Democracy: By Huh? and Duh?

The observation of mass inattention to politics and low levels of political knowledge are important to political scientists. Many scholars have approached these issues through different methodology and arrived at different conclusions regarding the magnitude of these issues with respect to democratic life. Some scholars do not see the need for the majority of the population to be politically sophisticated in order for democracy to be successful. Other scholars approach the [lack of] political awareness of citizens through the lens of tolerance, or, the biases hidden beneath the psychology of culture. Due to an analysis of these issues over the past decades, today’s scholars are given an opportunity to approach a multifarious understanding of the role of the citizen in democratic government.

Downs (1957) articulated that information comes in two forms: transferable and nontransferable costs. Information is a “cost” because it takes time to accumulate and retain. Transferrable costs might be accrued actively, like seeking and gathering information (procurement). Analysis costs arise as the individual logically examines the data. The information is then evaluated with respect to the particular goals of the voter. These costs are transferrable because they may be passed on to other individuals. Nontransferable costs must be carried by the voter and are not transferrable. Basically, the average person likely relies on party commitments and competing elites in order for democracy to work, because the costs of voting outweighs the benefits of voting for the median voter in a liberal democracy.

Downs (1957) recognized that people tend to specialize in their own field and so are more likely to become politically informed through transferrable costs. They simply do not have the time or the resources to gather the overwhelming amount of political data themselves, so they rely on experts. As a result, “Therefore many voters do not bother to discover their true views before voting, and most citizens are not well enough informed to influence directly the formulation of those policies that affect them” (259). In short, it’s not rational for a person to vote because the costs outweigh the benefits. On the other hand, rational choice asserts that only a small sub-set of the population needs to be highly informed for democracy to work.

The political education of the voter during Downs analysis (1950s) transpired mainly through word of mouth, schooling and newspaper reading. Education, according to Putnam, is of significant importance for an informed public. As a result of empirical evidence, Putnam stated, “Education, in short, is an extremely powerful predictor of civic engagement” (667). Since Downs writing, television and the internet have become technological tools for information propagation. However, these information sources (particularly television) are seen by some scholars as having caused a reduction of voter knowledge. Teixeira’s study revealed, “The decline in newspaper reading alone can be held responsible for almost two-thirds of net turnout decline…” during the sixties and seventies (88). Putnam argued that television viewing is related to a decrease of social capital and the decrease of newspaper reading. The literature suggests that voters are becoming less social and less informed about government.

Political knowledge originates from an examination of action from the political arena, particularly in real time as it impacts the democratic life of its citizenry. This knowledge is conversed though media outlets for the voter. Danielian and Page determined that the news chorus focuses on business interests over labor interests and the administration over opposition to the administration. They acknowledge that overwhelming bias towards one interest / faction “could mislead the public and would ill serve democracy” (1057). The authors see the interest groups’ use of propaganda to influence the public as potentially troublesome, yet do not advocate that all groups should have a voice in the media chorus. Instead, they submit that minority and weaker voices opposed to the dominant interest sing at some time so that the chorus is not “monologue” (1058). Thus, the people are not hearing their own interests being promoted (i.e. the interests of the median voter and/or least well-off), but the rust of special interest groups upon a heavy iron triangle.

Hence, many political scientists try to understand how democracy works. But when you ask the median voter about public policy–or even who the President of the USA is–you sometimes hear,  “Huh?” and “Duh?” So, if policy is supposed to reflect the will of the median voter–to what degree can we blame the party-in-government for the lack of direction and substantive policy considering the median voter? D’oh!!!

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Anthony Downs. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. Chapters 11-13.

Lucig H. Danielian and Benjamin I, The Heavenly Chorus: Interest Group Voices on TV News Author(s): Page Source: American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Nov., 1994), pp. 1056-1078 Published by: Midwest Political Science Association Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2111732 Accessed: 28/10/2009 21:01

Robert D. PutnamTuning In, Tuning Out: The Strange Disappearance of Social Capital in America, PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol. 28, No. 4  (Dec., 1995), pp. 664-683.

Teixeira, Ruy A. Why Americans Don’t Vote: Turnout Decline in the United States 1960-1984. First ed. Westport, CT:
Greenwood Press, Inc, 1987.

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2 thoughts on “Democracy: By Huh? and Duh?

  1. Pingback: Poltical Scientists: “I’m American” | Political Pipeline

  2. Pingback: Review for American Politics Comp. Exams | Political Pipeline

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