life-807270334-ar-0-0.jpg
'The American Voter Revisited,' released last month, was inspired by 1960's 'The American Voter.' How much has the American voter changed over the past 50 years? The conclusion: not much. 'For many people,' the authors write, 'dealing with political issues is too much of a bother.' Illustrates BOOKS-VOTER (category e), by Libby Copeland (c) 2008, The Washington Post. Moved Thursday, July 24, 2008. (MUST CREDIT: University of Michigan Press) - THE WASHINGTON POST

'Voter Revisited:' Another peek inside the brain of the electorate

WASHINGTON — So a bunch of academics decides to revisit one of the defining books of modern American politics, a 1960 tome on the electorate. They spend years comparing interviews with voting-age Americans from 2000 and 2004 to what Americans said during elections in the 1950s. The academics' question: How much has the American voter changed over the past 50 years?

Their conclusion — that the voter is pretty much the same dismally ill-informed creature he was back then — continues a decades-long debate about whether Americans are as clueless as they sound.

"You could get depressed," says the University of Iowa's Michael Lewis-Beck, one of the political scientists who wrote "The American Voter Revisited," released last month and inspired by 1960's "The American Voter."

Or not. Talk to other academics and it's unclear if we should be depressed at all. Many political scientists agree that the American voter doesn't always present well. Asked directly about certain issues, like whether he prefers diplomacy to military action for resolving international conflicts, he may profess ignorance or use some phrase he heard on television. Or she might say, when asked why she likes a candidate, "Oh, I just like the way he talks."

The question that political scientists have pondered for decades is: If a person can't name the staples of liberal ideology, or can't talk coherently about foreign affairs, or cares only about a few issues, or changes his opinion in response to information that he can't remember later, might he still be able to make thoughtful choices in the voting booth?

How much credit do we give our most precious resource, the American brain? Is it half-empty or half-full?

Americans "don't sound the way the high priests of culture want them to sound," says Samuel L. Popkin, author of "The Reasoning Voter," who tends to give voters more credit rather than less. "They use their own language. They process a lot more than they can recall in interviews. They have a lot better sense of who's on their side and who isn't than they're often given credit for."

One thing that's certain is that Americans are consistent. They've had difficulty articulating their opinions in ways that satisfy political scientists for decades. When "The American Voter" was released almost 50 years ago, it caused quite a splash. (Subsequent political scientists began referring to its authors with awe as "the four horsemen.") "The American Voter" was thick with statistical tables and a wonky theory called the "funnel of causality," all revealing that Americans have what William G. Jacoby of Michigan State University calls "incoherent, inconsistent, disorganized positions on issues."

The New York Times wrote about the book's findings when it came out, noting the role that Dwight Eisenhower's "strong personal appeal" played in helping him win the presidency in 1952 and 1956. His Democratic opponent, Adlai Stevenson, spent a lot of time discussing issues of foreign policy, the paper wrote, but it turned out "the public was largely unaware of his positions."

Some academics criticized "The American Voter" for depicting voters as "fools," while others suggested the voters were not so much fools as, uh, "cognitive misers." The book spawned all sorts of follow-ups, like a rebuttal called "The Changing American Voter" and a rebuttal to the rebuttal called "The Unchanging American Voter."

Four years ago, Lewis-Beck and Jacoby and two other political scientists decided to take on "The American Voter" once more. They used the same methods to crunch the data and even organized the book the same way. (They had to eliminate the chapter on the agrarian vote, though, because there aren't enough farmers left anymore for a usable sample.)

"The American Voter Revisited" is chock-full of depressing conclusions, couched in academic understatement. Lewis-Beck says writing the book was a bracing experience for a political junkie. "A lot of people don't care about politics, OK?" he says. "They just don't care."

Or they care just enough.

Share This Story