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Critical Review: A Journal of Politics and Society
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Government by the people, for the people—twenty‐first century style
Doris A. Graber
a a

Department of Political Science, University of Illinois, Chicago, IL, 60680 Available online: 06 Mar 2008

To cite this article: Doris A. Graber (2006): Government by the people, for the people—twenty‐first century style, Critical Review: A Journal of Politics and Society, 18:1-3, 167-178 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08913810608443655

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1863. rather than by their scores on surveys of political information—which are flawed in a variety of important respects.criticalreview. Graber. and the range of functions that it performs. The United States has undergone vast changes since November 19. inter alia. Department of Political Science. 1993) and Processing Politics: Learning from Television in the Internet Age (Chicago. FOR THE Downloaded by [CIDE Centro de Investigacion Y Docencia] at 16:37 12 March 2012 PEOPLE—TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY STYLE ABSTRACT: Citizens' competence for democratic self-government must be judged by their ability to perform the typical functions of modern citizenship. and is the founding editor of Political Communication and the book review editor of Political Psychology. 167 . 1-3. I shall argue in this essay that this goal remains alive.com. Doris A. rather than to micro-management. but that the means required to implement it have changed in tune with economic. IL 60680. What does government "by the people" mean in a modern context? Can Americans still successfully rule themselves? Critical Review 18 (2006). Chicago. University of Illinois at Chicago. is the author. 2001). Effective use of citizens' political talents therefore requires limiting public surveillance and advice to broad overview aspects. complexity. of Processing the News: How People Tame the Information Tide (University Press of America. www. when Lincoln ended his commemorative speech at Gettysburg. ISSN 0891-3811. Citizens perform these more limited functions adequately. nos. with the promise that government by the people would remain a sacred political goal. demonstrating that government by the people remains viable under modern conditions.Doris A. Pennsylvania. Graber GOVERNMENT BY THE PEOPLE. social. and political developments. The role requirements for effective citizenship have changed throughout American history because government has grown vastly in size. ©2006 Critical R e view Foundation.

Constitution did not envision direct democracy. or authority. the Constitution provides for a representative democracy in which citizens select rulers from among their peers and then monitor the rulers' activities more or less closely. and neither did Lincoln. Nos. and because they share their fellow citizens' preferences about what government should do and how it should do it. was superseded by the more realistic Monitorial Citizen model. Graber 2001). state governments. of necessity. control. The first is "to have an influence over. who has full knowledge of the organization of government as well as the pros and cons of various public policies. The Informational Needs of the Monitorial Citizen If citizens cannot rule directly and if that was never their intended constitutional role. 1-3 Downloaded by [CIDE Centro de Investigacion Y Docencia] at 16:37 12 March 2012 Answering the latter question first requires defining what rule means. can they fill the advisory role spelled out in Webster's first definition? I shall argue that they have done so throughout American history and that they still can. government. The presumption is that candidates for public office are chosen because they have the characteristics required for exercising supreme authority. experience. Lupia and McCubbins 1998.S. Popkin and Dimock 1999.S. and skill to exercise supreme control over such large. The framers of the U. Today's citizens can and must . Direct democracy is not a viable form of governance when mass publics are huge and diverse and governments exercise vast powers over many aspects of citizens' lives. The Informed Citizen model. if the advisory role the Framers intended is adjusted to cope with life in twenty-first century America. The model of citizenship that I have in mind was set forth in detail by Michael Schudson (1998) in his chronicle of the various stages of citizenship through which the United States passed as it moved through successive phases of economic and political development. to govern. Most citizens have insufficient political knowledge. Webster's supplies two definitions. the mass public is not fit to rule under modern conditions. 1992. became increasingly unrealistic in the twentieth century because government functions expanded and diversified into highly technical fields (cf. complex institutions as the U." The second is to "have or exercise supreme powers. Neuman et al.168 Critical Review Vol. to guide." If we apply this second definition. Schudson contends that the ideal of the Informed Citizen. 18. Instead. or the governments of major urban areas.

Schudson 1998). following the advice of trusted experts requires developing criteria for determining which experts are and are not trustworthy and which of them reflect one's values. or by using party labels to attribute particular views to prominent party spokespeople. The claim that citizens are political ignoramuses is. Such information will allow them to fulfill the normal tasks of monitorial citizens: namely. When salient news is reported. is one of the strongest findings that has been produced by any social science" (Friedman 1998. and that they may thus want to influence. Readily available criteria include judging experts' trustworthiness and wisdom by the qualities attributed to their social position. Such mental shortcuts are often referred to as heuristics. 397). then. we need to put into perspective the common claim that "the pervasiveness of popular ignorance about politics and government . On the rare occasions when citizens want to mount their own lobbying efforts. indeed. and to provide verbal or material support to political activists who support a particular position. to develop reasonable opinions about the situation in question to guide their votes at election time. It is neither economically nor politically rewarding for ordinary citizens to spend their limited resources of time and effort to duplicate the data collection and analysis performed by experts whom they trust and whose values and preferences resonate with their own (Downs 1957). very widespread among social scientists. . Most of the time. . But does ignorance entail incompetence in monitorial citizens? . monitorial citizens should increase their attention to political messages from trusted sources in their political environment (Page and Shapiro 1991. The Problems with Civics-IQ Tests Before discussing whether citizens are able to perform the role of monitors efficiently and in ways that benefit a democratic polity.Graber • Government of the People 169 Downloaded by [CIDE Centro de Investigacion Y Docencia] at 16:37 12 March 2012 be alert to political news that portends major political developments that concern them individually. Of course. they will need far more information than is required for the more common tasks of a monitorial citizen. it makes sense for citizens to base their opinions on political analyses provided by experts via the news media or other sources. such as being prominent journalists or members of the clergy. to discuss the situation with fellow citizens.

although it would expand citizens' overall knowledge base. many of the criteria that social scientists have used to declare citizens incompetent have little practical relevance. For instance. they may find it useful to base their decision on other criteria. Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996. Many theorists and public-opinion analysts conclude from respondents' poor showing in such quizzes that the public is woefully ignorant and therefore poorly qualified for citizenship duties (McGraw and Pinney 1990. Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter (1996) developed a widely praised national civics test. Even if they know macroeconomics. The test would be useful for hiring a political-science professor. These criteria cover academic knowledge that experts must master and. American political and economic history. it is wrong to infer that they will make unwise political decisions. Nos. The difference is that qualitative research probes deeper into what people know than quantitative survey research can. If we keep in mind the actual roles that most citizens perform as advisors to the government. having such knowledge is largely irrelevant for coping with the ordinary tasks of monitorial citizenship. To assess citizens' political knowledge. If citizens score poorly on such tests. they need not know macroeconomics to develop sensible opinions about the wisdom of lowering tax rates. 2000). the factual-ignorance findings themselves are open to question. Leaving aside the issue of whether the questions are relevant to the judgments that monitorial citizens need to make. 18. especially in light of the fact that macroeconomists rarely agree on the soundness of particular tax policies. Qualitative research frequently shows far more positive results. Just as average citizens can choose a well-qualified surgeon to remove an appendix without knowing abdominal anatomy or the pros and cons of various surgical instruments. even for questions calling for schoolbook knowledge. The test contains forced-choice questions about the basic structure of the American government. I-J Exploring citizens' competence for monitorial self-government requires that we identify the qualities they need if they are to develop sound judgments about the policies that affect their lives. The same holds true when judgments of civic incompetence are inferred from answers to factual questions in opinion surveys. but there is no credible empirical evidence that learning the answers to these questions is essential for making the kinds of political judgments that monitorial citizens typically face. they can also make sound political choices using a limited array of decision criteria. Respondents do much Downloaded by [CIDE Centro de Investigacion Y Docencia] at 16:37 12 March 2012 .170 Critical Review Vol. and the stands of the parties on major political issues. Kuklinski et al. the two-party system.

people process political information when they encounter it. if a respondent has forgotten that information.Graber • Government of the People 171 better when allowed to discuss the areas of political knowledge with which they are familiar. Ignoring people's tendency to do "online information processing" is another reason for underestimating civic intelligence. They were also asked to name the current vice-president (84 percent correct). then his opinion is considered a snap judgment devoid of informational basis. and usually store only the resulting conclusions. This means that on four out of five questions. The information that interviewers request is often absent from television newscasts and only sparsely covered by most newspapers. which party is more conservative (57 percent correct). There are other methodological problems with using the typical close-ended survey questions to assess people's political knowledge. This explains why respondents often cannot cite the data that underlie specific opinions (Graber 1993. It is also worth noting that Delli Carpini and Keeter's (1996) fiveitem knowledge index produces results that are not nearly as horrible as one might suspect from the language used in reporting respondents' scores. and that is not necessarily more significant than the knowledge realms that the respondents choose to discuss when queried in openended interviews. and the proportion of votes required to overturn a presidential veto (37 percent correct). Lodge and Stroh 1993. however. and to frame information in their own way. When the information is covered. 1995). because that makes it easy to judge the correctness of the answer. Lodge et al. Politicalknowledge survey researchers often assume that people need to retain all the information on which their opinions are based. more than half of the test takers knew the correct answer. its framing usually differs substantially from the framing used in interviewers' questions. survey-based tests call for knowledge about topics selected and framed by researchers that often covers areas of little interest to respondents. it is one of the least satisfactory ways Downloaded by [CIDE Centro de Investigacion Y Docencia] at 16:37 12 March 2012 . However. as exposed in his inability to answer a survey question. rather than the underlying data. which branch of government determines that a law is unconstitutional (68 percent correct). That makes it tough even for people who have the relevant knowledge to answer the questions as posed. Much research that follows in the tradition of judging civic competence by quizzing people about political facts inquires about the names of current political leaders. In fact. Test takers were asked which party controls the House of Representatives (55 percent correct). By contrast.

acknowledges as much when he notes that a rigidly constraining belief system may prevent political sophisticates from making logical decisions about the issues in question. then. Converse. weighing the significance of various factors. and then reaching a conclusion that maximizes benefits for the decision maker." which data need to be consulted. 18. but why is our knowledge of this kind of public ignorance important? The idea that constrained ideological belief systems are essential to sound political reasoning is another example of a test that is ill suited to gauging civic competence. and which choices can be deemed reasonably sound is . Nos. Philip E. Simon concedes that decision-makers are usually forced to "satisfice" rather than "optimize. (The drunkard looks for his key wherever the light is best. but they do not necessarily equate with political competence. Given the impossibility of getting all the information and making all the complex comparative choices. Constrained belief systems may be a sign of intellectual sophistication. where the objective of the search becomes secondary to finding an easy search method. 1—3 Downloaded by [CIDE Centro de Investigacion Y Docencia] at 16:37 12 March 2012 to judge' civics IQ: easy name recall is a skill that many very wellinformed individuals lack. many of the knowledge tests are also poorly designed. They ignore important physiological and psychological aspects of human memorization and pay insufficient attention to current knowledge about steps in the decision-making process under various contingencies (Graber 2001)." That means that they get enough information to feel that they can make a reasonably good choice to cope with the situation in question.) It is easy to measure people's ignorance of public officials' names. even if it is not necessarily the ideal choice. defining which information is "enough. can one test people's ability to make good judgments? According to Herbert Simon (1995). Besides being irrelevant to the goal of measuring civic competence. Choosing name memory tests is a perfect example of the Drunkard's Search Qervis 1993). whose 1964 essay on belief systems sparked much of the debate about civic competence and ways to measure it. Of course. rather in the dark area where he dropped it. Satisfying Solutions How.172 Critical Review Vol. the ideal decision-making process requires considering the total pool of information about the situation.

or even if she distrusted the government to provide good options.Talk about the problem with many different people "across the kitchen table. and re- Downloaded by [CIDE Centro de Investigacion Y Docencia] at 16:37 12 March 2012 .Graber • Government of the People 173 a subjective process. but only the ones that apply to her. Her comparative analysis is limited largely to matching the status quo against the benefits of the proposed changes in terms of the scope of coverage and monetary and convenience costs. Most importantly for my purposes. and missed alternative opportunities in gathering the requisite information." 2. between friends. These recommendations require Mary Senior not to know the intricacies of all government drug reimbursement plans. pharmacists and their customers. She simply wants to choose the plan that benefits her the most. To make the situation concrete: Mary Senior is a 70-year-old ordinary citizen who is enrolled in Medicare. Determine your priorities for various aspects of the program. for example. coverage. one must distinguish between the information needed for the comparatively minimal tasks performed by average citizens and the far more comprehensive and difficult tasks that various elites undertake. She knows that the government is making prescription-drug reimbursements available. effort. neighbors. More detailed knowledge would be essential if Mary were an administrator or a counselor in the field or if she aspired to be a lobbyist. and mail service options. and convenience factors such as purchase authorization requirements. 3. at churches. 4. Ascertain the status of your current prescription coverage and your level of satisfaction with it. using data from three plans. Popkin and Dimock 2000). and she trusts the government's advice (Lupia and McCubbins 2000.000 a year for prescription drugs and that a subsidy would be most welcome. including the cost of drugs.asp) recommends a four-step decision process that is well-suited to the competence of average citizens: i. She also knows that she is currently paying over $1. the accessibility of drug providers. The relevant government website (www. The recommended decision process is eminently sound because it conserves personally and collectively valuable time. Compare at least three available plans in terms of cost. effort. in senior centers. starting in 2006. and convenience. parents and their children. Lupia 2000. considering her strained financial resources. the array of drugs that are covered.gov/medicarereform/drugbenefit. Decision makers must also consider the costs in time. But none of these considerations apply in Mary's case.medicare. There is not even a suggestion that she might want to investigate private-sector alternatives to the government plan.

the economic and social burdens faced by communities where illegal immigrants settle. especially those living along the southern border of the United States. and discuss the situation with others. Patterson 2002. refresh. know your values and priorities. Graber 1993. Huckfeldt and Sprague 1995. Kahn and Kenney 2002). Graber 2001.S. Memory Resources In most cases. The choice of a specific subset is often determined by the information that citizens have most recently encountered. Bartels 1993 and 1996. know the thrust of major options. citizens can assess their merits through a four-step process like that suggested to Mary: Understand the main impact of the problem on your life. because citizens already have a fund of knowledge and corresponding opinions that they have amassed over decades directly through personal experiences or indirectly through reports by others. Focus-group evidence does show that people from all walks of life are far more sophisticated about many specific political issues than academic knowledge tests indicate (Page 1996. 1—3 Downloaded by [CIDE Centro de Investigacion Y Docencia] at 16:37 12 March 2012 sources. because people filter new information through the prism of previously stored information. Nos. priming their memories (Anderson 1983. Beck et al. assessing complex political situations is not as difficult as it may seem. The cause for concern may be the danger to the immigrants who may perish in the harsh border conditions. 1992. citizens for employment. Learning is continuous. Lupia 2000. 18. or the potential competition with U. members of the general public. Krosnick and Brannon 1993). It is also cumulative. The new data then supplement.174 Critical Review Vol. When new laws are proposed to cope with the problem. isn't it a reasonable way to assess other policies? Take immigration policy. If the choice of a Medicare prescription-coverage plan outlined here seems like a reasonable way for citizens to assess the merits of vital policy options. or modify people's fund of stored information (Neuman et al. Furthermore. For the most part. including the mass media (Zaller 2003. 2002). it is in line with common decision-making practices. Many citizens. which is less likely to have a direct personal impact on most Americans. make judgments based on a limited subset of the available information. as well as elites. Delli Carpini . Iyengar 1991. It also reduces the risk of overwhelming ordinary citizens with more data than they can handle efficiently. worry about the many immigrants who enter the country illegally.

Gamson 2001. Zaller 2003). seeing television pictures of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in action after the 2001 terrorist attack marked him as a potential presidential candidate. the true value or quality of something can only be judged when it's put to use. For example. people may infer from a politician's absence from a crisis event that he or she did not care about the plight of the people whose lives were at stake. Citizens' behavior reflects such cycles. Similar trends were recorded in the months that followed the terrorist strikes on New York and Washington in 2001 and the Persian Gulf war in 1991 (Graber 2004). Kuklinski . People who normally ignore much of the political news flock to the media during crises. If their own fund of knowledge seems insufficient. public attention to news skyrocketed. Do the simplified decision-making processes that citizens use lead to desirable results? Would more information-intensive processes lead to better results? The answer varies (Ottati and Wyer 1990. The need for citizen alertness is cyclical.Gmber • Government of the People 175 Downloaded by [CIDE Centro de Investigacion Y Docencia] at 16:37 12 March 2012 2000. Graber 2001. Bartels 1996. Survey responses showed that the public grasped the complex political and constitutional aspects of that situation and judged it intelligently. When ordinary people discuss major political issues using their own words and perspectives. Similarly. For example. Many citizens inferred from these broadcasts that he was a capable decision maker who knew how to respond to major crises. during the six-week period following the 2000 presidential election. even groups that generally score poorly on typical tests—AfricanAmericans. when control of that vital office was at stake. They also know how to judge telltale indicators. people know how to select better-informed opinion leaders who are in tune with their own predilections.While their performance is far from that required of the Informed Citizen. it is greater in times of crisis and less at other times. Tetlock 1993). it is adequate for fulfilling such monitorial civic responsibilities as discussing politics intelligently and voting for candidates and ballot propositions. and poor people—display substantial political insight and cognitive complexity about major political issues that concern them (Gamson 1992. The key criterion by which to judge citizens' decision-making strategies is their effectiveness. The Proof is in the Pudding As the old adage proclaims. Latinos.

For example. many people changed their opinions about the factual situation—and the wisdom of having gone to war. Kuklinski and Hurley (1994) found that black Chicagoans who used race as a cue for supporting various policies were less likely to choose policies that accorded with their own preferences than blacks who studied the actual positions that competing advocates had taken. the multitude of unforeseeable contingencies is likely to reduce even the most careful decision-making process to an informed guesstimate. When that information is incomplete or wrong. 18. including political elites. Nos. Decision quality is very much constrained by the information available to decision makers at the mass as well as the elite level. but the evidence does suggest that errors made in heuristically guided decisions are random. In the absence of absolute proof that no such weapons existed. and the news media publicized reports raising doubts about the accuracy of the initial information. But opinion change was not universal. heuristics can mislead. California voters had to assess the merits of five complex ballot initiatives. Elkin and Soltan 1999. 1-3 and Hurley 1994. Norris 2000a and 2000b. Consider the question of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. elites as well as members of the mass public. When closer investigations failed to bring proof that these weapons existed. We lack precise error rates for various decision approaches. apparently accepted the well-publicized claims of the Bush administration that Saddam Hussein's government had weapons of mass destruction and that this danger justified going to war in 2003. The majority of Americans. Obviously. it may be very difficult for mass publics and even elites to detect the inaccuracies and discover the truth. in 1987. Popkin and Dimock 1999). demonstrating that amassing a large fund of factual information is not always the most sensible approach. From a cost/benefit perspective. legislators. But so can the decision criteria used by experienced political executives. In other situations. shortcuts may be detrimental. retained their Downloaded by [CIDE Centro de Investigacion Y Docencia] at 16:37 12 March 2012 . Some voters spent considerable time analyzing and comparing various choices while others simply ascertained who favored and who opposed each initiative and sided with their presumed soulmates. A study of the match between voters' decisions and their interests showed that voters relying on judgments made by trusted others did almost as well as those who had invested far more time in the decision (Lupia 1994). Mondak 1994. those who used heuristics were the winners. many others.176 Critical Review Vol. rather than systematic (Mondak 1994). Given the complexity of modern politics. or administrators.

questions asked by ordinary citizens and their responses to politicians' answers. In 2004. one is struck by the good sense shown in respondents' answers. When so-called town-hall forums have been televised. politicians and pollsters repeatedly talk to groups of voters about their concerns and preferences and then pledge to act in accordance with citizens' wishes. it is clear from exit polls and other surveys that people make reasoned choices. which is abundant. The Bottom Line Downloaded by [CIDE Centro de Investigacion Y Docencia] at 16:37 12 March 2012 The ultimate test of the public's ability to provide sound input into the political process is an appraisal of how well American democracy is generally functioning. When one looks at the tens of thousands of polls reported by reputable polling companies over many decades. or they may reflect press reports or judgments made by respected pundits. Voting is the most common and most closely examined situation. This kind of evidence. These answers may be based on people's own evaluations or on a variety of either personal or sociotropic reasons. The source does not matter. Public-opinion polls that ask for the public's judgment about diverse political situations are another important barometer of people's ability to comprehend the political scene. Candidates rarely label citizens' comments as stupid and senseless—quite the contrary. Citizens routinely participate in governmental functions in many different capacities. on the whole. Kahn & Kenny 2002).Graber • Government of the People 177 faith in the initial news stories and their implications (Zaller 2003. Still others saw the election as a Hobson's choice and picked the president as the lesser of two evils: "Better the devil you know than the one you don't. While judgments are bound to differ along party lines about the merits of citizens' ultimate choices." During campaigns. Others believed in the wisdom of the old adage that one ought not change leaders in the middle of an unresolved crisis. for example. Bush voters told pollsters that concerns about family values and leadership in the war against Iraq were major reasons that propelled their vote for a second term for the incumbent. What matters is that. refutes the idea that well-informed elites always know best (Tetlock 2005). actions taken in confor- . Graber 2001. Patterson 2002. made as much or more political sense than questions asked by professional journalists during news conferences. in the aggregate.

It was the Founders' intent that policies and laws would be made and executed by citizens' elected representatives. Quite a few nonprofessional politicians have run for office. Democracy is safe as long as government personnel. Aside from concerns about misuse of such tests. the prohibition is a reafFirmation of the traditional American belief that political wisdom does not require academic testtaking skills or knowledge of specified facts. But that is the way the system works and has always worked. Bennett 1995. At best. as he also noted. as Winston Churchill stressed.178 Critical Review Vol. Ordinary citizens have also displayed intelligence and civic competence when they have served as jurors in complex criminal cases. But. after studying democratic governance in politically diverse countries. These proxies relieve the majority of citizens of the exceedingly costly burden of continuously monitoring public problems and pondering solutions. news media. 1-3 mance with these opinions provide reasonable. Bimber 2001). this system does not work nearly as well as one would hope. with most citizens limiting themselves to serving as intermittent monitors. on balance. and citizen monitors who provide oversight in areas of greatest concern to them. Richard Gunther and Anthony Mughan (2000) conclude. and the public are ideologically committed to democratic principles. In fact. beneficial solutions for the problems under consideration (Page and Shapiro 1991). 18. Parties and interest groups developed because complex modern societies require intermediaries between citizens and elected and appointed public officials. While average citizens play indispensable political roles in democracies. it is nonetheless important to acknowledge that elected and appointed public officials and a small number of citizens with aboveaverage interest in politics have always shouldered the major day-to-day burdens of governing (Devine 1970. it manages to sustain its goals despite the imperfections of its tools. including the top positions in the American political system. The end result has been a serviceable democracy based on an economically sound division of labor between political practitioners who chart the course of government and implement it. Nos. the 1965 Voting Rights Act and its subsequent reincarnations explicitly forbade knowledge tests and even literacy tests for voting. Downloaded by [CIDE Centro de Investigacion Y Docencia] at 16:37 12 March 2012 . Passing an academic knowledge test has not been a job requirement. that what seems to matter most is the spirit in which both elected and unelected political elites conduct the affairs of government. it may seem outrageous to argue that democracy can be well served even when most citizens leave most civic tasks to elites. For believers in the Informed Citizen model.

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