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   from the issue of October 14, 2004

Americans prefer 'stealth democracy,' professors discover


While Americans may be devoted to the larger concept of democracy, research by John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse shows we find some democratic processes difficult and even distasteful.

Elizabeth Theiss-Morse and John Hibbing research citizens' attitudes about democracy. Photo by Brett Hampton.
Elizabeth Theiss-Morse and John Hibbing research citizens' attitudes about democracy. Photo by Brett Hampton.

Hibbing, Foundation Regents University Professor of political science, and Theiss-Morse, professor of political science, have published three books on the public perception of democracy in the United States: Congress as Public Enemy: Public Attitudes Toward American Political Institutions, What Is It About Government That Americans Dislike? and Stealth Democracy: Americans' Beliefs About How Government Should Work.

"When you ask students about why they are voting the way they are, you rarely get an answer about the issues," Hibbing said. Terrorism and the war in Iraq may be the exceptions, but most political issues are just not of much interest to most people.

Instead, Hibbing said, people want to get a sense of the candidates as people. For example, this year's presidential election has featured characterizations of John Kerry as a flip-flopper and President Bush as a puppet for Halliburton and big oil. In both cases, the emphasis is on alleged motive more than actual substance, Hibbing said.

In the couple's Congress as Public Enemy, "We were interested in why people hated Congress so much," Theiss-Morse said. She and Hibbing had been working independently on related topics. They joined forces and, with a National Science Foundation grant, conducted a national survey with focus groups.

"Our original collaboration seemed sensible," Hibbing said, "because I was a Congress guy and Beth was interested in the attitudes and behavior of ordinary people. So how people behaved toward Congress really brought our interests together.

"We were surprised to learn that people didn't think politicians were doing the wrong things when making law, but rather they thought politicians were doing things for the wrong reasons," he said.

Hibbing and Theiss-Morse found that most people in the focus groups believed that Americans are in agreement on what needs to be done, whether that's making the country prosperous or safe from terrorism. But they also believe that special interests have too much power, politicians argue too much, and they are too self-interested.

Then the duo pursued the question of whether these attitudes apply to the broader political arena and not just Congress. In Stealth Democracy, thanks to another NSF grant, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse addressed what people really want out of government.

Getting this information was a challenge, Hibbing said, because most people don't have a well-formulated vision in mind. But, generally, the later findings on government were consistent with the earlier findings on Congress. People were not dissatisfied with policies and often had difficulty mentioning recent governmental policies. But they were upset with the nature of general governmental processes, the perceived selfish motivations of politicians, and the influence of special interests.

The results from Stealth Democracy apply to recent elections, Theiss-Morse said. Exit polls after the 2000 election showed that many voters who were closer to Al Gore than George Bush on the issues and who believed Gore was more competent still voted for Bush, Hibbing said. The question naturally arose as to why a person would vote for someone who was seen as less competent and not as close on the issues. Research showed that voters find personal attributes very important.

"For example, if a candidate is believed to really care about other people," Hibbing said, "that goes a long way." Gore was often perceived as stiff, while Bush was better at projecting empathy.

Another aspect of their research showed that Americans want to participate in democracy if a compelling issue arises, but they hope the need never arises, Theiss-Morse said. Americans aren't nearly as attracted to democratic processes as conventional wisdom would have us believe, she said. They don't want to have to deal with politics, and democracy insists that they must. They would rather leave it to somebody else - if only they could trust that "somebody else" to act in a selfless fashion.

Asked if the country would be better off if decisions were made by successful business people or unelected experts, about one-half of survey respondents agreed with one or both of those propositions. The key again, Hibbing said, is that the person holding the office not be doing the job for self-interest.

Members of the activist group Common Cause want to clean up politics by removing self-interest, assuming that then people will get involved. But Hibbing and Theiss-Morse take issue with that.

"Beth and I are making the contrarian argument that people would be less involved in politics if they believed politicians were not self-interested," Hibbing said. "The person most likely to get involved is one who thinks one party is self-interested while the other party isn't."

Getting more citizens involved in politics just to get them involved isn't enough, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse said. Along with involvement, an understanding of the system is important, so the educational system needs to teach citizens about the real nature of democracy - warts and all.

"If they don't understand what democracy's all about when they vote," Hibbing said, "voting may make them more cynical than ever. If we could couple the desire to get involved with an understanding of the complex nature of democratic politics, then we've got something."



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