Author Archives: Peter

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.

what if political parties structure our thinking for us?

Presumably, each person should hold a structured set of political opinions. For instance, if you want more government spending without any new taxes, you should be OK with deficits (unless you dispute that deficits will result). If you want a specific right for yourself, you should support the same right for other people, because fairness demands equal protection (unless another worthy principle overrides that conclusion). If you think individual liberty is a high priority, you should oppose censorship (unless you think restricting speech is necessary for a different reason). Each of your beliefs should predict several others, forming a tight network.

In the early 1960s, Philip Converse argued that most Americans’ beliefs were hardly structured at all (Converse 1964). Knowing what a person believed about x would not help you predict what that person believed about y.

Converse’s article has been cited more than 12,000 times and has generated a large literature. Some studies have confirmed his basic finding (e.g., Kinder & Kalmoe 2017). Some use different methods or datasets to challenge his conclusion by finding structure (e.g., Boutyline & Vaisey 2017 or Levine 2022). Some have contested Converse’s interpretation. For instance, maybe people are ambivalent about issues, holding views on both sides. A multiple-choice survey misses their ambivalence and gives a misleading impression that people are inconsistent when they really feel conflicted (Zaller & Feldman 1992).

There is also a line of research that finds that most Americans (Achen & Bartels 2016, p. 268; Sniderman 2017) and Europeans (Galina 2023) hold structured political beliefs, but their structures come from the leaders of their political parties.

It may not be self-evident what a conservative or a progressive party should think about each new topic, from COVID vaccination to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to bailing out a bank in Silicon Valley. But parties do form views, and their voters generally follow suit. Most people’s lists of issue positions mirror those of their party’s leaders. A given person’s ideas may or may not cohere, but they probably correlate closely with the positions of that person’s party.

I do not think that this research settles the empirical issues. The reality is complicated, with many dynamics at work. There are methodological challenges, such as the limitations of surveys that I mentioned earlier. And it’s not completely clear what causes what. (Maybe party elites are affected by their grassroots members or by some third force, such as celebrities.) Nevertheless, I believe there is at least some important truth to the theory that parties organize people’s thinking for them–or, I should say, for us. As Paul Sniderman puts it, “parties organize the choice environment” for voters “and define what goes with what” (Sniderman 2017 p. 71).

How should we assess this situation? Is it good or bad, and does it require some kind of remedy?

One way to think about those questions is to choose a model for understanding political parties. Here are three, amongst others:

  1. Activists and leaders of political parties are highly interested in issues. Most people defer detailed consideration of issues to the leadership of their preferred party. That makes good sense, in the same way that it’s often wise to delegate a decision to a committee of passionate volunteers. Supporters of a party can assess its general direction and use “voice” (becoming involved in the party’s decisions) or “exit” (leaving the party or just voting for a different one), if they are dissatisfied (Hirshman 1970). Perhaps a given political system needs more voice–more participatory opportunities within each party–or more viable parties, so that voters can exit more easily. But we should not be worried by the general finding that people take their cues from party leaders. People are wisely delegating the nitty-gritty work of political analysis to those who enjoy it most. Voters are learning from the more extensive thinking of party leaders.
  2. Party leaders are politicians, defined as people who want and pursue political offices for themselves. They will choose positions on issues to improve their chances of winning. Their self-interest is not shared by ordinary people, who want good outcomes. Insofar as people take their cues from party leaders, they are being used as means to the politicians’ personal ends. In a better democracy, more of us would exhibit individual structures of ideas, and political leaders would have to cater to our views, not the reverse.
  3. Parties basically reflect social interests. In a given system, there may be a party for the farmers, for the urban middle classes, for the observant Catholics, and for a linguistic minority. In the USA, the electoral system forces the concatenation of interests into two umbrella parties, but they are basically coalitions of such interests. Therefore, voters will primarily seek a party that protects the interests that they consider most important (not necessarily material ones). However, a party must also take positions on many other issues. Leaders choose positions that maximize their party’s political appeal and leverage so that they can protect the voters’ core interests. Voters assess parties as tools for protecting their interests, and as long as they are basically satisfied with a given party, they will mimic its specific issue stances.

I think the truth is some mix of these ideas, depending on the political system. After all, countries differ in respect to how many parties they have, whether and to what degree their major parties are ideologically or demographically distinguished, whether coalitions are built inside parties or among them, whether parties exercise discipline over politicians, to what extent intellectual work is conducted inside the parties compared to other sectors of the society, and which kinds of people constitute the party “elites.” (In the USA, official members of the party committees are less influential than nominally nonpartisan pundits and celebrities.)

As usual, empirical evidence is relevant to our political judgments, but it is insufficient. What should we do if “parties organize the choice environment”? Sniderman clarifies the empirical literature and offers some important normative guidance. But his argument makes me want to think harder about how specific parties in specific political systems play their structuring roles and whether their approaches to choosing and combining positions are acceptable.

See also: Mapping Ideologies as Networks of Ideas; are Americans ‘innocent of ideology’?; what if people’s political opinions are very heterogeneous?; two theories of American political parties; social class inversion in the 2022 US elections, etc.

References: Achen, C. H., Bartels, L. M. (2016), Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government; Princeton University Press; Boutyline, A., & Vaisey, S. (2017), Belief network analysis: a relational approach to understanding the structure of attitudes, American journal of sociology, 122(5), 1371-1447; Converse, P.E. (2006) The nature of belief systems in mass publics, Critical review 18.1-3 (2006): 1-74; Kinder D.R. & Kalmoe, N.P. (2007), Neither liberal nor conservative: Ideological innocence in the American public, University of Chicago Press; Gallina, M (2023), Solving the (false) dilemma: an ecological approach to the study of opinion constraint,” Political studies; Hirschman, A. O. (1970), Exit, voice and loyalty: responses to decline in firms, organizations, and states (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press); Levine, P (2022), Mapping ideologies as networks of ideas, Journal of Political Ideologies: 1-28. Sniderman P.M. (2017), The Democratic Faith: Essays on Democratic Citizenship (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), Zaller, J. & Feldman, S. (1992), A simple theory of the survey response: answering questions versus revealing preferences, American Journal of Political Science, 36:3: 579-616

the design choice to make ChatGPT sound like a human

Elizabeth Weil provides a valuable profile of the linguist Emily M. Bender, headlined, “You Are Not a Parrot, and a chatbot is not a human. And a linguist named … Bender is very worried what will happen when we forget this.”

This article alerted me (belatedly, I’m sure) to the choice involved in making artificial intelligence applications mimic human beings and speak to us in the first-person singular.

For instance, since I’m living temporarily in Andalusia, I asked ChatGPT whether I should visit Granada, Spain.

The first sentence of its reply (repeated verbatim when I tried again) was a disclaimer: “As an AI language model, I cannot make decisions for you, but I can provide you with information that may help you decide if Granada, Spain is a destination you would like to visit.”

On one hand, this sentence discloses that the bot isn’t a person. On the other hand, it says, “I can provide …” , which sure sounds like a person.

Then ChatGPT offers a few paragraphs that always seem to include the same main points, conveyed in evaluative sentences like these: “Granada is a beautiful city located in the southern region of Spain, known for its rich history, culture, and stunning architecture. It is home to the world-famous Alhambra Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most visited attractions in Spain. The city is also known for its vibrant nightlife, delicious cuisine, and friendly locals.”

My initial amazement at ChatGPT is wearing off, but the technology remains uncanny. And yet, would it look less impressive it gave more straightforward output? For instance, imagine if I asked whether I should visit Granada, and it replied:

The computer has statistically analyzed a vast body of text produced by human beings and has discerned several patterns. First, when human beings discuss whether to visit a location or recommend doing so, they frequently itemize activities that visitors do there, often under the categories of food, recreation, and sightseeing. Second, many texts that include the words “Grenada, Granada, Spain” also use positive adjectives in close proximity to words about food, sights, and outdoor activities. Specifically, many texts mention the word “Alhambra” in proximity to the phrases “UNESCO heritage site” and “world-famous,” paired with positive adjectives.

This would be an impressive achievement (and potentially useful), but it would not suggest that the computer likes Grenada, Granada wants to help me, or knows any friendly locals. It would be clear that people experience and judge, and ChatGPT statistically models texts.

We human beings also draw statistical inferences from what other people say, and perhaps we even enjoy the Alhambra because human beings have told us that we should. (See “the sublime and other people.”) But I really did see a peacock strutting past palms and reflecting pools in the Carmen de los Martires this morning, whereas ChatGPT will never see anything. Why try to confuse me about the difference?

See also: artificial intelligence and problems of collective action

learning from Robert’s Rules?

I have never been good at Robert’s Rules of Order, even though decades ago I was the president of a student government that supposedly used them. Looking at the by-laws of incorporated boards and bodies that I serve on now, I see that several include language like this: “Except as may be modified by resolution, Robert’s Rules of Order (current edition) shall govern the conduct of [association] proceedings when not in conflict with [state] law or these By-Laws.” Indeed, I’ve found an estimate that “approximately 95% of the organizations in the U.S. prescribe Robert’s as their parliamentary authority.” However, lots of important but informal groups don’t have by-laws, and those that do often seem to pay little attention to their own provisions about Robert’s Rules.

I probably wouldn’t advocate applying Robert’s Rules much more widely than they are used now. Learning–or recalling–the Rules can be burdensome; depending on them can shift power to people who happen to know them already; and they may conflict with contemporary cultures. After all, they were written by a US Army officer in 1876.

Actually, Brig. Gen. Roberts was an abolitionist Southerner who fought on the Union side and did other worthy things, so he may deserve some consideration. In any event, his Rules embody wisdom, and all groups that make decisions should find ways to accomplish some of their fundamental goals. As Roberts wrote in the first edition of his Rules, it was “really not of so great importance” whether his own processes were the best. What was–and remains–important is to adopt transparent ways of operating in order to avoid “the caprice of the chairman, or captiousness of the members.”

That lesson has been re-learned in very different contexts. By 1970, the feminist activist Jo Freeman, aka Joreen, had become frustrated by the emphasis on “leaderless, structureless groups” in the women’s liberation movement. She acknowledged that women were reacting “against the over-structured society in which most of us found ourselves, and the inevitable control this gave others over our lives, and the continual elitism of the Left and similar groups among those who were supposedly fighting this overstructuredness.”

However, Freeman claimed that all groups have structure, and when they purport to be leaderless and free, it just means that the authority is opaque and therefore unaccountable.

She wrote, “At any small group meeting anyone with a sharp eye and an acute ear can tell who is influencing whom.” Those in the core of an informal group “will relate more to each other than to other people. They listen more attentively [to each other], and interrupt less; they repeat each other’s points and give in amiably; they tend to ignore or grapple with the ‘outs’ whose approval is not necessary for making a decision.”

Freeman saw supposedly leaderless groups as tyrannical. “For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities the structure must be explicit, not implicit. The rules of decision-making must be open and available to everyone, and this can happen only if they are formalized.”

Specifically, groups need explicit rules for delegating authority, sharing information, rotating responsibility, making clear commitments, and holding their own decision-makers accountable. These are the very purposes of Robert’s Rules. If we don’t want to use that document, we need alternatives.

I observe the following deficits in many informal groups’ discussions. First, groups are often not clear about what they have promised, so that members and others can know what to expect. An approved resolution is a commitment. If your group doesn’t vote on resolutions per Robert’s Rules, you need other ways to make clear and official commitments.

Second, it is often unclear what the group is doing at a given moment. Is it discussing a choice prior to making a collective decision? Are individuals giving advice to a person or small team who will make the decision? Are members sharing information with each other? Is the group exchanging perspectives on the overall situation and values? Is the task to identify problems and brainstorm options?

These are all valid activities, but they need to be distinguished. Robert’s Rules does so by allowing any member to offer a motion, which (if seconded) becomes the sole topic until it is resolved. A motion must be stated in such a way that it can be adopted or rejected by a vote. Thus, when a motion is on the table, the group’s task is to discuss it in order to inform the individuals’ votes, not to canvass individuals’ advice or share information. A different motion can be offered next, but it must wait its turn.

Informal groups waste precious time and energy–and become frustrated–when they are not clear on what they are doing. In the absence of rules of order, a moderator can keep people on track, but moderation is an advanced skill, and the power can be abused. Some groups develop other approaches, such as writing the current task on a flip chart. One way or another, it’s essential to clarify what is being done now and to allow people to propose doing something different next.

Third, groups need moments when everyone has equal power, even if they choose to empower some individuals for specific tasks. Robert’s Rules mandates voting on an equitable basis. It allows every member to introduce motions. It forbids anyone from speaking twice on a motion unless everyone has had a chance to speak once.

This kind of equality is purchased at the cost of formality. That is actually a familiar tradeoff. Official elections give each citizen one vote, and that requires ballots, voting dates or periods, and myriad other rules. Courtrooms are rife with procedures designed to equalize rights and powers.

Many groups understandably dislike formality, which seems to undermine spontaneous friendship. Yet, as Freeman observed in the women’s movement, informality breeds inequality. Groups must be able to shift to formal processes that protect equality at decisive moments.

Fourth, groups spend too much of the precious resource of time discussing matters that should delegated to individuals or small teams. A whole group is usually too large to function effectively. Many tasks do not present controversial issues that require broad discussion and participation; someone should simply do the work. At the same time, it is important to clarify what has been delegated to whom, to hold the responsible people accountable, and to give them explicit recognition for their service. Robert’s Rules accomplishes those purposes by allowing groups to elect officers for fixed terms, to establish committees, and to delegate specific tasks to committees. Again, there may be other ways to accomplish these purposes, but they cannot be ignored.

See also: a flowchart for collective decision-making in democratic small groups; civic education and the science of associationfriendship and politicsneeded: pragmatists for utopian experiments; and du Bois: “Organization is sacrifice.”

symposium: civic education in the 21st century

This is the video from a recent colloquium entitled “What Should Civic Education Become in the 21st Century?” at the Ohio State Center for Ethics and Human Values (CEHV). Law professor Angela Banks (Arizona State University) and I presented, and the moderator was Ohio State philosopher of education Winston Thompson. The blurb from CEHV says:

Democracies, in their essence, require the engaged participation of their citizens working towards articulating and pursuing shared goals. Arguably, these practices require a degree of skill and preparation such that the value of civic education cannot be overstated as a core component of a successful democracy. But how should societies understand the complexities of civic education in the current age? How should civic education respond to growing calls for justice as voiced through emergent social movements? Amidst rising patterns of immigration and globalized loyalties, can traditional approaches to civic education satisfy the needs of our democracy?

Angela Banks discussed how schools should address citizenship when rights to entry and residency and full legal citizenship are contested, and when many students do not have those rights. I presented a general framework for civic engagement that does not put the nation-state at the center. Winston Thompson, who had envisioned and organized this symposium, asked us good questions.

Percentage of US adults who read a newspaper "every day" declines from 69% in 1972 to 20% in 2021

the decline of the daily newspaper and public knowledge of politics

A city or town newspaper was nicely designed to keep people informed about their own elected representatives. Traditionally, it appeared on your doorstep, offering a mix of features that might encourage you to open it up. Election news would often appear above the fold on the main page. Elections in your own community would be emphasized. You didn’t have to be curious about politics to receive the most relevant political news.

As the chart with this post shows, most Americans (69.3%) claimed they read a newspaper “every day” in 1972, but that proportion has been around 20% since 2016, mirroring a 50% decline in the number of paid journalists. People still consume news, but cable television is national, local television tends to skip politics, and online sources require you to seek them out. (They mainly reach those with prior interests.) Besides, very few people are paid to report factual information about local politics.

I wish I could test whether the decline in daily newspaper journalism and readership explains current low levels of political knowledge. Perhaps that can be shown, but I have not found a long-lasting survey that asks about both news consumption and political knowledge in consistent ways.

The American National Election Survey (ANES) did ask individuals how often they read the newspaper and whether they recalled the names of the congressional candidates in their district. That series lasted from 1984 to 2000. Each year, just about twice as many of the regular newspaper readers recalled the candidates’ names correctly. For instance, in 2000, 51.8% of the regular readers and 24.2% of non-readers got that knowledge question right.

I’d conjecture that if these survey questions had continued, the proportion of news readers would have fallen in the ANES, and with it, knowledge of people’s own local political candidates. But I can’t quite prove it.