky, "Most voters simply do not think about politics and political issues enough to possess the well-developed abstract belief systems characteristic of [political] elites (politicians and members of the news media)... Ordinary voters cannot form coherent views on a long list of issues, but they can look to elites for guidance on what positions they should take." In trying to make sense of political issues of the day, people "look to elites for guidance on what positions they should take, and adopt those positions." In a sense, they ask themselves "what do people like me (members of my party) think about this issue?" This causes people's attitudes on issues to move into alignment with their partisan affiliation. Republicans become anti-tax, pro-gun rights, and for a strong national defense, while Democrats become sympathetic to the plight of immigrants, pro-gay rights, and pro-life.

Identification with a political party also causes people to raise a perceptual screen that colors their perception of politicians and public affairs. People's evaluations of political figures become biased as politicians of their own party tend to be judged favorably, while politicians of the opposing party are judged unfavorably. Party supporters tend to accept information that is agreeable with their partisan beliefs and resist information that challenges their beliefs. This effect is compounded when they gravitate to news sources that support their partisan point of view, which they tend to do.

These partisan beliefs come to affect not only people's opinions, but also seemingly neutral facts. For example, in a 1988 survey a majority of respondents who described themselves as strong Democrats said that inflation had gotten worse over the eight years of the Reagan administration, when it had in fact fallen from 13.5 percent in 1980 to 4.1 percent in 1988. Conversely, in a 1996 survey, a majority of Republicans said that the federal budget deficit had increased under Bill Clinton, when in fact the deficit had shrunk from $255 billion to $22 billion. Similarly, surveys in 2004 found that beliefs about whether weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq were largely correlated with the political party respondents identified with, with Republicans tending to believe they had been found and Democrats believing they had not.

As people's beliefs become sorted along ideological lines their emotional responses to the parties becomes stronger. They take an interest in political news, much like sports fans follow the fortunes of sports teams and players and get caught up in the competition. But since partisan attachments are closely linked with their social identity and self-conception, people supporting their party are viewed as the "good guys" while those supporting the other party are seen as the "bad guys." The mass parties become increasingly ideologically homogenous and the country becomes divided into two warring camps, with each side consistently voting for candidates of their own party.

Partisans do at times vote for candidates of the opposing party, but this tends to be when those candidates are more familiar to them, as is often the case with incumbents or celebrity candidates. And while people's evaluations of their political party and its candidates may change over time, people's self-conception remains steady over time, which causes them to loyally return to support their party in the long term.

In this way, elections become less about issues than about group competition. People become engaged by the desire to see their group triumph over the opposing side, and voting allows them to participate directly in the fight. Even if someone finds a policy objective advocated by the opposing side appealing, the desire for victory over the opposition powerfully influences the probability that they will vote for candidates of their party in the election.

A surprising finding about partisanship is that the more politically informed people are the more strongly partisan they tend to be, with stronger views on political issues and greater loyalty to their party. The renowned "swing voters," on the other hand, tend to be the least informed, have the weakest party attachments, and are least likely to vote. For this reason politicians tend to spend their time firing up their partisan base than trying to win over independents in the middle.

The implications of this is that voting according to a preferred party does almost nothing to hold politicians accountable. If politicians of a particular political party know they can consistently rely on the support of a particular set of voters, there is very little incentive to work in their interest because there are no consequences for ignoring them. Meanwhile, politicians of the other party can safely assume that those voters will never be won over, so they have little incentive to work in their interests either.

It is difficult to see how collective responsibility could work at all. When voters look to a political party and attempt to hold it accountable, they are in effect overlooking the politicians who actually do the work and relieve them of any individual accountability. How is collective accountability possible with no individual accountability?

Individual accountability would require voters to communicate directly with their representatives, set their agenda, and hold them accountable for achieving it. This is how individual accountability works in any normal work environment, and it is hard to imagine why it would be different in politics. But in our democracy, voting is a binary form of communication, so nothing is communicated in elections other than a yes or no. Since each representative has many thousands or millions of constituents, two-way communication is impossible for more than a tiny few. And since our government is enormous and enormously complex, it is impractical for the average person to keep up with politics and the actions of each of their representatives to a degree that would allow for any real individual accountability.

This is the central problem with our democratic system of government -- accountability of any sort is impossible. And without accountability, government that is of, by, and for the people is merely a dream. All of the problems with our government and many in our society stem from this root problem.

Is there a solution to this problem?

Many corporations consist of millions of people, yet they are able to work efficiently and achieve amazing things. This is possible because CEOs delegate responsibility to a hierarchy of managers, with each manager reporting to their boss, and ultimately to the CEO. What results is an organization. CEOs don't have to know everything about everything and what everyone is doing -- that would be impossible. Each person in the organization is given only the amount of responsibility that he can realistically deal with. This allows one person to manage millions of others through a small number of top managers. The benefits of organizations are widely accepted throughout the world -- and are challenged by no one.

In these organizations, each person also reports to a single boss. This creates a clear chain of communication and accountability up and down the hierarchy. Similarly, businesses with regular customers generally assign one person to be the single point of contact for customers in order to avoid confusion and create accountability.

This model could easily be applied to representative democracy.

Rather than having to understand the job responsibilities of many representatives, learn about many candidates, and stay informed about the actions of many representatives, citizens should have only one government representative -- a single point of contact with the government. This would require small election districts for those representatives. Citizens would in effect be organized into communities, which would form the foundation that government is built upon. This would vastly simplify what is required of citizens, and it would compel people to participate by empowering them and bringing them together with their neighbors, who would become friends.

Representatives would need to be arranged into a hierarchy, with lower level representatives electing, setting the agenda of, and holding accountable higher level representatives. For instance, community representatives would elect the city council, who would elect the mayor. Community representatives would also elect state representatives, who would elect members of the U.S. House of Representatives, who would in turn elect the president. Citizens would be connected to all levels of government by a chain of connected representatives.

In this scenario, citizens would gain political power by giving up what are now many powerless votes and trading them for a single elected representative that they can realistically work with. This would allow the people to manage the government via a hierarchy of representatives. Government would no longer be the distant, uncontrollable, unaccountable monstrosity that it is today.

We have thought through such a system of democracy and we call it Local Electors, which is also the name we've given to the community representatives. You can learn more about it at

The problem is not members of the other political party, or political parties themselves. The problem is a system of government that makes accountability impossible. It is hard to imagine how an unaccountable government could not cause more problems for the American people. As long as citizens are unable to control the government, special interests will step in and get government to work in their interest, which is typically contrary to the public interest.

What problems and injustices in our society bother you? Multi-trillion dollar preemptive wars, devastating financial crises, widespread environmental destruction, out of control health care costs, the lack of immigration reform? Whatever it is, the only way those problems can be addressed is by a government that is truly accountable to the people. We believe a system of Local Electors would do just that and if you learn more about it we think you will agree.

Don't wait for someone else to decide your future. Real democracy comes with real responsibility, and only by taking personal responsibility can you ever realistically expect real change -- that's what democracy is all about. Please share this article with your friends so we can move down the path to real political accountability.