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Imperial Rome became Italy; de Tocqueville's America becomes what?


While I have often wondered how Romans became Italians, I have only recently begun to wonder what became of de Tocqueville's American citizens and what has replaced them. That painful quandary was laid bare by Menand's The Unpolitical Animal, which starts off well enough with political philosophy that de Tocqueville would recognize: individual rational choice, appreciation of consequences, voter rationality between the preferred philosophies of governance by left and right, and the undecided who see any rote commitment as curiously fanatic, et al.

That opening paragraph is the last thing that de Tocqueville would recognize as Menard cuts to a collection of articles drawn from the pages of Campaigns & Elections: The Magazine for People in Politics, and the message could not be more different:

Don’t assume that your candidate’s positions are going to make the difference. "In a competitive political climate," as one article explains, "informed citizens may vote for a candidate based on issues. However, uninformed or undecided voters will often choose the candidate whose name and packaging are most memorable. To make sure your candidate has that ‘top-of-mind’ voter awareness, a powerful logo is the best place to start." You want to present your candidate in language that voters will understand. They understand colors. "Blue is a positive color for men, signaling authority and control," another article advises. "But it’s a negative color for women, who perceive it as distant, cold and aloof. Red is a warm, sentimental color for women—and a sign of danger or anger to men. If you use the wrong colors to the wrong audience, you’re sending a mixed message."

It goes downhill from there, but back to first principles: Converse's 1964 The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics in which Converse saw two classes of voters:

  • Ideologues: the ten percent "of the public [that] has what can be called, even generously, a political belief system," who "have a reasonable grasp of "what goes with what"—of how a set of opinions adds up to a coherent political philosophy."
  • Non-ideologues: the all-others, whatever their preferred label, who "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… logically ought to rule out other opinions."

These non-ideologues either "vote on the basis not of ideology but of perceived self-interest…, form political preferences either from their sense of whether times are good or bad… or from factors that have no discernible "issue content" whatever."

But what about public opinion? Converse believed that people feel compelled to voice an opinion, but survey analysis indicates that "people tended to give different and randomly inconsistent answers to the same questions," i.e., the public holds "opinions that are essentially meaningless—off-the-top-of-the-head responses to questions they have never thought about, derived from no underlying set of principles."

Fast forward to today, three theories jostle:

  1. Electoral outcomes are essentially arbitrary, the will of the people being carried by "slogans, misinformation, "fire alarms" (sensational news), "October surprises" (last-minute sensational news), random personal associations, and "gotchas.""
  2. "Democracies are really oligarchies with a populist face," i.e., in the face of incomplete information, people's opinions and preferences are dictated by elite opinion. Political campaigns essentially become "struggles among that elite," those able to draw ideological differences and see policy implications.
  3. People use shortcuts, "heuristics," to reach judgments about political candidates. This intuitive "low-information rationality" is a good enough substitute for the richer data set.

Only heuristics offers me hope, but it makes me queasy that voters can consistently substitute cue interpretation and elite selection for informed, reasoned judgment.

Continuing Converse, Morris Fiorina feels that the electorate is not polarized and that there are very modest differences between red-blue states. It is the elites that are highly ideological, polarized -- what I have to come to call "shouters," most of whom are on the right and many of those are on Fox and talk radio -- a fact that continues to frighten me as so many of these sources alternately use bogus and biased data and badger those that disagree.

If the elites polarize and then one side can shout down/blot out the other, then I despair that the electorate can get the accurate shortcuts and cues to vote for the foreign policy, and those who would implement it, that is in the electorate's long term best interest.

Parle Italiano?

The Unpolitical Animal
How political science understands voters
by Louis Menand
New Yorker
Issue of 2004-08-30
Posted 2004-08-23

Democracy in America
Volume I, 1835 and Volume II, 1840
Alexis de Tocqueville

The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics
Philip Converse, 1964, In Ideology and Discontent. Edited by David Apter. New York: Free Press, 206-261

Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America
Great Questions in Politics Series
by Morris P. Fiorina, Samuel J. Abrams, Jeremy C. Pope

Gordon Housworth

InfoT Public  Strategic Risk Public  


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