Macro-politics and micro-behavior: mainstream politics and the frequency of political discussion in contemporary democracies
Anderson, C. J.
Temple University Press
228 - 248
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Social logic of politics: personal networs as contexts for political behavior
POLITICAL PHILOSOPHERS AND democratic theorists since Aristotle have considered political discussion—or at least its ideal version, democratic deliberation an essential, albeit potentially conflictual element of the democratic process (Bohman 1996; Elster 1998; Fishkin 1991; Macedo 1999). Discussions about politics, it is argued, allow citizens to express their preferences, debate contentious issues, and even transform individual preferences to achieve a collective decision of superior quality. (For a discussion of these issues, see Knight and Johnson 1994.) Recent empirical studies suggest that at least some of these claims have merit (Conover, Searing, and Crewe 2002). For example, discussing politics generally improves citizens’ knowledge of public affairs (Bennett, Flickinger, and Rhine 2000), enhances political tolerance (Mutz 2002a), increases political sophistication among participants in face-to-face discussions (Gastil and Dillard 1999), and significantly elevates opinion quality (Wyatt, Katz, and Kim 2000). In contrast, relatively infrequent political discussion can breed a culture of conformity and intolerance, especially if discussion partners lack diversity (Gibson 1992; see also Gimpel and Lay, in this volume). Political discussion is a critical element in the formation of individuals’ political attitudes and behavior (Jennings and Niemi 1981), and it has been found to be an indicator of increased political sophistication and attentiveness (Inglehart 1977). Researchers have also been interested in political discussion because it constitutes a prime source of information about political affairs (Huckfeldt and Sprague 1995; Huckfeldt, Johnson, and Sprague, in this volume) and because it constitutes a crucial mechanism of political mobilization, in particular during election campaigns (Lazarsfeld, Berelson, and Gaudet 1944; Leighley 1990, 1995). Thus, given the central role that political conversations play in the life of a democracy, it is surprising that the determinants of political discussion have been the focus of investigation much less often than other acts of political participation (see, e.g., Leighley 1995). And while a rich literature has examined various aspects of political discussion, few (if any) researchers have systematically examined the determinants of political discussion from a comparative perspective.1 Moreover, while a number of studies have examined the role of opinion diversity at the micro-level (for a discussion, see Zuckerman and Kotler-Berkowitz 1998), few have considered the impact of the national political community on people’s willingness to engage in political discussions. To help close these gaps, we investigate the determinants of the frequency of political discussion in fifteen contemporary democracies. We argue that an explanation of political discussion that is valid across countries requires consideration of both individual-level variables and a country’s macro-political climate. Moreover, and relatedly, we examine the impact of citizens’ attitudes relative to the distribution of opinions among others in the country. Our analyses show that political heterogeneity at the macro level and an individual’s position relative to mainstream opinion in society systematically affect the likelihood of their getting involved in political discussions. Specifically, we find that being outside the political mainstream and living in a country marked by heterogeneity of political preferences significantly increases the frequency of political discussion in contemporary democracies. Below we discuss extant research on both the individual-level and contextual determinants of political discussion. Consequently, we derive a series of hypotheses and develop an estimation model that is tested with data from fifteen contemporary democracies. A concluding section discusses the findings and points out areas for future research.