October 1, 2013
What are the costs of “issue ownership”? When it comes to governing, they include ignoring citizens’ preferences in devising legislation and implementing policies.
In Partisan Priorities: How Issue Ownership Drives and Distorts American Politics (Cambridge), Patrick Egan, an assistant professor in NYU's Wilf Family Department of Politics, notes that Americans consistently name Republicans as the party better at handling issues like national security and crime, while they trust Democrats on issues like education and the environment – a long-standing phenomenon called “issue ownership.”
Egan investigates the origins of issue ownership, revealing something unexpected: the parties deliver neither superior performance nor popular policies on the issues they “own.” Rather, he finds that Republicans and Democrats simply prioritize their owned issues with lawmaking and government spending when they are in power.
But this is problematic, Egan posits. One, since the parties tend to be ideologically rigid on the issues they own, politicians tend to ignore citizens' preferences when crafting policy on these issues, distorting the relationship between these preferences and public policies. Two, issue ownership becomes synonymous with perceived effectiveness, which diminishes lawmakers’ accountability.
“The fact that there is no detectable relationship between parties’ control of government and improvement on the issues the public says they are best able to ‘handle’ leaves few reasons for optimism about accountability,” Egan concludes. “When deciding which party is better able to handle a given issue, Americans appear to equate effort with results.”