OF PHILIP E. CONVERSE'S
"THE NATURE OF BELIEF SYSTEMS IN MASS PUBLICS"
E. Converse wrote "The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics"
to promulgate his research into the field of voter decision-making. Converse's
thesis is essentially that the vast majority of the voting public has
no clear ideology and has little desire to understand issues which are
not clearly and directly related to them as individuals. In order to prove
his thesis, Converse tracked voter opinions on ideological issues from
the 1952 Presidential election, and relates his findings with that of
other researchers who studied other times.
Converse begins by defining some important terms. A belief system'
is a collection of ideas which are connected by function. Constraint'
is the degree to which a particular belief is predictive of another belief.
Converse uses the term centrality' for the tendency of new information
to necessitate changes in belief. Beliefs that are more likely to change
are less central' to an individual's belief system. For example,
when the Republican Party platform abandoned its call for the abolition
of the Department of Education, a Republican may have decided to forgo
his or her own support for the abolition of the Department, or the voter
may have decided to no longer affiliate with the GOP. If the voter chose
one of those options, the option forgone is thought to be less central'
to the voter's belief system.
Converse considers the issue of constraint early. In attempting to show
that Americans have little constraint, he referencd evidence that those
who most support expanding the Welfare State are also most likely to advocate
lower taxes. Converse believes these two ideas are mutually exclusive,
and therefore demonstrate lack of constraint. Furthermore, Converse suggests
that while the intellectual and political elite' do display constraint,
the vast majority of Americans do not.
Converse stated that most Americans have little understanding of their
beliefs, have no basis for referencing conflicting ideas, and have little
desire to consider the issues. According to Converse, if asked to agree
or disagree with the statement that "communists are atheists,"
most Americans would agree. However, if further asked why communists are
atheists, the public could rarely give a coherent and correct explanation.
Converse noted that most Americans tend to have limited education, which
is linked with traits such as "concrete thinking," limited ability
to think past the near future, and minimal conceptual scope. Unfortunately,
most important political issues rely on the ability to think in abstract
terms and unify various informationexactly the skills millions of
Labels provide an easy-to-understand gauge for assessing policy issues,
if one understands the labels. In politics, conservative' and liberal'
are commonly used terms to describe characters and policies. However,
Converse wrote that nearly 48% of people are unable to even understand
those two everyday terms. When elections transfer political power from
one party to another, the elites' tend to consider it as a fundamental
shift in the mass's political leanings. However, Converse's theory that
most people have no coherent conceptual ideology means power shifts have
little resemblance to ideological viewpoints of the people. To understand
the level of ideological sophistication of people, Converse asked a series
of questions and ranked people on a scale of 1 to 5. Level 1 consisted
of people with clear, coherent, abstract understanding of issues. Level
5 consisted of people who made decisions arbitrarily. More than 90% of
the people made voting decisions on the basis of strict party affiliation,
by ascribing current socio-economic conditions to the incumbent, or arbitrarily.
Less than 10% made decisions on the basis of substantive ideology. Only
2% made decisions that utilized proper abstract thinking.
While most Americans have little understanding of political issues, the
elites,' politicians, and political scientists often think of the
electorate as being ideologically complex. The reason, according to Converse,
is that the politically active represent a small group of mostly well
educated elites. The people who get the most contact with politicians
are the active elites. Regrettably, the elites are such a small minority
of the electorate that they have only marginal impact on elections. The
vast amount of political weight is carried by people who cannot accurately
differentiate between liberal' and conservative.'
In order to test people's understanding of party values, respondents were
asked to link issues that were related according to party values. Converse
chose issues that he considered to be easily understood by anyone with
minimal political knowledgesimply that liberals who support expanding
welfare domestically are also likely to support increasing foreign economic
aid. Most people were unable to even make that simple connection of values.
In longitudinal research, Converse found that people did not even maintain
their own stated beliefs over two-year periods. According to Converse,
people were only slightly more likely to retain the same beliefs after
two years than if they had flipped a coin to choose ideologies.
In looking at history, Converse attempted to show that major ideological
debates have little impact on elections. Converse cited evidence that
during the election of Abraham Lincoln, most Northerners had little, if
any, knowledge of the tremendously heated debate concerning slavery. Similarly,
during the Un-American Activities hearings of the 1950s, a third of Americans
surveyed were unable to name a single Representative or Senator conducting
the investigations. People, in essence, are socially ignorant on even
the most dominating issues.
The only time people displayed some semblance of ideological constraint
was on issues that clearly and directly affected them personally. For
example, blacks and Southerners were likely to retain beliefs concerning
desegregation. The more remote an issue was from the person's daily life,
the less likely the person was to have a constrained opinion, or even
to have knowledge that the issue was in debate.
Converse concluded with a discussion of the rise of Nazism to Germany.
While most political commentators would like to think there was a social
shift in favor of the socialist values of the Nazi Party, Converse stated
that their success was actually caused by voter ignorance. A large portion
of Nazi support came from the young, the poor, and rural farmers. Nazi
support came from the people who were the least politically sophisticated,
and who made decisions based on the least information and with the least
congruence. The rise of Nazi Germany then, was not caused by a shift in
the electorate's attitudes, but by the impulse of people who did not truly
understand what they were voting for.
"The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics" was an effort
to demonstrate that political behavior and ideology is less connected
with intelligent decision-making than with ignorance and whim. Drawing
upon the election of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, and the histories of the
Republican Party, Civil Rights, and Nazism, Converse provides a case for
his claim that most people have no true political ideology. The voting
public displays limited constraint among policy beliefs, only slight understanding
of important debates, and a tendency to frequently change opinions.
Converse quite convincing in most of his arguments. Certainly, there were
questions where his interpretation could be open to debate. For example,
it is not absolutely necessary that someone who wants to expand welfare
while lowering taxes is showing lack of constraint. It is possible that
the person wants to lower other spending, such as defense spending, in
order to pay for both the expanded welfare and lower taxes. However, it
is quite difficult to find any rational explanation for why people cannot
discern simple terms such as "liberal" and "conservative"
or identify the essential points of party platforms. Ultimately, I found
Converse's piece successful at showing the public's ignorance of even
the most basic politics.