Philip Converse: The nature of belief systems in mass publics

Quico says: It’s been hard to find the time or the stomach to blog recently. (Somebody I know might have taken up the slack, but hasn’t…) Rather than leave the blog dormant, I thought I might as well post some of the more provocative stuff I’ve been reading. Today, it’s a summary of “an oldie but a goodie”: Philip Converse’s groundbreaking 1964 study of voter cluelessness. Even if you’ve never heard of it, it’s a paper whose influence has permeated our political culture. It launched a sub-field in political science, and lives on with silent strength in the conduct of almost every election campaign of the last 40 years. For a gripping discussion on the implications of Converse’s paper, check this out.



Wikisum (summing up Converse) says:

A great majority of people neither adhere to a coherent and complete set of beliefs able to sustain a clear ideology nor do they have a clear grasp of what ideology is. This is measured by a lack of coherence in responses to open-ended questions. What’s more, the ideology of elites is not mirrored by the mass public.

Converse analyzes open-ended interview questions to measure conceptualization of ideology. He concludes that the liberal-conservative continuum is a high level abstraction not typically used by the man in the street because of response instability and lack of connections made between answers. There is no underlying belief structure for most people, just a bunch of random opinions. Even on highly controversial, well-publicized issues, large portions of the electorate do not have coherent opinions. In fact, many simply answer survey questions randomly.

Though some political sophisticates do structure their opinions in a larger ideological framework, such structure is rare. This level of political sophistication (one’s “level of conceptualization”) is correlated positively with the respondent’s level of education, degree of political involvement, and amount of political information, but crucially also dogmatism and political inflexibility.

Democratic theory assumes that voters in the “mass public” hold clear ideological values which allow them to make voting decisions based on the positions candidates hold. One of the most prevalent distinctions they are assumed to make is evaluating candidates’ positions on the liberal-conservative ideological spectrum. Thus, when the electorate chooses politicians that vary from one end of the spectrum to the other, it is often assumed that the electorate is becoming more conservative or more liberal.

The result of Converse’s surveys and analysis cast doubt on many of these assumptions by showing the apparent lack of understanding of ideology or even differentiation between the two political parties on the liberal-conservative continuum. Using open-ended interviews as well as survey data, Converse classifies voters into the following categories based on their understanding of basic ideological differentiation between ideas:

  1. Ideologues: These respondents relied on “a relatively abstract and far reaching conceptual dimension as a yardstick against which political objects and their shifting political significance over time were evaluated” (p.216).
  2. Near Ideologues: These respondents mentioned the liberal-conservative dimension peripherally, but did not appear to place much emphasis on it, or used it in a way that led the researchers to question their understanding of the issues.
  3. Group Interest: This group did not demonstrate an understanding of the ideological spectrum, but made choices based on which groups they saw the parties representing (e.g. Democrats supporting blacks, Republicans supporting big business or the rich). These people tended to not understand issues that did not clearly benefit the groups they referred to.
  4. Nature of the Times: The members of this group exhibited no understanding of the ideological differences between parties, but made their decisions on the “nature of the times.” Thus, they did not like Republicans because of the Depression, or they didn’t like the Democrats because of the Korean war.
  5. No issue content: This group included the respondents whose evaluation of the political scene had “no shred of policy significance whatever” (p. 217). These people included respondents who identified a party affiliation, but had no idea what the party stood for, as well as people who based their decisions on personal qualities of candidates.

Most people fall into the lower three levels of conceptualization.

Converse also found that the mass public does not seem to share beliefs in any predictable way with elites. He doubts that the voting patterns of the people at the lower end of the scale follow the patterns of the ideologues and near ideologues who have a firm grasp of the issues.

In addition, Converse’s interviews with the same respondents over a two-year period often show little correlation with each other. In these cases, only 13 out of 20 managed to locate themselves on the same side of a given controversy in successive interviews. Converse’s interpretationis that this change seemed almost exclusively random instead of as a response to changing beliefs.


Discussing some of the implications of Coverse’s research, Jeffrey Friedman writes:
Converse found that only about 2.5% of the public (as of 1956) was passably knowledgeable about the meaning of liberalism and conservatism, the “belief systems” that structured, and still structure, most political debate and public-policy making. That would be bad enough; but surely knowing what the dominant belief systems “mean” isn’t sufficient to make well-informed political decisions.

Consider the most reviled pundit on the other side of the political spectrum from yourself. To liberal ears, a Rush Limbaugh or a Sean Hannity, while well informed about which policies are advocated by conservatives and liberals, will seem appallingly ignorant of the arguments and evidence for liberal positions. The same goes in reverse for a Frank Rich or a Paul Krugman, whose knowledge of the “basics” of liberalism and conservatism will seem, in the eyes of a conservative, to be matched by grave misunderstandings of the rationales for conservative policies.If Limbaugh, Rich,et al., turn out to exemplify the “cognitive elite,”we are in serious trouble. Converse, I believe, showed just that.

Converse’s political elites are particularly well informed about what it means to be a conservative or a liberal, and their reasoning about politics is structured by this knowledge. But Converse’s findings suggest, I think, that their relatively high levels of ideological knowledge are due to their being conservative or liberal ideologues: closed-minded partisans of one point of view. Should the leadership of public opinion by such people be a source of relief—or a cause for anxiety?

Ideological constraint is a form of determination. Converse equated it with “the success we would have in predicting, given initial knowledge that an individual holds a specified attitude, that he holds certain further ideas and attitudes.” There would be nothing worrisome about such determination if people’s political attitudes were being constrained by logic or evidence. But Converse made it abundantly clear that that is not the type of constraint he had in mind.

“Whatever may be learned through the use of strict logic as a type of constraint,” Converse wrote, it seems obvious that few belief systems of any range at all depend for their constraint upon logic.” Ideologies are only “apparently logical wholes,” and the appearance is skin deep.

For Converse “what is important is that the elites familiar with the total shapes of these belief systems have experienced them as logically constrained clusters of ideas.” But this experience does not stem from the ideologue’s astute reasoning or her keen investigation of reality. Her views are, instead, determined by the political belief system she has been taught.

And later on:

Converse’s ideologues form a cultural elite, not necessarily a “power elite.” The members of the public who are sophisticated about politics (relative to most people) aren’t necessarily those who are in charge of the government. Realistically, however, the cultural elite, through its teaching and journalism, is likely to shape the ideas of the governing elite, who tend to be a highly educated subset of the cultural elite. The power of Converse’s politically sophisticated stratum, then, lies not only in its attenuated trickle-down influence on mass culture, but in its subsumption of, and influence upon, those who directly shape public policy through their positions in the legislature, the judiciary, and the bureaucracy.

In a democracy, all “branches”of government are nominally subordinate to the people. The power of public opinion is supposed to check even the nomination and confirmation of judges and the appointment of top bureaucrats, since that is done by politicians beholden to the electorate. This nominal barrier to elite rule seems to have stymied the movement to “bring the state back in” to political analysis. During the� 80���s, the “state theory” movement was poised to take political science by storm while it produced penetrating analyses of pre-democratic states, both premodern and newly industrialized, modern democracies seemed to stop “state theory” in its tracks.

How,after all, can state personnel act autonomously if, as in modern democracies, “society,” or public opinion, controls the flow of revenue that pays for the standing armies that, in classic state theory, undergird “strong states”? The key role played by the military (and its supportive tax-collecting bureaucracy) in state theory—putting down popular protest—fades to insignificance in democracies, where public disaffec-
tion is translated into change nonviolently,through the ballot box—and where the ballot box controls the military. Is state autonomy possible, then, once the state is democratic?

Post-Converse public-opinion research can provide a positive answer to this question: The public can’t control what it doesn’t know about. But since that research is usually the province of specialists in American politics, this answer was not apparent to state theorists, who tended to be comparativists. (And the question did not seem to occur to public-opinion researchers, for the reverse reason.) Only recently has the cross-fertilization of public-opinion research and state theory begun, based on the simple premise that a public as ignorant as the one portrayed by Converse is unlikely to be aware of most of the things its government does. Public ignorance maythus sever a democratic state from the demos.

Government officials can let their own ideological agendas shape bureaucratic rule making, judicial decision making, and the crafting of legislation, without fear of electoral reprisal—even if their agendas are unpopular—to the extent that they think that the public is unlikely to find out about it. State autonomy in democracies, then, would have to do not with the efficiency of tax collection or the reliability of armies,
but with a government so big that nobody can keep track of its activities.

This separation between people and policy has limits. The mass media can, by pounding away at a proposed or extant government policy, bring the public’s limited attention to it. Hence Bush’s defeat on Social Security. But these limits have limits: very few issues will receive such sustained media attention that they provoke public outrage and, thus, negative political consequences for unpopular policies.

Friedman’s a terrific writer. It’s worth reading his entire spiel.