Monday, October 20, 2008

Post No. 58: Debunking Myths and Misconceptions about the American Voting Public

When I was in undergraduate engineering school, one of the few non-engineering/science courses that I took was a political science course. The professor had us read one of the books then recently published (circa 1973) by well-known political scientists Dye and Ziegler.

The most significant thing that I can recall from that work is that most people do not make reasoned, analytical decisions about their political candidates. Instead, Dye and Ziegler concluded that people generally voted the way their parents voted – plain and simple.

I recently recalled this piece of research when a buddy generated a comment about the current presidential campaign. However, I acknowledged that new research might reveal other patterns, particularly in light of the massive amount of information available to us through the media and other sources, and the fact that our citizenry is generally better educated and more sophisticated. I just didn’t have the data or research to support my suspicion about the evolving mindset of the citizen voters.

Well, C-Span2 Book TV addressed the research issue yesterday, and again today. You can watch the presentation on your own schedule by clicking on this link. Andrew Gelman is a professor at Columbia University specializing in statistics and political science. He recently published his most recent book, Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do. During the presentation, Gelman and several of his co-researchers present their findings.

The following introduction is taken from the C-Span2, Book TV page for the program, copyright 2008, by the National Cable Satellite Corporation:

“Andrew Gelman examines the common thinking about the American electorate and contends that several long held beliefs are incorrect. Mr. Gelman argues that the political fissure in the United States does not lie between Blue America and Red America but rather between affluent Republicans and Democrats. He also contends that religion is no more divisive in the United States than amongst European voters and that church attendance is a greater predictor of voting among the rich than the poor.”

The program is hosted by the Cato Institute. (It should be kept in mind that even according to its website, the Institute is dedicated to “promoting public policy based on individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peaceful international relations.” Hmmmm. Oh well, they are still a respected entity, and all of us are free to stake a position and advocate for it.)

One of Gelman’s co-researchers argues that only a relatively small number of Americans are informed sufficiently to have an ideology, and thus the conflict in ideology only exists between the elite. Reference is frequently made to the works of Ronald Englehart, who tracked the cultural shifts that occur in societies internationally as they became more economically advanced in the post-modern era. To the extent that there is a counter-culture revolution, it invariably creates a backlash, or counter-counter-culture revolution, and in the case of the US, it was the rise of the evangelical Christians, otherwise known as the Moral Majority.

The results of the research are interesting, and will cause one to think. Enjoy it – it’s thought provoking.


  1. Does it strike anybody...odd...that a 300 lb retired NFL tackle has routinely been voted the best male dancer on one of ABC's few, popular, prime time television shows? No? Why not? Just because he is the best dancer...or because he works hardest at it? I suspect we are looking at a sea change in the way we look at people we thought we knew, The kids are leading it, and its probably their turh anyway. If they want to pick a president because hge is a better speaker...or even just dancer, that's ok with me. There will be plenty of speaking and dancing to dbe done before we shimmy our selves out of this mess. We might as well enjoy it.

  2. I was actually surprised how many of the 20 something and 30 something generation, with whom I came into contact last week, had such strong views about the future of the nation. However, I may have just been with a concerned group. Thanks for the comment.

  3. I’ve always thought Jay Leno’s Street Walk interviews say it all. He shows photos of people like Obama, Laura Bush, Henry Kissinger and asks people he finds on the street to name of the person in the photograph. They never know. In fact in one interview, one man had his kid with him who was about 10 years old. Although his father was clueless, this grade school child knew the name of every displayed photo.

    I’m sure you’re right about people voting as their parents voted. At least that has been the case for a couple decades. In fact I think the average American won’t scrutinize any candidates qualifications or policy stands- until those choices (their vote) affects them personally. Today the state of our government and economy is affecting everyone who lives in this country- 'personally'. I’ve got a feeling we may see some changes as of THIS election.

  4. Thanks Vikki. I strongly suspect that there has always been an ambivalence within us all about the make up of our populace. I often used to say, that the US is far more than LA, NYC, Chicago, and D.C. Other folks live in small towns and rural areas far from the maddening crowd for a reason. It's who we are, and yet it does not mean that we can not improve, and strive to do so every single day.

    Someone sent me an e-mail earlier today, and the following appeared at the bottom:

    A positive attitude may not solve all your problems,
    but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.
    ~Herm Albright (1876 - 1944)

  5. That's so funny and true. I always like to think America is the place in between New York and L.A.
    Love the saying.

  6. Reginald,

    Interesting side notes here on the topic: I recently heard of research which indicates that Republicans and Dems tend to vote as they do because of genetics and psychological factors; That we are hard wired to either be more conservative and fearful, or open and if not totally fearless, willing to look at change. So it makes sense that families will tend to vote along a party line.

    Also, I took a Psychology of Advertising class way back in the dark ages of the 1960s. One of the most salient bits of info that I got from this excellent class was the fact that the majority of Americans have the emotional and intellectual mentality of fourteen year olds. Advertisements that cater to this fact and the motivational elements of that age group are very successful.

    It never ceases to be a sense of wonderment to me that much of that advertising acumen and PR still work.


  7. Dina:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. We here at the Institute for Common Sense very much appreciate your comment. Upon reviewing a large number of our past articles, you will note that we believe that hard-wiring and genetics figure into much of human conduct. By noting such, it is not our intention to lightly dismiss the notion that humans should take responsibility for their conduct; however, we believe that we need to understand, or at least consider, ALL of the factors contributing to our decisions and behavior, in order to more productively channel and refine our efforts. In other words, make better decisions.

    Nature attempts to ensure that animals survive in a complicated and competitive world by providing them with different tools and coping mechanisms. Humans are no different - just a bigger brain. The "flight or fight" and "friend or foe" concepts apply to many things which we encounter.

    As for the emotional and intellectual mentality factor, we were an agricultural economy for a long time. Certain segments of our population still are. When people are crowded and stacked up on top of one another, however distasteful that might be to some, you learn alot from others and hone your survival instincts in a different way. Being located along a river or ocean, where others from distant lands share their view of the world with you, results in a different view of the world.

    The US is a big country with lots of land, meaning lots of places for people to avoid interaction with others, and the ability to segregate or sequester one's self, and only hang out with like-minded individuals, thus avoiding interaction with those we do not like or trust. It is a little difficult to grow emotionally and intellectually hanging by one's self.

    Thanks again for commenting. We hope that you decide to visit regularly.

  8. Some continue to argue that citizens should be required to possess a certain level of civic knowledge before being permitted to vote. Do you feel that the lack of sophistication of some substantial segment of our population contributed to Obama's election this past November, or McCain's defeat?


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