Category Archives: Political Socialization and Participation

Voting and the Mystery of it All

Cropped version of :Image:Iraqi voters in Bagh...

Cropped version of :Image:Iraqi voters in Baghdad.jpg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is voting a form of conventional or unconventional political participation?  I guess it all depends on your definition of . . . voting.  For years I’ve been telling students about how my mother voted for Bill Clinton (first run) because she liked his hair (to be fair, she had also expressed the opinion that she thought Senator Robert Dole—Clinton’s opponent—was too old to be President).  I also explain to my students why her comments could be so troubling to a son that teaches political science and who, incidentally, both worked on the Clinton campaign as a partisan staffer in Illinois and contributed to the Glass Ceiling Commission Report (sponsored by Senator Robert Dole of Kansas) while working at a California think tank in the early 1990s.

I share these stories with my students to illustrate the conundrum that I believe voting presents to academics and pundits alike.  As a form of political participation it is routinely mentioned as one of the most conventional forms of political behavior practiced by Americans.  A search of the thesaurus on the term “conventional” results in usual, established, standard, normal, etc.  In other words, one would truly expect that voting is something done often and by many or most people whenever presented with an opportunity to do so.  The problem is that in most elections most people who can don’t vote—that is by casting a ballot.  Voter turnout (the actual percentage of eligible voters who vote in a particular election) in non-presidential elections rarely rises above fifty percent.  In many local elections voter turnout is lucky to rise above twenty percent (many municipal elections fall into this category).  Even if we just limit our discussion to people who vote, does my mother’s selection of Bill Clinton based on youth and attractiveness, and yes, years of party identification as a Democrat biasing her selection from the get-go, actually deserve to be compared to a person’s comparison of candidates on important policy differences?  What if someone just walks into a voting booth, closes their eyes, and just starts poking holes in the ballot—is that voting?

In my estimation, if we used that actual meaning of the word “conventional” as our metric, voting would have to be listed as a form of non-conventional participation, right up there with attending political meetings, and participating in a demonstration (and let us not forget donating to a candidate or campaign, running for office, or even contacting an elected official, just to name a few).  Truth be told, I just happen to believe in democracy as a form of government.  I just don’t agree with the emphasis placed on voting at the expense of all the other ways a person can participate in governing—themselves, their workplaces, neighborhoods, cities, counties, states and even nations.  What do you think?  Does the material in your textbooks and course lectures support or detract from my basic thesis?  I would like to know.

–DENNIS FALCON

Weekly Quiz: Test Yourself on this Week’s Events

The weekly quiz is now live in Mypoliscilab. Good luck!

Race and the Hispanic Vote

English: White Hispanic and Latino Americans

English: White Hispanic and Latino Americans (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is the second in a series of blogs focusing on what some like to refer to as the Hispanic vote.  It is intended to edify those elements of the MyPoliSciLab community that may just be learning of the increasingly important role Hispanic voters will play in American politics.  This installment will consider the significance of race as a factor influencing our understanding of the emerging Hispanic vote across the country.

First of all, the term Hispanic does not actually discriminate according to race (although many researchers do take race into account when studying Hispanics).  Hispanics born in the United States as part of the baby boom generation (and for decades before that) would have been designated as “White” or “Caucasian” on their birth certificates.  Of course, Hispanic newborns with parents or a parent displaying “Black” or African American features or characteristics would have likely been designated as “colored” or “Black” depending on the particular time in history.  In actuality Hispanics can be White and Black—or both as in the case of a bi-racial individual.  Given the state of political science research on the matter, traditional voting models that take race into account and predict that White voters are more likely to support republican candidates and African American or Black voters are more likely to support democratic candidates, are problematic when we take into account Hispanic voters.  The current state of the discipline suggests that including Hispanics in the models is reasonable based on the understanding that Hispanics represent a different population.  I am suggesting that they do not.

Hispanics, as we currently understand the term, come from the nations of North, Central, and South America.  They are White, Black, and Indian (indigenous, indígena) and every possible iteration you can think of.  Discussions regarding the Hispanic vote in both the mainstream and new media are still likely to follow in the footsteps of those who have an over-simplified understanding of their Hispanic brothers and sisters.  What do you think?  Should political scientists lead the way in terms of changing the way we talk about Hispanic political behavior?  Can the media make heads or tails of the issues involved?

–DENNIS FALCON

Selective Perception Among Voters

Media coverage of political campaigns tends to focus on the horserace—the reporting of public opinion results on a daily, sometimes hourly basis.  They also tend to focus on the attempts by candidates and their managers to craft images and messages to suit particular blocks of voters.  Unfortunately, only scant reporting is made of the conflicting and sometimes contradictory opinions and perceptions held among a candidate’s supporters.  Comments made by people in the crowd, the “man-in-the-street,” are reported without filter and as matters-of-fact, with little or no attempt to probe or challenge their assertions.  A more critical ear would likely provide an important opportunity to explore the role of selective perception among the voting public.

Selective perception is a concept taken from the study of public opinion (with a background in the field of psychology) that describes the influence of our biases and prejudices on our interpretations of various forms of information and experiences.  The literature on selective perception suggests that certain predispositions filter our perspectives and attitudes, especially in the context of supporting or not supporting a particular candidate.  Just think of the role that ideology and partisanship play as filters at work in the minds of potential voters.  Understanding how selective perception works helps us understand why so many voters accept or ignore the mistakes, miscues, and waffling of candidates over the course of an election—when it’s their candidate.  When it’s another candidate, the same lens that is used to forgive is now turned into a magnifying glass that is used to scorch the opposition.  What do you think?  Should reporters do more to explore the role of selective perception when on the campaign trail?  How might more critical reporting of the voting public affect election coverage?

–DENNIS FALCON

Occupying Free Speech

The “occupy” movement of 2011 will go down as a lesson on the limits of the First Amendment and free speech rights for groups and individuals that have little more than something to say.  The real free speech battle on the horizon is the looming explosion in campaign spending that will dwarf all previous records set in that regard.  On the heels of the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, corporations—newly bestowed with the rights of personhood—and by extension, unions will stage movements that only the too big to fail can dream of.  Where the “occupy” movement took over public spaces, corporate and union money will occupy both public and private space with little regard for the “time, place, and manner” restrictions that have limited activists around the country.

Generally speaking, government can restrict free speech by using any number of time, place, and manner justifications.  After all, people can’t do what they want whenever they want; or wherever they want; or however they want—that would be in invitation to anarchy.  Free speech is like coloring; you have to stay within the lines.  Forget the fact that the lines are only there in the free speech sense when there is an enforcement mechanism of some sort.  Across the country it has been law enforcement agencies of one kind or another that have stepped in on the behalf of largely non-complaining others to bring the occupiers back into the fold.  In a recent blog, Professor David Hollinger of Berkeley suggests that actions like “occupy Berkeley” are misguided representations of free speech and are distracting probably well –intentioned people from focusing on the larger issues with which the occupy movement should be concerned.  He’s partly right.  The evils of capitalism and Wall Street are hardly issues we can lay at the door step of local and state public institutions (like UC Berkeley).  Unfortunately, it is local and state governments that are enforcing restrictions on free speech and assembly, with the likely consequence of having a chilling effect on some of our most cherished freedoms.  History Professor, remember Shay’s Rebellion?  The rebels seized government institutions that were involved in enforcing evictions and repossessions.  Every campus police officer, every local sheriff or cop that arrests a protestor, is indirectly siding with the powers that be.  Flower petals in rifle barrels.  Peace.

–DENNIS FALCON

Unapologetic Cognitive Dissonance

During a tour to remind “Americans of our history,” Sarah Palin wrongfully described the legendary midnight ride of Paul Revere as thus:

“by ringing those bells, and makin’ sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be sure and we were going to be free, and we were going to be armed.”

Revisionist history is nothing new to American politics but it has been taken to a whole new level in the past few days as Palin supporters scrambled to rewrite the purpose and significance of Paul Revere’s midnight ride instead of admitting the obvious blunder. In fact, loyal supporters attempted to edit the Wikipedia page on Paul Revere in an attempt to transform Palin’s incorrect version of history into a factual account of American lore.

The eagerness of partisan supporters and pundits to rewrite history simply to compensate for the misinterpretation of historic events by a preferred politician  is symptomatic of the toll political socialization has had on segments of the American political system. Political socialization is a lifelong process by which people form and acquire their political attitudes and values via family, mass media, school system, and peer groups. However, are tea party supports, as well as the republican politicians who cater to them, becoming so politically socialized by Fox News and the events of the 2008 presidential election that they will knowingly and enthusiastically ignore basic historic facts concerning the American Revolution merely to maintain the illusion that their side is the only true arbiter of U.S. history and constitutional awareness?

Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling you get when you simultaneously hold two conflicting ideas. To alleviate this feeling, people will sometimes resort to justifying incorrect information or denying reality in an attempt to avoid acceptance of facts causing the aforementioned cognitive dissonance. The main goal of the tea party movement is to restore America to the vision set forth by the American Founding Fathers. Obviously, this noble goal requires an understanding of history. As such, the supporters of this movement cannot admit that the movement’s favorite spokesman lacks a basic understand of American history as it would force them to question the movement as a whole. Thus, the unapologetic cognitive dissonance and passionate acceptance of Sarah Palin’s self-evident revisionism by her supporters.

–TERRANCE MULLINS