The Null Device

The Mass Psychology of Democracy

Via tyrsalvia, a fascinating article on why people vote as they do. As many have undoubtedly suspected, very few people vote rationally, i.e., considering and understanding the issues or policy platforms in question, with the vast majority of votes being cast for reasons unconnected to ideology, political belief or the candidates' visions:
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.

Philip Converse's study, published in 1964, reignited doubts into the meaningfulness of democracy, and three theories have emerged over how a democracy really works. Theory 1 says that electoral outcomes are essentially arbitrary, i.e., the amount of signal (i.e., decisions made rationally by informed voters) is overwhelmed by noise (reaction to slogans, misinformation, sensational news, random personal associations (by some accounts, the colours of politicians' neckties are more important than their policy positions in deciding their fates), and even satisfaction or otherwise with things out of politicians' control, such as the weather). Theory 2 states that democratic decisions are made by elites who control the media, and have the power to send the messages which the apolitical bulk of the public respond to; i.e., the electoral process is essentially a low-pass filter on the opinions of Rupert Murdoch and his fellow oligarchs. Theory 3 states that the cues people respond to are heuristics which, to most intents, are as good as doing one's own research; these include consulting peers' opinions and intuitive judgments, i.e., "low-information rationality".

An analogy (though one that Popkin is careful to dissociate himself from) would be to buying an expensive item like a house or a stereo system. A tiny fraction of consumers has the knowledge to discriminate among the entire range of available stereo components, and to make an informed choice based on assessments of cost and performance. Most of us rely on the advice of two or three friends who have recently made serious stereo-system purchases, possibly some online screen shopping, and the pitch of the salesman at J&R Music World. We eyeball the product, associate idiosyncratically with the brand name, and choose from the gut. When we ask "experts" for their wisdom, mostly we are hoping for an "objective" ratification of our instinctive desire to buy the coolest-looking stuff. Usually, we're O.K. Our tacit calculation is that the marginal utility of more research is smaller than the benefit of immediate ownership.

The use of these heuristics leaves plenty of blind spots in the electoral process.

Bartels has also found that when people do focus on specific policies they are often unable to distinguish their own interests. ... When people are asked whether they favor Bush's policy of repealing the estate tax, two-thirds say yes--even though the estate tax affects only the wealthiest one or two per cent of the population. Ninety-eight per cent of Americans do not leave estates large enough for the tax to kick in. But people have some notion--Bartels refers to it as "unenlightened self-interest"--that they will be better off if the tax is repealed. What is most remarkable about this opinion is that it is unconstrained by other beliefs. Repeal is supported by sixty-six per cent of people who believe that the income gap between the richest and the poorest Americans has increased in recent decades, and that this is a bad thing. And it's supported by sixty-eight per cent of people who say that the rich pay too little in taxes. Most Americans simply do not make a connection between tax policy and the over-all economic condition of the country.

There are 2 comments on "The Mass Psychology of Democracy":

Posted by: gjw http://the-fix.org Wed Oct 13 01:57:48 2004

This all might go hand in hand with the oft-quoted statistic that 60% of the population believe they are in the richest 20%, and 20% of the population believe they are in the richest 5%. When people _think_ they will be the beneficiaries, of course they will vote for tax cuts for the rich. The same might be true of public/private school funding. Even though people might send their kids to a public school, they like to _think_ Geelong Grammar isn't that far out of their reach.

Posted by: Tory Ben http:// Fri Oct 15 05:08:24 2004

I've never been a fan of Dumb-Ox-Racy, because the simple fact is that most of the morons and idiots who live in Australia shouldn't be choosing what brand of beer to swill let alone which gang of crooks to govern. Give me a merit-based dictatorship/oligarchy any day.

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