Bruce M Sabin
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REVIEW OF PHILIP E. CONVERSE'S
"THE NATURE OF BELIEF SYSTEMS IN MASS PUBLICS"


Philip 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 information–exactly the skills millions of Americans lack.

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 knowledge–simply 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.

I found 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.

 


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