Paul M Sniderman Richard A Brody Philip Essay

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  • Subject: Government
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Paul M. Sniderman, Richard A. Brody, Philip E. Tetlock. 1991. Reasoning Choice.

For The People

In "Democracy with Attitudes," an article written by Larry Bartels which appears in a book entitled In Electoral Democracy, the author explores some of the fundamental beliefs regarding the nature of democracy and the forming of popular opinion about political subjects. In their 1991 book called Reasoning and Choice, authors Paul Sniderman, Richard Brody, and Philip Tetlock explore the various cognitive and psychological mechanisms by which people, who appear to have an excessively limited knowledge of politics, come to make decisions regarding issues in politics. Both authors spend a fair amount of time deconstructing the internal processes by which people both decide and are influenced by choices they make. However, Bartels devotes more of his article to analyzing the larger issue of what such processes and decision making mechanisms actually mean for democracy in general, whereas the authors of Reasoning and Choice merely allude to this particular ramification of political decision making.

This primary difference is largely due to the nature of these written works itself. Whereas Bartels appears to have merely written an article, Sniderman, Brody and Tetlock (1991) have actually collected research for an empirical study regarding what the authors denote as Simon's Puzzle: how people with extremely limited information regarding politics and political theory in general are able to form opinions and to make decisions of a political nature (p. 18). The authors take a considerable amount of time to denote that despite what appears as a minimalist accounting of the availability of political knowledge to the masses in general (and in the United States, for the most part), people do have a means of making political choices. Moreover, the authors are fairly quick to acknowledge the fact that there is a significant degree of variability in some highly important factors in the people who make up the masses -- the most important of which is one's political sophistication and which largely hinges upon one's education (Sniderman et al., 1991, p. 20).

Due to these variables in the constituents who comprise the masses that are responsible for selecting democratic policy in a country such as the U.S., Sniderman et al. have formulated a most intriguing theory about the way that people come to formulate decisions about public policy -- despite the fact that they are largely uninformed about it. This "theory sketch" (Sniderman et al., 1991) (which is merely the rudiments of a theory that the authors are testing out and has not been fully consummated as a full-fledged theory in the first two chapters of their book) revolves about the notion of heuristic judgment. Heuristic judgment is the label given for the proclivity of people to decide issues of a political nature based on judgmental shortcuts -- wherein someone will simply decide that he or she is prone to like or dislike some aspect of a political issue, and decide his or her choice on the matter according to that affect, despite the fact that such a person is not fully cognizant of all the surrounding implications of whatever issue he or she is considering. There are also other aspects of heuristics that influence their usage, such as the fact that people with less political sophistication (and less education) tend to rely on such affects more, whereas those with greater political sophistication and education rely upon such innate effects less but are more apt to state a politically correct stance than to actually actuate some public policy that would address such an issue.

One of the central points of comparison between the work of Sniderman et al. And that of Bartels is related to the way that people are influenced to make decisions about politics. Whereas the authors of Reasoning and Choice believe that people make decision based on their varying application of heuristics, Bartels believes that people are influenced by their attitudes towards a subject. This term is highly important to the author's article and is distinct from that of preference. Preferences are consistent tendencies for people to express a proclivity towards something or some issue and are psychological in nature (Bartles, 2006, p. 52). Attitudes, however, are mutable and are largely "affective" in nature, and generally indicate a person's like or dislike for some subject at a particular time. The crux of Bartels article, then, is that a democratic ideal is founded upon a consensus preference of an entire nation, which is then politically actuated to appease people and issue policy that is most helpful. Yet the author concludes by stating that such a consensus opinion, a preference of the collective masses, is virtually impossible because people are subject to demonstrate expressions of attitude at any given time, yet hard-pressed to maintain such attitudes with a consistency that is necessary to actually indicate a preference. This fact is largely due to the immense reliance of attitudes upon "context dependency" (Bartles, 2006, p. 56), which renders attitudes tremendously susceptible to manipulation through the usage of framing. There are several different aspects of framing, some of the most eminent of which include the omission or inclusion of pieces of information while seeking someone's opinion about a topic, and which inherently influences such a person's attitude.

The most eminent similarity between the two arguments propounded in these different texts is the affective nature of the attitudes and heuristics, respectively, acknowledge in each of these literary works. Within each document, the authors freely admit that someone's personal favor -- in the form of an affinity towards or perhaps an affinity against some aspect of politics -- greatly shapes the political choice that he or she will make. It is due to the affective nature of people's political choices that a unifying preference cannot solidify into consistency with which to judge a consensus opinion of the masses. Still, it is noteworthy to examine the fact that although Sniderman et al. realize that consistency is elusive in the political choices of a group of people that could use more political sophistication, they spend a good deal of time in the first two chapters of Reasoning and Choice trying to elucidate just what exactly those factors are that constitute political inconsistency. Ideally, the authors are attempting to pinpoint such variables, isolate them, and remove them from their findings or apply them uniformly so that they are no longer variables cannot account for people's decisions. Bartles, however, demonstrates considerable less ambiguity in his conception of what accounts for the inconsistency in the political choices of the masses of American people. He attributes this inconsistency almost uniformly to the various forms that framing takes, and believes that the way people are asked questions about a political nature definitely influence their particular attitudes about them. In that respect, since framing is highly difficult to get rid of, it appears that Bartles actually thinks less about the quality of public opinion than do Sniderman et al. The latter authors believe that by accounting for education, political savvy, as well as the intentions of individual people, which greatly influence their heuristics, that public opinion is less apt to be swayed by factors such as framing.

This fact is largely underscored by Bartels' conclusion, in which it is stated that "the most obvious alternative to theoretical progress is a much diluted version of democratic theory along the general lines proposed by Riker, who argued that "popular rule" is impossible but that citizens can exercise "an intermittent, sometimes random, even perverse, popular veto" on the machinations of the political elites (1982, 244) (Bartles, 2006, p. 274).

This sort of pessimism is not evinced in the first two chapters of the work of Sniderman et al., quite possibly because they are not examining this issue from the perspective of preserving democracy or…

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