Fay Lomax Cook Finds Partisan Polarization Affects Energy Policy

Fay Lomax Cook Finds Partisan Polarization Affects Energy Policy

Fay Cook
Research by SESP professor Fay Lomax Cook and political science professor Jamie Druckman found that party divisions matter when it comes to Americans’ support for energy policy. These political divisions affect people’s knowledge, attitudes and policy preferences about traditional energy sources, such as oil and coal, and alternative energy sources like solar, wind and nuclear. Cook is director of the Institute for Policy Research, where Druckman is a faculty fellow.

 In multiple opinion surveys, Druckman, Cook, and former Northwestern PhD student Toby Bolsen presented a single energy policy to different groups but changed the policy’s sponsor in order to see how that would affect support for the policy. They found that respondents, particularly when reminded about partisan divisions, supported the policy when told it was sponsored by their political party of choice but then rejected the same policy when attributed to another party.

“We’re currently experiencing the most polarization we’ve ever seen,” Druckman says. “People tend to focus on political party more than on the content of the policy.”

Druckman, Cook, and Bolsen began their work three years ago by conducting a search of all questions that were asked in opinion polls since 1974 to examine the extent to which attitudes changed over time. They continued their work on opinions about energy policy in summer 2010 by conducting the first-ever, integrated survey of members of the public, energy scientists and policymakers. They are analyzing the data now and plan to present their conclusions in the fall. 

“Scholars don’t know much about the extent to which energy scientists, policymakers and the public agree,” Cook says. “Where there’s agreement, policy can build on that agreement.”

The team also conducted surveys around the topics of the energy behaviors of individuals and the politicization of science. They are interested in seeing how politicization affects research and the development of new technologies. For example, they administered surveys in which the questions were framed differently to different groups. Sometimes the questions were asked after a discussion of the virtues of science and other times after a discussion that politicized science. Their research was funded by the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern.

“Even if there is great science, new policies only survive with public support,” Druckman says. “It’s important to see how people think.”

When Druckman and Cook started their research into energy opinions, they were surprised that the area had not been widely studied. Druckman says that having a social science component to the study of climate change and energy policies is important. “If you don’t understand opinion and opinion formation, then you won’t have a full view,” he says.

With discussion about climate change and energy policy becoming increasingly politicized, this research is particularly critical. The success of energy initiatives ultimately depends on public acceptance. According to Druckman and Cook, politicians rarely pass new policies in the face of public opposition, and public policies, even when implemented, seldom succeed if the public disregards them.

By Amanda Morris
Last Modified: 7/20/17