Cognitive Political Economy: A Growing Partisan Divide in Economic Perceptions

AuthorJohn A. Ferejohn,David W. Brady,Brett Parker
DOI10.1177/1532673X211032107
Published date01 January 2022
Date01 January 2022
Subject MatterArticles
https://doi.org/10.1177/1532673X211032107
American Politics Research
© The Author(s) 2021
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DOI: 10.1177/1532673X211032107
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Article
Gerber and Green (1999) asserted that partisanship did not
appear to significantly impact beliefs about the economy,
concluding that “[b]eliefs and evaluations do change by
approximately the same degree among those with different
political allegiances” (p. 205). Specifically, they point to
their own 1997 piece, in which their analyses of survey data
showed “Democrats, Republicans and Independents moved
together in their evaluation of which party was best able to
handle the nation’s economy” (pp. 206–207).
Gerber and Green’s earlier view has since been ques-
tioned (including by Gerber himself). In 2002, Larry Bartels
made the case to the contrary explicit, arguing that party
identification is a “pervasive dynamic force in shaping
citizens’ perceptions of and reaction to the political world”
(p. 119). Using data that tracked opinions of George H.W.
Bush’s handling of the U.S. economy prior to his reelection
bid, as well as evaluations of economic phenomena during
the Reagan years, he demonstrated that partisans in fact
appear to filter information about the economy differently.
He concluded that partisan biases in political and eco-
nomic perceptions played an important role in maintaining
and reinforcing sharp differences between Democrats and
Republicans.
In the years following Bartels’ article, political scientists
have devoted extensive attention to the consequences of par-
tisanship (e.g., Bisgaard, 2015; Iyengar & Westwood, 2014).
In particular, they have continued to comment on the distinc-
tive ways in which partisans perceive the economy. As
Bartels indicated, partisanship is thought to produce biases in
these perceptions; in the last 20 years, a consensus has
emerged among scholars that partisans are comparatively
more optimistic about the economy when their party controls
the executive branch than they are otherwise (Bartels, 2002;
Erikson, 2004; Gerber & Huber, 2009). Similarly, research
has found that a sudden shift in partisan control of Congress
can produce changes in the economic attitudes of partisans
(Gerber & Huber, 2010).
To this point, however, academics in the field have
focused primarily on demonstrating the existence of parti-
san differences in economic perceptions. Efforts toward
determining how the size of those differences has changed
in recent years and uncovering the causes of this perceptual
polarization have been more limited. This gap in the litera-
ture is puzzling. A surface level glance at partisan economic
perceptions suggests that they have grown markedly over
the past 20 years, and have become an increasingly salient
political phenomenon. As Figure 1a to d indicate, partisan
differences in economic perceptions have increased from
about 20 percentage-points at the beginning of the Bush II
Administration to a maximum of 73 percentage-points dur-
ing the Trump administration. Moreover, the perceptions of
1032107APRXXX10.1177/1532673X211032107American Politics ResearchBrady et al.
research-article2021
1Stanford University, CA, USA
2New York University School of Law, USA
Corresponding Author:
Brett Parker, Stanford University, 531 Lasuen Mall, P.O. Box 12496,
Stanford, CA 94309, USA.
Email: bparker2@stanford.edu
Cognitive Political Economy: A Growing
Partisan Divide in Economic Perceptions
David W. Brady1, John A. Ferejohn2, and Brett Parker1
Abstract
Research suggests that American partisans are increasingly distinct in their beliefs. These strengthened partisan feelings
extend to economic perceptions—as numerous scholars have shown, there is a substantial gap between the proportion
of Democrats and the proportion of Republicans that believe the economy is improving. Here, we examine the extent to
which these perceptions have polarized over the past two decades and the degree to which they still respond to objective
economic indicators. Exploiting a Gallup time-series, we show that the gap in economic perceptions approximately doubled
between 1999 and 2020, and that partisan economic perceptions no longer seem to converge during economic crises. We
further demonstrate that the economic perceptions of Democrats and Republicans have polarized relative to Independents
and that this polarization is not asymmetric in magnitude. Collectively, these results document the extraordinary rise of
perceptual polarization and illustrate that neither Democrats nor Republicans are immune to its effects.
Keywords
polarization, public opinion, economic perceptions, perceptual bias, economic crises
2022, Vol. 50(1) 3 –16

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