In my mind, one of the biggest challenges facing IPE research is how to accurately model the link between interest formation and interest aggregation. (SBD said something about this in conversation the other day, and i've been mulling it over since.) Quite often in IPE we infer interests from economic models. E.g., the scarce factor/sector of production should prefer trade protectionism, while the abundant factor/sector should prefer openness. Or we infer "government" preferences based on the partisan composition of the ruling coalition or executive. I think we all know that these are shortcuts that can't be justified in all circumstances, but as a first cut these types of assumptions often make sense.
But sociologist Fabio Rojas has some newish research (with Michael Heaney) arguing that political mobilization is highly dependent on contextual factors, even if political preferences remain constant. They produce the above graph showing that Democrats stopped showing up to anti-war rallies after Obama became president, and conclude:
Social movements and parties rely on each other. Movements benefit when partisans appear because they can bolster their numbers. Parties use movements as platform for partisan grievances. But there’s a drawback, electoral victories mean that the rank and file will stop showing up.
People don't want to mobilize against their own side.
Some have been perplexed by the Obama administration's foreign policies. Not only has he not reversed some of the Bush administration's detainee policies as he promised he would during the campaign, but he's escalated in Afghanistan and Yemen, and now gotten involved in Libya. This research suggests that one of the reasons he's taken these actions is because he is not constrained by partisans from either party: Democrats will tend to stand by their man, and Republicans tend to favor (or not oppose) military action in general. As the researchers say:
“What’s left in the antiwar movement today is the hardcore,” Heaney said in the interview, “the people who are more or less professional activists. It’s just a small group of people that’s left.”
In other words, this is not the median Democratic voter, much less the median voter in the general population.
This research was just picked up by ABC News, and for good reason. It suggests that we may need to complicate our inference-based models of interest formation and aggregation. It also suggests that if we do, we have an opportunity to get a handle on many substantive questions of interest.