The Responsible Electorate.
by V. O. Key, Jr.,
with the assistance of Milton C. Cummings, Jr. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 158 pp. $4.00.
As might have been expected, this posthumous work by the late V. O. Key, Jr. is the best voting study to appear, although its merits will be apparent only to readers who know the earlier ones. Others will surely wonder how so modest a book, presenting findings so familiar to the non-professional reader, can possibly deserve such praise. Not having read the previous publications on this subject, they will not understand how the argument “that voters are not fools” can be described by Key as “perverse and unorthodox”; for the same reason they will not know why it was necessary for a Harvard professor and former president of the American Political Science Association to write a book in defense of the proposition that voters vote for political reasons and that at the basis of their behavior lies a rational consideration of the issues and the candidates. If they are at all reflective, they might at this point begin to wonder about the state of the social sciences, when a description of, so to speak, a dog biting a man, is news.
The weaknesses of the earlier works (since 1944 there have been five major books and hundreds of articles in professional journals) can be attributed to their authors' lack of interest in politics, and to their inability to appreciate the significance of what it means to be political, or to be capable of political activity. Which is to say that the weakness of most voting studies is that they have been written by behavioral scientists who, for reasons that cannot be explored in depth here, have a tendency to regard the behavior of human beings as essentially identical to the behavior of dogs or ants—non-rational. They begin with a determination to be scientists in the manner of natural scientists, which means to be devoted to the “scientific method.” For example, the scientific method may involve the use of a panel survey, which makes it possible to study a sample of voters over a period of time and to collect a mass of data concerning things that can be easily counted or tabulated, such as their opinions and demographic characteristics. Combine these with a device like an IBM countersorter, and it is a simple matter to discover correlations, which are then stated as laws of behavior. On the basis of such techniques, sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld stated flatly in 1944 that a “person thinks, politically, as he is, socially” and that “social characteristics determine political preference.” His next step was to construct an “Index of Political Predispositions,” linking the direction and degree of political opinion with a variety of these characteristics.
Psychologists made further contributions to this trend. Unwilling to accept an account of behavior that omits any attempt to explain why a wealthy Protestant farmer should, more than anyone else, vote Republican, and professionally unwilling to concede the possibility that rational consideration of the political situation might have something to do with it, they began to use their versions of the scientific method in an effort to discover the psychological basis of voting behavior. Using patients in mental hospitals as subjects, some of them concluded that votes can best be understood as “expressions of individual needs to secure gratification of repressed wishes for a certain type of parental image,” or as, “largely unconscious attempts to recapitulate the primary and parental images.”
Largely as a result of this kind of study, voters (which means most of us, including, of course the scientists themselves) came to be regarded as fools to be manipulated by clever propagandists, or as creatures incapable of either foolishness or wisdom, but merely prisoners of the newly discovered sociological or psychological laws governing “human” behavior. Thus, what really happened in 1964—in New York, for example, where every county in the state gave a majority to President Johnson, and where Tompkins County went Democratic for the first time since the Civil War (by a margin of two-to-one!)—could be attributed either to a mass invasion of voters (leaving aside the question of where they came from) with opposite IPP scores or different “parental images,” or a mass exodus of the old voters (leaving aside the question of where they went). Indeed, it was not until 1960 that a book by behavioral scientists acknowledged the possibility that a wealthy Protestant farmer whose parental images remained constant might, because he is a free man, and because of something done or neglected by the Republican party (which is also made up of free men), change his party affiliation.
Key's Analysis is based on opinion surveys of recent Presidential elections, principally surveys conducted by the American Institute of Public Opinion and the National Opinion Research Center. In classifying voters in three broad groups, the “standpatters,” the “switchers,” and the “new voters,” Key's main concern is with the reasons that lead some voters to move across party lines and others to remain loyal to the same party from one election to another. “Were these actions governed by images, moods, and other irrelevancies,” he asks, “or were they expressions of judgments about the sorts of questions that, hopefully, voters will weigh as they responsibly cast their ballots?” Because he allows for the possibility that voters act as democratic theorists have always hoped they would act, Key is able to see what escaped his predecessors:
In American Presidential campaigns of recent decades the portrait of the American electorate that develops from the data is not one of an. electorate strait-jacketed by social determinants or moved by subconscious urges triggered by devilishly skillful propagandists. It is rather one of an electorate moved by concern about central and relevant questions of public policy, of governmental performance, and of executive personality.
If it did nothing else, the 1964 election proved that Key (who died in 1963) was closer to the truth than his predecessors.
The importance of Key's findings is most readily and appropriately demonstrated by his “unorthodox” argument concerning the independent voter. Democratic theorists have long insisted that a well-ordered polity needs intelligent voters, voters capable of resisting a doctrinaire attachment to party, and of acting with a view to the common good when occasion requires. At the minimum, the electorate must possess the ability to recognize rascals, and the virtue to throw them out of office whenever they should happen to occupy it. As a result, many voters have always proudly identified themselves as independent. According to Bernard Berelson and others, however, the so-called independent voters, instead of being virtuous, are the least interested, the least knowledgeable, and the least intelligent part of the electorate. Their changes in party preferences are not attributable to a rational consideration of what is at stake in the election, but to factors beyond their control, namely the “conflicting social pressures” to which they are subject. They are to be found at the center of the IPP scale, pushed one way or the other by weak but opposing social forces. Berelson did not hesitate to conclude that the health of the American political system is due to this Lumpenproletariat, for only they, unknowingly and unconcernedly, prevent stagnation and permit adjustment in the system.
Key, however, restores the independent voter to his honored place. He shows that in fact the independent voters differ “rather markedly” from the voters described by Berelson. He demonstrates that the independent voter identified by Berelson and his followers is a product of their definition; that the “switchers” are much more numerous than had been assumed, between one-eighth and one-fifth of the voters; and that the “switchers” and the “standpatters” cannot be distinguished on the basis of formal education, level of interest in politics, or the importance they attach to their votes. What does distinguish them is simply their different opinions on the “broad political issues,” rather than any “subtle psychological or sociological peculiarities,” or a vacillation induced by sociological “cross pressures.” Republicans who become Democrats and Democrats who become Republicans do so in order to “support governmental policies or outlooks with which they agree.” In short, the party changers (as well as the “standpatters”) vote for political reasons, which is pretty well what the non-“scientist” had always assumed, even before 1964.
No doubt much voting is habitual; no doubt each major party in America has its steadfast supporters who will in the short run (which may prove to be a lifetime) stand with their party regardless of its candidate and the issues; but the reasons for the origin of this party loyalty, like the reasons for party changing, are not sociological or psychological. They are political; they derive from considerations of what is good for the country when it is threatened from within by civil war, for example, and from without by fascism, when it faces economic ruin and when it is torn by civil-rights crises. And it is no disproof of the political origin of voting behavior to assert that voters frequently confuse what is good for themselves with what is good for the country.
But key has done more than provide a statistical basis for our traditional view of the American electorate. Knowing he had not long to live, he apparently was working feverishly on this book at the time of his death because, as Arthur Maass points out in the Foreword, he knew his findings to be of basic importance for both the theory and practice of American democracy. For, if voters were “organisms,” as Berelson depicted them, seeking “father substitutes” when they cast their ballots, as one of the psychologists claimed, the very idea of free government would be a mockery, a cruel hoax perpetrated by some evil genius in the past. Indeed, even if the voters are free men but are falsely made to appear automatons, capable only of “predictable and automatic responses to campaign stimuli,” the future of free government is put in jeopardy. In Key's words:
If leaders believe the route to victory is by projection of images and cultivation of styles rather than by advocacy of policies to cope with the problems of the country, they will project images and cultivate styles to the neglect of the substance of politics. They will abdicate their prime function in a democratic system, which amounts, in essence, to the assumption of the risk of trying to persuade us to lift ourselves by our bootstraps.
By demonstrating that rationality is a factor in voting behavior independent of the sociological and psychological, Key has reestablished the independence of the political. He has shown that the politician who, in Adlai Stevenson's words, talks sense to the American people, is himself acting sensibly. This is probably the greatest bequest Key could have left his profession. It is certainly the greatest bequest he could have left his fellow-countrymen.