Monday, 5 July 2004

More on elitism

Ed Cone and OxBlogger David Adesnik are having a small tête-à-tête over Adesnik’s critique of a Onion piece entitled “American People Ruled Unfit to Govern.”†

Rather than wade into the animosity between Messrs. Cone and Adesnik, I think there’s an important corrective to be made to Adesnik’s unyielding “faith in the aggregate rationality of the American public.” Adesnik writes:

As I’ve explained before, the American public actually has a very strong record of rational decision-making:

Before the 1980s, it was taken for granted that the American public had volatile and incoherent opinions about politics, both foreign and domestic. By extension, this volatility and incoherence rendered Americans vulnerable to manipulation by both the media and the government.

In the 1980s, scholars began to discover that the premise of volatility and incoherence had led public opinion researchers to rely on methods that created an impression of volatility and incoherence even when there was none. In contrast, the United States had a rational public that derived its opinions on current events from a fixed set of values and updated its opinions when new information became available to it.

This conclusion reflects the research of America’s leading experts on public opinion, most importantly Benjamin Page and Robert Shapiro.

I’m afraid Adesnik tells half the story; while a few of America’s leading experts on public opinion do agree on the existence of “aggregate rationality,” many others do not—including, ironically, the self-same Benjamin Page, whose more recent book Who Deliberates? argues that this aggregate rationality is skewed by the nature of public debate.

Perhaps the most promising effort to bolster the “responsible electorate” view is Marcus, Neuman, and MacKuen’s work on affective intelligence, which largely rejects both aggregate rationality and the Michigan “normal vote” approach in favor of an explanation of politics based on emotional (or “affective”) reactions by voters.

That said, I generally agree with Adesnik’s view that the elitist perspective (captured by the Onion satire) of an American* public that is incompetent to manage its own affairs is inherently insulting; however, I’d argue that this is more the result of unrealistic expectations of a democratic public (fostered, ironically, in the writings of men like Thomas Jefferson and Alexis de Tocqueville, often viewed as keen observers of the common man) than it has to do with embittered elitism per se.

More of interest here.

† For the record, I found the piece moderately amusing. Then again, I’m not Stephen Bainbridge.

* Note, however, that public opinion research the world over has generally concluded that all democratic publics are similar to that of the United States in terms of political competence and the like.