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Mass Publics Apathetic About Democratic Norms?

Summary:
This post gestures to a worrisome argument that could be constructed by combining arguments from certain references. It is also more about current events than most posts on this blog. Philip Converse's argument that most members of the mass public are ideologically innocent has long been influential among political scientists. Why should those who have families to raise, bills to pay, and jobs to take up their time pay much attention to the details of politics? Barber and Pope (2018) provides recent empirical evidence, from something like a natural experiment, that conservative Republicans, especially, are unprincipled. Their results are based on a survey conducted in early 2017, before Trump had a record as governing. Since Trump does not care to know anything about anything, one

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This post gestures to a worrisome argument that could be constructed by combining arguments from certain references. It is also more about current events than most posts on this blog.

Philip Converse's argument that most members of the mass public are ideologically innocent has long been influential among political scientists. Why should those who have families to raise, bills to pay, and jobs to take up their time pay much attention to the details of politics?

Barber and Pope (2018) provides recent empirical evidence, from something like a natural experiment, that conservative Republicans, especially, are unprincipled. Their results are based on a survey conducted in early 2017, before Trump had a record as governing. Since Trump does not care to know anything about anything, one can truthfully report statements of him supporting either side on almost any issue. The survey contained questions on minimum wages, taxes, abortion, immigration, gun control, Iran, health care, background checks, climate change, planned parenthood. Conservative republicans are unprincipled. Some surveys just asked the questions. Others reported Trump's opinion in a liberal direction. Others reported Trump's opinion in a conservative direction. "[L]ow knowledge respondents, strong Republicans, Trump-approving respondents, and self-described conservatives" generally just follow what their leader says.

It is difficult to construct an experiment like this for others. One might think that liberal Democrats might be swayed against a position by hearing that it is Trump's position. But one would like to find an authority that they accept that is equally inconsistent. Otherwise, one would have to assign views in a survey that are not truthful. As I understand it, the latter is what Jaydani and Chang (2019) do in demonstrating that mainstream economists are unprincipled. They show agreement with a statement among economists depends on whether it is assigned to a mainstream economist or to a heterodox economist.

Levitsky and Ziblatt (2018) argue that a democracy deteriorates into something like fascism when gate keepers fail to uphold democratic norms. I do not know if this is an example, but journalists are trained in an ethic in which one is supposed to disclose an interest in a story, if one has one. Sean Hannity, for example, violated this norm when he reported on Michael Cohen and Trump's violation of campaign finance laws; Cohen was Hannity's lawyer for certain real estate transactions. Calling the press "the enemy of the people" is a fascist slogan. American First is a slogan for pro-Nazis. Presidents do not accuse the Chairman of the Federal Reverse of playing politics. Whatever one may think of these norms, I do not expect many watchers of, say, Fox News to worry about this sort of rhetoric unless it is pointed out to them by authorities they trust.

Mark Tushnet's 2004 concept of constitutional hardball is another discussion of democratic norms in the United States. And he argued that they were being violated, partly in a tit-for-tat fashion. For example, how willing is Congress to give advise and consent to qualified appointees of the President when he is of the other party? Fishkin and Pozen argue that a willingness to throw out norms that uphold our system of government is not symmetrical.

Stanley (2018) can be read as suggesting that the effects of elites and gate keepers to fail to uphold democratic norms can be cumulative. Anti-intellectualism and a disrespect for truth leads followers to be unaware of norms being violated. Conspiracy theorizing and a sense of victimhood increases. Followers become less accepting of reasoned argument and more dismissive of those not in their hierarchy.

To summarize: members of mass publics cannot be expected to understand the risks of willful and blatant violation of democratic norms without leadership. In the give and take of politics, our leaders have been not upholding such norms and, in fact, have been discarding them. Perhaps a process of cumulative causation is underway that can lead to nowhere good.

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