In the chapter Voting, A Study of Opinion Formation in a Political Campaign, the authors argue that decisions regarding political policies arise out of homogeneous political interactions. Does this homogeneity challenge the civic textbook definition of democracy? If this is the case can the recommendations made by Lijphart in his article to reduce the costs of voting reconcile homogeneity of political information with the definition of democracy? Homogeneity of political information hinders the civic textbook definition of democracy due to a lack of political sophistication, a lack of competing and differing political ideas, and ambiguity regarding policy details and alternatives. Even though Lijphart’s remedies will decrease the cost of voting and increase voter turnout, they will not increase political sophistication or reduce ambiguity regarding policy details for voters.
In their chapter, Berelson and fellow authors confront what they call a political monopoly, which is the antithesis of the civic textbook definition of democracy (Berelson, Lazarsfeld, McPhee 114). The political monopoly arises out of the homogeneity of political information in which one-sided political environments and hereditary voting lead to homogenous political information (Berelson, Lazarsfeld, McPhee 88-114). Social interactions in which people discuss politics with those who are like-minded serve to reinforce political beliefs not challenge them (Berelson, Lazarsfeld, McPhee 107). Political discussions that do not produce fact based information or a higher degree of political sophistication are not working to improve democracy.
While homogeneity can hinder democracy it can also provide some benefits in that social and familial groups offer relevant political information at low costs. People may vote along with a group because their perceived influence would be much greater than on their own. Voters may feel more politically efficient when they are voting as part of a group or block and may then be more likely to vote. The most prominent point made by Berelson, Lazarsfeld and McPhee is that “…political genius of the citizenry may reside less in how well they can judge public policy than in how well they can judge the people who advise them how to judge policy.” The problem then is not in having opinion leaders but in recognizing who is the right leader to follow.
Berelson, Lazarsfeld and McPhee argue that in times of stability there is more ambiguity in which people fall back on previously held values, norms and allegiances. In times of ambiguity voters are also more susceptible to less relevant outside influences other than direct stimuli. When people do not have direct political stimulus they are more vulnerable to the opinions of trusted people or opinion leaders who represent and symbolize group norms (Berelson, Lazarsfeld, McPhee 115).
One may argue then, that in stable times voters see the cost of voting and obtaining political information as being higher than the perceived benefit of voting. In order to increase voter turnout and obtain politically sophisticated voters the cost of voting and obtaining information need to be reduced so the perceived benefits out weight the costs. To reduce the costs of voting Lijphart suggests using weekend voting, automatic registration, compulsory voting and concurrent elections. In addition Lijphart suggests proportional representation will lead to greater political efficacy and voter turnout (Lijphart 7-11).
In addition to Lijphart’s suggestions to increase voter turn out, decreasing the cost of obtaining information can also bring America closer to the civic textbook definition of democracy. Berelson and fellow authors claim that homogeneity of political interactions increases as voters grow older and become settled (96). If this were true, one would expect younger voters to have a wider variety of sources for political information. Wells and Dudash found youth voters do have a wide variety of sources for political information. The primary source of political information was from discussion and talk. Information was also found on the Internet, cable news, newspapers, radio, local news and campaigns subsequently (Wells, Dudash 1282). Of the youth evaluated 69 percent of them felt that they have sufficient enough political knowledge to participate in politics.
The results of the focus group investigation suggested that increased knowledge might lead to greater participation. On the contrary, even with greater variety of sources for political information, the youth vote has declined since the 26th amendment was passed in 1972 (Wells, Dudash 1280).
Even though the youth have easier access to news media and news media technologies such as the Internet, Wells and Dudash found this does not necessarily increase the numbers of informed voters. The problems faced by the youth in obtaining information is found first in identifying creditable sources of the many sources available to them. Youth voters found even more trouble when attempting to utilize creditable sources of information (Wells, Dudash 1286-87). This may explain why youth voters become more homogeneous over time defaulting to previously held values, allegiances and norms when creditable information is lacking.
Increasing voter turnout and perceived efficacy alone cannot improve democracy if those voters are not making informed decisions. This will lead to greater numbers of homogeneous apathetic voters. While reducing the costs of voting can increase time available to gather political information this is not guaranteed to happen. Lijphart recognizes this when addressing the fact that compulsory voting can lead to greater turn out at the polls. While more people might go to the polling place, they do not have to vote or make informed decisions (10).
“An unwilling or indifferent vote is a thoughtless one” (Abraham 1955, 21)” (Lijphart 10).
In order to bring American voters closer to the civic textbook definition of democracy the costs of voting could be decreased through concurrent elections, weekend ballots, and automatic registration. Political efficacy can be heightened even more by Lijphart’s suggestion of proportional representation. Even if the costs of voting are reduced, the ability to identify and utilize creditable sources of political information remains a barrier to obtaining politically sophisticated voters.
1.) Lijphart, Arend. “Unequal Participation: Democracy’s Unresolved Dilemma.” The American Political Science Review 91.1 (1997): 1-14.
2.) Berelson, Lazarsfeld, William McPhee. Voting, A Study of Opinion Formation in a Presidential Campaign. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1954.
3.) Wells, Elizabeth Dudash. “Efficacy in the 2004 Election Wha’d’ya Know?: Examining Young Voters’ Political Information and Efficacy in the 2004 Election”. American Behavioral Scientist. 50.9 (2007) 1280-1289.