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The Vanishing Voter: A Blessing in Disguise?

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The framers of the U.S. Constitution were concerned that citizens would vote too much and too impulsively, as they had done under the Articles of Confederation. So they established institutions that curtailed complete popular sovereignty, including the electoral college and the Senate.

Nowadays, however, rather than worry about the tyranny of the majority, scholars of politics tend to denounce the political passivity of the majority. To these scholars, the steadily declining voter turnout rate is an alarming trend that must be reversed.

Thomas Patterson’s The Vanishing Voter exemplifies this modern scholarly anxiety. Citing data from his “Vanishing Voter Project” at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, which surveyed citizens during the 2000 presidential campaign, Patterson concludes that the structure of the electoral system is most at fault for record low levels of voter turnout and voter knowledge of key campaign issues. He believes that as a result of the advent of the television news media and increasing social complexity, the electoral system has evolved in the last 50 years away from the needs of the voters. Because the electoral system does not engage them enough, and often repulses them, many citizens spend very little time talking, thinking or learning about politics.

According to Patterson, whose discussion focuses on presidential campaigns, some modern developments that make politics so unattractive and discouraging are the increasing skepticism and interpretive style of the news media and the lengthening of the campaign season.

Although most accounts of the news media’s antagonistic relationship with politicians begin with Watergate and the Vietnam War, Patterson traces it back to the introduction of the thirty-minute nightly newscast in 1963. To make their programs more entertaining, newscasters began to practice explanatory or interpretive journalism, where they would weigh the importance of events and analyze their causes, rather than merely describe them.

This practice then spread to print journalism and intensified. Patterson argues that journalists, instead of the events that they were reporting, became the center of the news; analysis and opinions replaced sound bites and direct quotes. This development, in conjunction with the skepticism toward government authority that Vietnam and Watergate produced, infused political news with an extremely negative tone. Patterson argues that this negative tone breeds mistrust of politicians among members of the public and thus causes them to participate less.

To combat this trend, Patterson proposes that network stations be required to dedicate more prime-time coverage to live campaign events, such as the party conventions, primary debates, and hour-long interviews with the leading candidates. But he acknowledges that while these recommendations would make direct, unmediated political information more available to the public, unless the members of the public suddenly became more interested in politics, it is unlikely that they would pay attention to the information.

This is why Patterson recommends changing the nomination system so that it appeals to voters by featuring more drama and spectacle. His Vanishing Voter surveys find that people tend to pay more attention to politics, and become more involved in it, during dramatic periods, such as the major party conventions and presidential debates. Patterson argues, though, that the excessive length of the current primary system has drained much of the excitement from these special events. By the time of the conventions, or even the later primaries, the major parties have already chosen their candidates, rendering those events meaningless. Patterson believes that shortening the nomination system by scheduling a few single state primaries only a few months before the summer conventions, and then holding an “Ultimate Tuesday” primary for the remaining states just before the conventions, would sufficiently increase the drama.

Patterson makes a compelling case that these changes, in addition to others like making election day a national holiday and permitting election-day registration, would increase voter turnout. But he fails to prove that a higher turnout rate is a desirable thing.

Patterson is not alone in making this mistake; much of the empirical work on voting behavior takes it for granted that more participation is always better than less. This assumption, however, ignores the implications of perhaps the most consistent and well-established finding in voter survey research: those who do not vote tend to know almost nothing about politics. In fact, while most of those who do vote are more politically knowledgeable than those who don’t, they still lack enough information to cast an adequately informed vote. For instance, Patterson finds that just before the 2000 presidential election, a majority of voters could identify only one of each candidate’s policy positions.

Of course, Patterson believes that his recommendations will produce a well-informed electorate. But an accurate understanding of his “benchmark” for a wellfunctioning electorate — the electorates of the 1950s and 1960s — reveals the intractability of the public’s political ignorance. Patterson portrays the 1950s and 1960s as a period of intense and widespread partisanship in which people were divided over grand philosophical issues, such as the government’s proper role in regulating the economy, and aligned themselves with the political party that adopted their positions. But this portrayal of the fifties, at least, overlooks one of the most influential works of that period on voting behavior, Phillip Converse’s “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics.”

Converse found that very few voters in 1954 understood the ideological differences or even the substantive policy positions of the two major parties; rather, most of those who affiliated themselves with particular parties did so due to an oversimplified understanding of the groups that the party supported, or of the party’s position on a particular issue. And the majority of voters could not even reasonably be affiliated with either of the parties. Converse’s conclusion, that “large portions of an electorate do not have meaningful beliefs, even on issues that have formed the basis for intense political controversy among elites for substantial periods of time,” has been consistently confirmed by modern survey research.

Patterson partly blames the public’s political ignorance on the recent emergence of “interest group politics.” Because politicians now cater to small pockets of the electorate by making campaign promises on narrowly tailored issues rather than taking positions on broad, overarching ideas, the majority of the uninformed can no longer rely on political parties as a proxy for a particular candidate’s policy positions. While it makes sense to note, as Patterson does, that the increasing complexity of politics (and the world in general) reduces the utility of political parties, he does not recognize that the broad, overarching ideas he craves are meaningful only to people who are politically sophisticated enough that, like Patterson himself, they can and will assimilate political ideologies. But since most voters did not understand politics when reliable “rules of thumb” like political parties were available, how can Patterson expect the public to become better informed now in an even more complex and challenging environment?

If widespread political ignorance cannot be reduced, it is perhaps counterproductive to encourage more people to vote more unless democracy is an end in itself, regardless of how well or poorly democratic decisions are made or how harmful popularly chosen policies are.

Allowing the politically sophisticated elite to control the government, however, as Patterson recognizes, may be worse. While the political elite tend to be relatively better informed, Converse found that their beliefs also tend to be more dogmatic because they are more ideological.

Patterson similarly finds that the most active voters are also the most rigidly partisan, even though the complexity and independence of most political issues render the partisan bundling of issues illogical. An ideology or a partisan affiliation, as Converse puts it, “constrains” the ideologue’s or partisan’s thought processes; it predetermines those beliefs that are acceptable and those that are not. Hence those who are innocent of ideologies — that is, most of the public — possess belief systems that are more flexible and eccentric, even while they are much less well informed than the ideological and partisan elite.

Relying on a broad ideology allows people to form opinions on a wide range of issues and organize large amounts of political information. But it can also cause people to be more close-minded and resistant to worthy ideas that fall outside of their ideologies. Patterson recognizes the danger that this latter tendency produces; it results in extremism, divisiveness, and rancorous debates, all three of which hinder sound policy making.

Considering the close-mindedness of the political elite, it may be better to rely on the political decisions of the uninformed public. Still, this choice does not entail the unquestioned celebration of popular sovereignty that plagues Patterson’s study. Rather, acknowledging the Hobson’s choice between an uninformed public and a dogmatic elite should cause scholars to shift their attention away from research like Patterson’s that only focuses on ways to empower the uninformed, and toward the question of whether there is any way to make wise political decisions in a complicated world.

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Matthew Weinshall is a 2001 graduate of Harvard College. Email him at






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