Volume XXVIII Number 1
Photo by Jim Whitcraft
Photos of political memorabilia, courtesy of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University—Purdue University Fort Wayne
Party Politics at a Fever Pitch
Michael Wolf has a message for his fellow political scientists: Be careful what you wish for.
Not long ago, many political scientists were convinced of the need to strengthen the nation’s two dominant political parties, Wolf says. In the 1950s and ’60s, it was hard to argue with them. America had just finished fighting World War II, a long and destructive battle initiated by Fascist parties in Germany and Italy who had come to power in large part because weaker political groups had failed to stop them. The prescription to prevent this from happening in the United States seemed simple: (1) make the two existing political parties stronger and more ideological, (2) give voters a clear choice come Election Day, and (3) sleep well knowing the nation was safe from extremists who might ultimately bring down the republic and everything it stands for.
The prescription worked quite well, says Wolf, an assistant professor of political science at Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne who studies voting behavior and voter opinion. A quick measure of the nation’s political health in 2005 reveals two powerful parties with strong differences and equally strong wills. A majority of voters would have little difficulty telling the two sides apart, and most political experts would likely agree that voters have a pretty clear sense of where the man in the White House stands on the major issues of the day. So what if the nation’s temperature is a bit on the high side these days, the level of discourse a bit feverish, the feelings for the other side at a boiling point. Isn’t this the vigor that political scientists wanted?
“We have exactly what they wanted—responsible, programmatic parties that voters can easily tell apart,” Wolf says. Yet many of today’s political scientists and experts are racing to find a cure for what they perceive to be an ailing political democracy. They argue that there is not enough citizen participation, not enough serious discussion of issues, not enough political dissent.
Wolf agrees, but he remains a glass-half-full type. He’s a “numbers guy,” and it is the numbers—particularly those resulting from polls and surveys he has studied—that have convinced him democracy is not a lost cause. Democracy is actually doing pretty well, he says. For example, voter participation among young people (ages 18 to 29) has “jumped off the charts” over the past nine years (45 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds voted in the 2004 presidential election compared to 20 percent in 1996).
“On the surface, the close competition (between Democrats and Republicans) has been uncomfortable. A lot of people dislike the notion of competitiveness, the down and dirty campaign,” Wolf says. “But since 1988, we’ve seen a rebirth in the notion that you have to get every possible vote you can. The get-out-the-vote movements have really grown. Before that, a lot of scholars argued we were losing the ground war—knocking on doors, calling people up. In this past election, we saw an unbelievable effort to reach people in inner city neighborhoods and in rural neighborhoods.
“You can argue that the competition has been good,” he continues. “Sure, it’s uncomfortable, and a lot of what you hear is negative. But the negative is often more informative than the positive stuff. It provides much more insight into the issues and a person’s background.”
Wolf currently is researching how the tone and substance of information as well as the salience of the political topic being debated affect American political opinions. His research suggests that our attitudes toward the president and his handling of prominent issues such as the war in Iraq are not easily moved. Our minds are largely made up and unlikely to change, even when we’re presented with new information supportive of the president—Wolf examined the impact on public opinion of clearly positive newspaper opinion pieces about President Bush’s Iraq policies. Only when we’re given both new information and polling data supportive of the president’s performance do our attitudes shift.
On less salient issues, though, our attitudes aren’t as well formed, and positive information in any form may boost our views of the president’s performance. Wolf looked at how Americans viewed the president’s handling of Social Security before it was a central piece of his second-term agenda. He discovered that polling data indicating a majority of Americans supported the White House’s proposals for Social Security’s future raised the public’s evaluation of how well the president was doing on the issue.
Simply put, we go with the flow, Wolf says. “Generally speaking, on a lot of issues, the American people have pretty firm attitudes, and you can’t really budge them that much. And we like to stick to our preformed attitudes in light of contrary evidence. Partisans will view issues through a partisan screen, and they won’t change. I could tell you who people will vote for in 2008, and we don’t even have a candidate yet!”
Wolf isn’t necessarily bothered by voters’ stubbornness. There will always be people who don’t care about politics, people who are political partisans but aren’t particularly tuned in, and partisans who are engaged and fiercely ideological. These groups’ numbers have remained fairly consistent in recent years, he says. Rather, Wolf is troubled by an uninformed electorate whose opinions can be swayed by “impersonal” information sources, such as the ever-present public opinion poll.
No longer do public opinion polls merely reflect the public’s beliefs, they now have the potential to drive opinion, Wolf explains in an article he co-authored with David Holian, a political scientist at the University at North Carolina at Greensboro. The polls may provide only an “echo chamber on issues the public does not grasp well to begin with,” the co-authors write. “Is there really an informed public opinion on how well the president performs on a particular issue? Or is the understanding of certain issues so shallow and without content that scholars, the media, and public officials interpret the results as a whole greater than the sum of the parts?”
“We’re not saying there’s some voodoo going on with public opinion polls, but they do have an effect,” Wolf says.
Having completed an examination into how external information affects political opinion, Wolf has now turned his attention to where people—particularly those who are very partisan, very engaged, and, presumably, very well informed—get their information. These people, who currently constitute the largest group of voters, are “interested in getting more information, but typically use that information only to support their views,” Wolf says. He points to the decline in viewership at several of the major (and some might argue “liberal”) news networks such as NBC and CNN and the sharp increase in ratings at Fox News between the 2004 Democratic and Republican conventions. “People are selectively exposing themselves to information that might make them mad,” he says.
“I find that these same people seldom talk politics with people from the other party, so there’s this shutdown effect,” he adds. For instance, if a partisan voter receives an extreme e-mail attacking his or her chosen candidate, Wolf says this process only makes the voter’s opinions more entrenched. “Instead of this being a democratic or rational process, we’re weighing evidence that we want to hear,” he says.
Americans are coming off one of the most spirited (or mean-spirited, depending on who you ask) campaigns in recent memory. It was a campaign centered on an incendiary issue (the war in Iraq) that drove a record number of voters to the polls. But it will be remembered for much more. Blogs.
E-mails. Moveon.org. The media investigation into the Swift Boat veterans’ attacks against John Kerry and the media coverage of President Bush’s war record. Comedian and former MTV talk show host Jon Stewart joining the ranks of top media watchdogs and sources of political information. A political documentary (Fahrenheit 9/11) becoming one of the most talked-about movies of the year.
Angry filmmakers, overzealous newshounds, and smart aleck comedians might be off-putting to some, but Wolf leaves the cynicism to the Comedy Central crew. He says he’s “bullish” about the future of American democracy. He’s most encouraged by the wealth of information now available to us and the potential that exists for that information to help us make better-informed decisions.
“There are more information sources than ever before,” he says. “Some are clearly biased, and you want to be cautious. I don’t expect we’ll all become super-citizens, and partisanship will always play an important role in politics, but I think, for the most part, Americans perform pretty well.”
Wolf is optimistic, but what about those political ideologues who remain convinced that democracy is under siege?
“When the competition is close, there’s always the temptation to worry that a particular battle may undermine democracy,” he says. “But I’m more worried about whether Congress will look for ways to mess with its rules that will have a permanent effect. Will our elites really respect the traditions of our institutions?
“As for the things we wished for, well, we’ve got them,” Wolf says. “Blogs. E-mails. An engaged public. These things would’ve been the dream of party scholars 50 years ago. This would’ve looked like great news to them.”
Ryan Piurek is a media relations specialist in the IU Office of Media Relations and a freelance writer in Bloomington.