Democracy Doubts Citizens, But Then Lets Go.

Carpini and Keeter were initially troubled that only 10% of the American public could accurately describe the definition of “liberal” and “conservative” and so resolved that elites serve and protect the democratic way of life; bearing in mind that the elected officials do so in a conscientious manner. Even if there are a few bad apples; however, they argued, voting from uninformed mass opinion and/or absent participation are inconsequential to the stability of democratic life.

Carpini and Keeter argue that democracy works because of elites. Elites have better values than the masses. Elites are more tolerant of diversity. Elites extend liberty to unpopular groups. These authors admit that this creates a paradox within modern democracy. This paradox is that democracy is by definition a government of citizen participation, but in truth their participation and lack of participation is relatively meaningless. In the end, Carpini and Keeter reveal, “the paradox itself is illusory-to the extent that citizens are uninformed, the system is less democratic… Because it is assumed that there is little that a citizen is required to do, it follows there is little a citizen is required to know” (49).

If the impact of a single person’s vote is negligible due to the large citizenry, then why would an individual that does not specialize in political science rationally devote an egregious effort to gathering the prodigious amount of information needed to make an informed choice once at the voting booth? Carpini and Keeter argue that the American political system was designed to limit the impact of minority and majority factions. In this case, the individual incentive to participate as an informed member of a group is diminished (49-50). Thus, in our republic, “the misinformed and ignorant voter cannot go too far astray,” and it doesn’t matter if they do (54). However, this notion creates quite a fog for classic democratic theory since it does not appear that the elites heed or need the will of the people—if they indeed have a will at all.

Montak and Davis’ are not so sure that the electorate is as ignorant as other scholars find. They are adverse to the studies that enable the individual to answer “I don’t know,” since they found that this overstates respondents’ ignorance in political affairs by 10 to 15 percent. Survey questions that allowed “I don’t know” encouraged “I don’t know” answers. This generated “more DKs [I don’t know] than wrong answers” (203). Their findings supported their hypothesis that “citizen competence has been cast in unduly negative terms as a consequence of pervasive use of faulty measures” (217).  Therefore, survey methodology should make the individual state and answer, which would reveal less ignorance.

Angus Campbell, Philip Converse, Warren Miller and Donald Stokes meandered through the fog of democratic theory and levels of political sophistication. Their research illuminated that individuals whom strongly identify with a political party are more inclined to be mindful of politics. “The stronger the individual’s sense of attachment to one of the political parties, the greater his psychological involvement in political affairs” (143).  Additionally, individuals with a strong and continuous involvement in politics are more likely to be commitment to a major party (144). Campbell et al, however, put forth that the involved voter notices the trends within the political system and are more likely to re-align themselves with the party that better represents their interest when necessary.

Carpini and Keeter move through the foggy haze of voter sophistication via the “impression-driven” or “on-line” model of information processing offered by Milton Lodge and his colleagues. They suggest that individuals make political evaluations at the moment information is presented, storing their impressions in memory and then “forgetting the actual pieces of evidence that contributed to the evaluation.” When the voter arrives at the polls, the mentally stored information is retrieved (45). Political “sophisticates” process the information on-line. The “masses” use heuristics, which is “low information rationality, not no information rationality” (52). Yet low information would show the voter’s mind as quite cloudy.

Prior and Lupia also experimented with survey designs. They found that there were significant differences between quick recall and political learning skills. Some people, the research revealed, can recall political information instantly (declarative memory), especially when a financial incentive is offered (particularly for Whites). However, elderly and others are more likely to answer additional correct responses when they are provided surfeit time because they tend to retrieve information from procedural memory (177). “This result suggests that standard survey practice does not provide sufficient incentives for respondents to thoroughly search their declarative memory” (175).

Overall, Page and Shapiro believe that the democratic political system works—regardless of fog density. They claim to have evaluated all data from “many national surveys—in fact, from all published or otherwise available surveys…[from] 1935 continuing onto 1990” and that public opinion was actually stable over time. 58% of 1,128 repeated policy questions showed no change of public opinion of 6% or more, thus, the democratic political system is stable even when individual political sophistication appears low. Political ignorance, for them, does not mean democratic failure.

Political tolerance, or the lack thereof, is of particular salience to political scientists. Mondak and Sanders findings stated that tolerance itself has not necessarily increased so much, “but instead is partly the result of changes in group-specific attitudes” (p. 495). Using their method, intolerance has only decreased to 79% in 1998 from 85% in 1976. Therefore, they are hesitant to put forth that a significant decline of intolerance occurred within the electorate over time as it relates to the functioning of our democratic political system.

Carpini and Keeter in their analysis of “Political Tolerance by Knowledge of Courts and Civil Liberties” revealed that more knowledge produces more tolerance. Also, their “Political Participation and Political Knowledge” chart shows: increased political knowledge corresponds to increased political participation (campaign contributions, campaign participation, and voting). They argue that increasing political tolerance is good for the functioning of our democratic political system, because, “poorly informed citizens hold fewer, less stable, and less consistent opinions. They are more susceptible to political propaganda and less receptive to relevant new information…” (100). On the other Bartels recent work, Unequal Democracy, shows that the more you know–the more ideological you become.

The polity, for many political scientists, attracts or distracts political participation. Gibson articulated, “pluralistic intolerance is that its primary (if not exclusive) focus is on repression brought about via public policy” (98). Gibson was astonished that an inordinate amount of the population believed that the government restricted their political expression. “Roughly four in 10 Americans, for instance, believe their government would not allow them to organize a public meeting to oppose the government. Only 52.0% of the respondents judge themselves free to engage in all three of these political activities” (101). Gibson found that the peoples’ perception of political freedom was less than in the times of the Red Scare (107).

Additional political theorists recognize of cloud of doubt on classic democratic theory as to whether or not there are alternative means of conceptualizing the role of the citizen. According to Pomper, popular favorites are unlikely to have the required abilities. Indeed, to Pomper, elections have been harmful because they promote the unqualified and do not promote the most qualified elites, which leads to “collective mediocrity”(Mill, 20). Brady et al concluded that education is “funneled entirely through political interest” (283). If so, why should the politicians provide the voter with a transparent and accountable government? Surely, the doubt about the capacity of the ordinary citizens’ role to make rational judgments about public affairs, in this manner, seems to be compounded.

Political theorists constantly bring new evidence to light, which causes different conclusions to be brokered regarding classic democratic government. While Carpini and Keeter surmised, “one cannot use these models to argue that democracy can operate effectively without an informed public because, ultimately, democracy rests on the backs of its citizens”(61), Schattschneider articulated, “It is an outrage to attribute the failures of American democracy to the ignorance and stupidity of the masses. The most disastrous shortcomings of the system have been those of the intellectuals whose concepts of democracy have been amazingly rigid and uninventive” (1960: 135-36). The conception of the rational voter in public affairs accordingly evolves. New information—new light—allows for clarity to be found within the cloud.

If democratic government is to become more democratic, transparency and political information must become more readily assessable or the citizen must become more active in obtaining political information. If not, then the political scientist Entman might be clearly understood; (1989), “The less informed citizens are, the more likely that campaigns will devolve into sensationalism and demagoguery, as the media and political leaders play to the public’s baser instincts or seek to capitalize on their inability to distinguish between fact and fiction” (57). Thus, when the public goes to the polls and votes based on propaganda, then democracy, for them, is more than a farce—it’s a tragedy. The cloud of doubt, with respect to democratic life, thickens.

Yet the deliberation regarding the capacity of ordinary citizens to make rational judgments about public affairs does not stop for one or two empirical opinions. Carpini and Keeter put forth five significant methods that political knowledge contributes to good citizenship and thus to the democratic system. For the citizen, they stated, political knowledge (1) promotes civic virtues like political tolerance, (2) increases active participation, (3) increases meaningful opinions about many topics, (4) helps to decipher how those opinions are a apart of the politic, and (5) aides in determining their participation interests (219). The authors described political tolerance as “a willingness to permit the expression of ideas or interests one opposes” (220).

In summary, since the development of survey research, there have been doubts about the capacity of ordinary citizens to make rational judgments about public affairs because of their inattention to politics, intolerance, and low levels of political knowledge / sophistication. Many political scientists’ empirical studies have illuminated the complexity of describing the electorate’s levels of ignorance and intolerance. And once the levels are momentarily agreed upon, the political scientists converse about the salience and relevance of the findings. Elections continue. Democracy, it appears, still works.


Angus Campbell, Philip Converse, Warren Miller and Donald Stokes. American Voter Chapters 6 & 7

Gerald M. Pomper. 1968. Elections in America. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. Chapter 2, “The Ballot in Political Theory.”

James L. Gibson. 2008. “Intolerance and Political Repression in the US: A Half Century After McCarthy,” American Journal of Political Science. 52(1): 96–108.

Jeffrey J. Montak and Belinda Creel Davis.  2001.  “Asked and Answered: Knowledge Levels When We Will Not Take ‘Don’t Know’ for an Answer,” Political Behavior 23(3): 199-224.

Jeffery J. Mondak and Mitchell S. Sanders.  2003. “Tolerance and Intolerance, 1976-1998” American Journal of Political Science 47(3): 492-502.

Markus Prior and Arthur Lupia. 2008. “Money, Time, and Political Knowledge: Distinguishing Quick Recall and Political Learning Skills,” American Journal of Political Science 52(1): 169-183.

Michael X. Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter. 1996. What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters. New Haven: Yale University Press. Chapters 1, 2, 6.

Page and Shapiro. Rational Public Opinion. Chapters 2 & 3. 1992.

Robert D. Putnam. 1995. “Tuning In, Tuning Out: The Strange Disappearance of Social Capital in America,” PS: Political Science and Politics 28(4) December: 664-83.


4 thoughts on “Democracy Doubts Citizens, But Then Lets Go.

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