sniderman - 16 REASONING AND CHOICE i Heuristics in...

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16 REASONING AND CHOICE i Findings such as these, repeatedly and vividly illustrating the threadbare infor- mational base of mass political opinions, have laid the foundation for a com- pelling model of belief systems. The major premise of this model - minimalism, as we call it - is this: Given that most citizens tend to know little about politics and to pay little attention to it, their opinions about it tend not to be neatly or consistently arranged. On the contrary, many of their political opinions are at sixes and sevens - so much so that their views about even intimately related issues may have scarcely anything to do with one other. Consistent with this, their reactions to politics tend to be capricious - so much so that their views about an issue at one election may have scarcely anything to do with their views about it at the very next election. Elsewhere we have surveyed the evidence for the minimalist model of public opinion (Sniderman and Tetlock, 1986~). Here we should like to comment on the minimalist model in broader terms, to assess it as a research program. Curiously, its most obvious feature has been its least remarked - namely, its irony. Converse's seminal article (1964) popularized the concept of belief sys- tems. But what, concretely, was the message of his research? Quite simply, that connections in mass belief systems were triply lacking: horizontally, between opinions on issues; vertically, between superordinate concepts like liberal- ism-conservatism and specific preferences on concrete issues; and temporally, between positions taken at differing times. The connections within belief systems thus triply severed, any given idea-element tends to have little to do with any other. In short, the seminal article that introduced the concept of belief system declared that the principal feature of belief systems is precisely the absence of system. Minimalism is thus a research program whose first step is also its last. How many times can one observe that mass belief systems are poorly organized? And having said this, what remains to be said? So far as minimalism is correct, with its emphasis on the tenuousness of connections between one idea-element and another, it makes little sense to study the internal dynamics of belief systems: To say, descriptively, that the constituent elements of political belief systems are only minimally connected is to say, causally, that each has minimal influence on the others. Nor, to put the point more broadly, does it make sense to suppose that the public reasons through its position on political issues - on the off chance it has in fact put together a genuine position. There is, after all, little reason to investi- gate how citizens figure out their views on the major issues of the day, if you doubt either that they have genuine opinions about many of them, or that their views about any one have much to do with their views about any other.
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This note was uploaded on 01/18/2009 for the course COMM 4200 taught by Professor Shanahan,j. during the Spring '08 term at Cornell.

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sniderman - 16 REASONING AND CHOICE i Heuristics in...

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