#5PAPERS – Week 2 Day 3

by Nivek K Thompson

1.Reference to the Article 

McAllister, I. (1991). Party Elites, Voters and Political Attitudes: Testing Three Explanations for Mass – Elite Differences. Canadian Journal of Political Science, 24(2), 237-268.

  1. What attracted me to this Article?

My research will be looking at how political elites view political decision-making through democratic innovations and McAllister’s paper addresses different ways of explaining differences between elites and voters, so I think it will be of value for my empirical work.

  1. What is it about? (Problem / Purpose / Research Questions)

The tension between the concept of democracy as being about decision-making by the mass of citizens and the reality of representative democracy where elites (albeit elected by the mass of citizens) make the decisions.

  1. Where does this come from? (Literature / Theoretical Framework)

He identifies three major theoretical approaches to the appropriate role for citizens vis-à-vis elites in a system of representative democracy, and the accompanying ‘predictions’ about the political attitudes held by elites vs citizens:

  1. early theorists argued for building citizen capacity over time so they could make (all) decisions, although before the internet it was difficult to see how this would work in practice; if citizens are educated they will hold similar views to the elites
  2. later theorists argued that whilst voting and political participation should be encouraged, it made sense to have a small elite group making most decisions because this group have the resources to make complex decisions, whereas citizens do not; elite and citizen views will not align as they hold ‘fundamentally different political values’240
  3. theories of elite integration suggest that political stability results from elite agreement on ‘certain normative rules and procedures.’ p.239; political differences amongst elites are greater than among citizens, except as to need to support political rules and procedures.

He identifies gap in testing these the predictions of these different theories empirically. In particular he notes that there is extensive research on the ‘political tolerance’ (esp. in regard to minority groups) of elites and citizens, the majority of research considers ‘democratic values and attitudes to the political system’ p.240 rather than opinions on current political issues. McAllister believes this latter is equally important as it focuses on the ‘day-to-day political problems faced by the political elite.’ p.240

  1. What did they do? (Methodology & Method)

Examined attitudinal differences between elites and the mass of citizens using data from the 1897 Australian Election Survey and compared this data to the predictions from the three theoretical approaches outlined above. The AES asked both voters and candidates the same questions about contemporary political issues.

McAllister applied factor analysis to 33 political issue questions in the AES resulting in seven distinct political attitudes amongst citizens:

  1. opposition to trade unions
  2. goal of economic equality
  3. creating economic incentive, lower taxation & reduced welfare
  4. uranium mining (environment, land rights)
  5. permissiveness (abortion, nudity & sex in the media, legalisation of marijuana)
  6. greater efforts at law enforcement
  7. opposition to equal job opportunities for women

In addition to these seven factors he identifies two dimensions of political attitudes underlying them, based on the traditional right/left and authoritarian/liberal divisions. Amongst candidates only three factors emerge none of which align clearly with the seven citizen factors, so McAllister applies the voter factors to the candidates’ data.

  1. What did they learn? (Results / Discussion)

He compares the political attitudes of voters to candidates within party groupings and finds that candidates and their voters ‘have little in common’ p.254. This is particularly so for ALP candidates and their voters. Despite this the ALP had won a number of federal elections in the preceding nine years. A specific analysis of voter attitudes and behaviour finds that ‘candidate-voter differences in political attitudes are relatively minor influences on a candidate’s vote, with the exception of attitudes towards trade unions.’ p.257

McAllister uses the data to specifically test the predictions of the three theories outlined above:

#1 voters with similar educational backgrounds to candidates will have more similar attitudes – the data does not support this except in partially around attitudes towards law enforcement

#2 and #3 elites will have more divergent views than their voters – is confirmed as is these differences being along right/left lines rather than authority issues. In addition the analysis demonstrates that candidates who are incumbents, rather than first timers hold different (less extreme?) views than first time candidates, suggesting that there is an element of elite socialisation at play; and candidates for the Senate are even further away from their voters’ attitudes than House of Reps candidates.

  1. What did I learn?

McAllister provides a nice summary of the key arguments and theorists (as at 1991) around the role of elites vs citizens.

His empirical work is very interesting and I will be following up more recent work in this area. The finding that elites are hold more ‘extreme’ views than their supporters is an interesting one from the perspective of the use of democratic innovations giving citizens the ability to make recommendations to elites and may explain why elites so often say how ‘reasonable’ the citizens were!

Whilst the data confirms the predictions arising from both theories #2 and #3, I’m not convinced that this necessarily supports their conclusion that ‘the relationship between elite and mass opinion on major issues is of lesser importance, since the job of the elite is to manage decision-making and protect the rules of the system, not to mobilize mass support on particular issues.’ p.264 Perhaps this comes from my personal political perspective or from the societal changes that have occurred since 1991, with changing citizen expectations and the growing ‘democratic deficit’.