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KCB 311

Jon-Eric Melsaeter
N 4243579

Week 7: Public Opinion


Question 1:

Interpretations of the political sophistication of publics have been many and varied
since the accomplishment of democracy. This essay will firstly discuss the early
theorisations about ideological sophistication, and then it will secondly criticize the
conclusions contemporary political science has reached. As a final point, it will
illuminate some of the issues it will face in the current environment. As a whole, this
essay will argue that political science has been too quantitative and has a
consequence become out of touch with the dynamics of the micro- and macro
environments in today’s society. To understand how interpretations of western
political sophistication has developed, it perhaps wise to look at the ideal from which
it sprung.

The classical conceptualisations of democracy are very much ideological. Early on,
the political philosophers and scholars of The Enlightenment like Rousseau, Locke
and Tocqueville theorised that one of the key features of democracy is participation
by an informed electorate. Habermas (1979) introduced the notion of the public
sphere, where involved, rational citizens would meet and discuss politics. The
authoritarian view that an elite should dictate what is rational and what is not, is
truly modernist. The modernists sought to encapsulate in one theory an
understanding of the hard, non-human world that would allow us to predict (in the
vein of science) how everything worked as a system which could be grasped. This is
never more evident than in the benchmark study The American Voter. Mirroring the
epitome of liberal, authoritative and materialist democracy, it quite unflatteringly
concluded that the American citizen was no more than an uninformed, ignorant
dupe, and that the job of running the country is best left to the knowledgeable,
enlightened elite (in other words, the educated, male and rational bourgeois). Phillip
Converse, another materialist-modernist drove the nail further in the coffin by
concluding that most of the electorate had no meaningful beliefs, even on issues that
the elites had intensely debated (McAllister, p. 174). Ultimately, what political
scientists like McAllister forget and seem totally blindsided by, is the influence of
critical theory.

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KCB 311
Jon-Eric Melsaeter
N 4243579

Dalton outlines the development of what he calls ‘the unsophisticated citizen (Dalton
1996, p. 189) and does argue that ‘the elitist theory overlooks the complexities of
the democratic process and takes an unsophisticated view of the evidence (ibid, p
193),’ as well as implicitly showing the effect of a post modern influence when he
further explains how the conditions for political sophistication has changed. But,
Dalton makes a huge mistake when he tries to explain increased political
sophistication by using television as an example. Although I believe he is right to
argue that television has been a huge influence, he is far from competent enough to
take on the influence of mass media and include it in his discussion. The complexities
and the distance between the theoretical foundations are too great. McAllister proves
this beyond what I can even begin to attempt by stating ‘what appears to have
happened is that ideological sophistication did increase in the 1960s and 1970’s, but
the increase was small, and was at least partly the consequence of the political
activity generated by the anti-Vietnam war movement (McAllister 1992, p 175).’
What about a little something called feminism, and the enormous rise of socialism
throughout Europe and America (1968 student-revolt ring a bell?)?

[i]t probably was inevitable that early empirical studies would


reach negative conclusions about the public political sophistication.
Analysts judged citizens against the lofty ideals of classis
democratic theory, and reality fell short of the theoretical ideals.
When this occurred, analysts stressed the shortfall.
(Dalton 1996, p. 203)
When Dalton admits that political science has fallen short and concurringly (and quite
unknowingly to him, funnily) exclaims: ‘[t]o the surprise of some political science
professors, politics is only one part of people’s lives (ibid, p. 203), he also explains
the sad status quo of political science’s conceptual understanding of the total political
and socio-economic environment. Dalton and McAllister are used here to exemplify
the understanding of a larger political science surrounding. They have both (long
overdue) concluded that things are a little more complicated than they thought. The
advancement of new media technologies and the convergent nature of mass media
change our culture and perceptions and the way we communicate. Marshall
McLuhan, a noted communication-scholar, believed that our culture is moving away

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KCB 311
Jon-Eric Melsaeter
N 4243579

from customs and beliefs based on books, and adopting approaches more suited to
the new media:

• Complex circular (feedback) flows, rather than simple linear designs.


• Holistic thinking, rather than fragmented ideas.
• Multidimensional perspectives on things.
• An acceptance of discontinuity in experience and ideas.
• Communication strategies based on appeal to emotion rather than rationality.

McLuhan (1964)

The elitist notion of the ‘public-sphere’ has been outdated for some time, and has
long been replaced by what John Hartley theorises as the ‘media-sphere (Hartley
1999). When theorising Hartley, Cunningham in Mobilising the Audience argues that
this way of viewing public communication is more useful than ‘Habermas modernist
understanding of the public sphere standing outside of and even over and against its
“mediatisation” (Cunningham in Balnaves et. Al 2002, p. 268).’ One implication one
can draw from this, is that a fragmented media- / political- / socio-economic
environment creates fragmented audiences with specialised interests. An example of
this development is civilian- and commercial lobbyist groups.

From a very modernistic starting point, blankly stating that the profession of politics
should be left over to the elite, reality has finally dawned on analysts that publics are
more sophisticated than they initially thought, the total environment which they have
analysed has been more complex than their research designs and that it is they that
have had to catch up.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
McLuhan, M (1964), Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Mentor books, New York.

Habermas, J. (1979), Communication and the evolution of society, Boston, Beacon

McAllister, I. (1992), "Public opinion", Political Behaviour: Citizens, Parties and Elites in Australia,
Melbourne: Longman Chehsire, Chapter 4.

Dalton, R. (1996), "The nature of mass beliefs", Citizen Politics: Public Opinion and Political Parties in
Advanced Western Democracies, 2nd Ed., Chatham, New Jersey: Chatham House Publishers, Chapter 2.

Hartley, J. (1999), Uses of Television, London & New York, Routledge.

Cunningham, S. (2002), “Theorising the Diasporic Audience,” in Balnaves, O’Regan & Sternberg
Mobilising the Audience, University of Queensland Press, Chapter 12.

3
KCB 311
Jon-Eric Melsaeter
N 4243579