Say It Ain't So

Jeff Alworth

Tucked into the back of last week's New Yorker (folks out here might call it "this week's"--we run about five days behind the East Coast on delivery times) was an astonishing article called "The Unpolitical Animal." In it, Louis Menand argued that Americans are essentially clueless about politics--they don't know why they vote for a candidate, don't know what s/he stands for, don't know what the issues are, and don't even know what they themselves believe.

(I thought, in the spirit of political surrealism, it might be nice to mention this as we enter four excruciating days of GOP spin.)

"Findings about the influence of the weather on voter behavior are among the many surveys and studies that confirm Converse’s sense of the inattention of the American electorate. In election years from 1952 to 2000, when people were asked whether they cared who won the Presidential election, between twenty-two and forty-four per cent answered 'don’t care' or 'don’t know.' In 2000, eighteen per cent said that they decided which Presidential candidate to vote for only in the last two weeks of the campaign; five per cent, enough to swing most elections, decided the day they voted."

This is, apparently, not news to poli sci heads. (As I spent my college days hanging with the black turtleneck crowd in the humanities building, it is news to me.) A study forty years ago first discovered the depths of American political ignorance, and those findings have yet to be seriously challenged.

"The data were interpreted most powerfully by the political scientist Philip Converse, in an article on "The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics," published in 1964.... Converse claimed that only around ten per cent of the public has what can be called, even generously, a political belief system. He named these people 'ideologues,' by which he meant not that they are fanatics but that they have a reasonable grasp of 'what goes with what'—of how a set of opinions adds up to a coherent political philosophy. Non-ideologues may use terms like 'liberal' and 'conservative,' but Converse thought that they basically don’t know what they’re talking about, and that their beliefs are characterized by what he termed a lack of 'constraint': they can’t see how one opinion (that taxes should be lower, for example) logically ought to rule out other opinions (such as the belief that there should be more government programs). About forty-two per cent of voters, according to Converse’s interpretation of surveys of the 1956 electorate, vote on the basis not of ideology but of perceived self-interest. The rest form political preferences either from their sense of whether times are good or bad (about twenty-five per cent) or from factors that have no discernible 'issue content' whatever. Converse put twenty-two per cent of the electorate in this last category. In other words, about twice as many people have no political views as have a coherent political belief system."

It hardly bears mentioning that the news gets worse. Menand points out that 70% of Americans can't name their senators or congresspeople; only a third can name a single issue that explains why they voted the way they did; 80% hold inconsistent opinions over time. In fact:

"In a paper written in 2004, the Princeton political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels estimate that '2.8 million people voted against Al Gore in 2000 because their states were too dry or too wet' as a consequence of that year’s weather patterns. Achen and Bartels think that these voters cost Gore seven states, any one of which would have given him the election."

Menand writes this article in the context of the political conventions. He notes that such frivolous campaign elements as color scheme and the perception of positivity are far more persuasive to the average voter than issues. (Women like red, men blue.)

Based on the data, it's hard to see how he's wrong. Hell, based on the current president, it's hard to see how he's wrong. But then, I'm a humanities guy. Maybe one of you poly sci folk can explain the silver lining in all of this. Otherwise, we'd better hope the weather cooperates on November 2.

  • Brian Wagner (unverified)

    Jeff, I just finished reading Menand's book, The Metaphysical Club. Based on the amazing quality of his writing there, I'd be willing to believe him if he said that the moon was made of gorgonzala. But I don't know how negatively I take what he has to say, as he mentioned, most people's intuitive guesses are just as good as if they had done extensive research. I myself often make intuitive guesses and call them good--that doesn't worry me that much. I do doubt the weather data a little--it just seems like one of those figures that is created a posteriori, with a little bit of wishful belief thrown in to make it true.

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    Brian wrote: "I do doubt the weather data a little--it just seems like one of those figures that is created a posteriori..."

    Exactly right, Brian. After all, four hundred years of research in Europe shows that birth rates of human babies rise and fall with the population of storks. Ergo, storks bring babies.

    Most "real" people vote in a very simplistic, and yet, valid way. They look at the candidates, and figure out who's supporting them - and which of those supporters they trust. In other words, Joe Voter doesn't need to re-examine policy positions from the ground up every time because there's someone else they already trust (say, an activist group or another elected official or public notable) who's made an endorsement.

    And, frankly, that's usually good enough for general election candidate races.

  • pat hayes (unverified)

    Jeff...Forgive me if I seem to fault your background. I'm in the midst of moving from reactionary Montana to less reactionary Oregon and have limited time and access on-line living in the camper. I'm a polisci type and have spent 30 plus years involved in grass roots organizing in rural communities. The findings are absolutely no surprise to me. Montana is the perfect example of an economy with a high dependence on public spending and voting patterns reflecting the mythology of the "independent" westerner. As Spock would say..."highly illogical". It is an interesting phenomenon that bears further investigation. For those of us who believe that the strength of community depends on an informed electorate the findings are depressing.

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    I tend to agree with you all on these points, too. After all, if it were completely up to chance, we wouldn't see voting trends. To the extent that there are voting trends, Menand would call these a "social" trend--that is, they are responsive to the trends themselves (and, as Brian pointed out, people look to each other as a shortcut to looking at the issues). So all is not lost.

    But while I don't have a background in poly sci, I have bumbled into a job analyzing stats. I've grown a lot more confident in findings, particularly when they are replicated time and again. So I'm a little less willing to dismiss the unsavory implications nested in these findings.

    Because Americans are uneducated on the issues, it means they're far more susceptible to perceived received wisdom. In the golden age of progressivism, public opinion was not as subject to rich idealogues who owned the vast majority of broadcast media. People now respond to messages not from their neighbors, but from a minority of wealthy elites. If Bush ends up winning this election, it will demonstrate the dangers of an electorate content to listen to "authorities" rather than investigating the issues. It will further demonstrate how a group representing a tiny faction can create the impression of broad agreement that ... creates broad agreement.

  • The Prof (unverified)


    From a Poly Sci type, Menand's article is riddled with inaccuracies. It would require a one hour lecture to detail them. Things are far less black than Menand makes them out to be.

    Most importantly, it is wrong to say that Converse has been unchallenged. For a different point of view, look at Samuel Popkin's book, The Reasoning Voter . You may come out with a very different perspetive.

    Your later post makes the common claim that media information is narrower, more elitist, presumably you also mean more conservative, than in some golden age in the past.

    Can't agree. The mass media are far more diverse, accessible, and informative than it was twenty years ago and certainly 120 years ago.

    It's common to refer to the "golden" age of yore as somehow superior to today, but history just ain't with you.

    The "golden" age of Progressivism was one where there was no radio or TV or Internet; where newspapers were openly partisan; where much of the public voted straight party tickets; and where most news outlets were controlled by a small number of media barons.

    Look, you are on Doesn't that tell you at least something about how the possibilities for media information today are far different? If not, then browse through the 20 or so different news channels on cable, or the 1000's of newspapers available on your computer, or the two dozen or so newsmagazines at the local library, or ...

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    I'm delighted to take your word on the Converse-Popkin debate. The post was, in some ways, a provocation to have my thesis disproved. I was hoping for some wiggle room in Menand's interpretation.

    But I think you've got it wrong on the media. Particularly: "The mass media are far more diverse, accessible, and informative than it was twenty years ago and certainly 120 years ago."

    Leave aside 120 years ago for the moment (though it supports the general thesis--that was roughly the Guilded Age). There are certainly more outlets for news--cable and the internet ensure that. But we're not talking about availability, at least not in the context of the informed voter, we're talking consumption. The average American now has at his/her disposal literally hundreds of news sites from around the globe. But the news that the average American actually consumes is filtered through the stations owned by an increasingly tiny number of multinational corporations.

    The great progressive era to which I refered was 1932-'68. During that time, ownership of newspapers, radio stations, and television stations was far, far more diverse than it is now. Many, probably most (no stats handy) were locally-owned, an increasingly rare phenomenon now. The national news was broadcast--that is, sent to broad swaths of the public--from just three news stations. But to argue that now the broadcast news comes from any wider diversity of sources just because there are more channels is a stretch. And now, because the stations are increasingly owned by a consolidated few, there's nothing to offset that top-down flow.

    In England, breweries own taverns, a relationship known as the tied-house system. In the US, regulators sought to break up this monopoly and created beer distributors. The thought was to protect the consumer, who might like more variety than the local brewery could provide. In media relationships, we've essentially reversed that process, going back to a tied-house system. Now media producers are the same as the retailers--and the choice is lost. Consumers of news now have, I would argue, far less variety nationally than they did 50 years ago.

    Blue Oregon is definitely a response to that information flow. I've been blogging for nearly two years now, mainly because I feel blogs have a place in the flow of ideas and information that the corporate-owned media can't provide. There are some other virtures--having this conversation, for example.

    But let's not kid ourselves. Those voters Converse described in 1964 are no better informed in 2004 just because Blue Oregon exists.

    <h2>(Maybe by 2008...)</h2>

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