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A Re-assessment of the Concept of Political Support

  • David Easton
Extract

It has been said about the United States that it is now suffering ‘a crisis of regime’. Europe, we have been told, is in little better condition: ‘all over Europe the First World War broke up the structure of society which, before 1914, had provided the necessary basis of confidence between government and governed. There no longer exists, except in a few places such as Switzerland, that general acceptance of the conduct of national affairs that adds to the vigor of government and society alike.’1 These are the kinds of practical political problems to which the concept of political support, as found in systems analysis, has been directed.

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1 The Economist, 23 March 1974, p. 12.

2 Webster’s, Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, unabridged (Springfield, Mass.: Merriam, 1968).

3 Easton, D., A Systems Analysis of Political Life (New York: Wiley, 1965).

4 Murphy, W. F. and Tanenhaus, J. in ‘Public Opinion and the United States Supreme Court’, Law and Society Review, II (1968), 357–84, carefully remove such awareness as a central condition for specific support of the Supreme Court.

5 Muller, E. N., ‘The Representation of Citizens by Political Authorities: Consequences for Regime Support’, American Political Science Review, LXIV (1970), 1149–66, at p. 1152.

6 See Lerner, D., The Passing of Traditional Society (Glencoe, 111.: Free Press, 1958) where peasants prefer to blame fate or the weather rather than some vague eminence over the hills.

7 For a comprehensive collection of these objections see Wahlke, J., ‘Policy Demands and System Support: the Role of the Represented’, British Journal of Political Science, I (1971), 271–90, pp.274 ff.

8 Dye, T. R., Politics, Economics and the Public: Policy Outcomes in the American States (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1966) and the voluminous literature around the issues raised in that book.

9 Loewenberg, G., ‘The Influence of Parliamentary Behavior on Regime Stability’, Comparative Politics, III (1971), 177200, p. 187.

10 Murphy, and Tanenhaus, , ‘Public Opinion and the United States Supreme Court’, p. 360.

11 See, for example, Fraser, J., ‘Impact of Community and Regime Orientations on Choice of Political System’, Midwest Journal of Political Science, XIV (1970), 413–33, pp. 417 and 426.

12 Verba, S. and Nie, N. H., Participation in America; Political Democracy and Social Equality (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), p. 117.

13 Verba, and Nie, , Participation in America, p. 116.

14 Verba, and Nie, , Participation in America, p. 111.

15 Verba and Nie, Participation in America, Chap. 7, ‘The Rationality of Political Activity: A Reconsideration’.

16 For the Verba, and Nie, finding, see Participation in America, pp. 36–7, Fig. 2–3: Example I, Circle D (‘Contacf’–15 per cent; ‘Both’–I5 per cent). The ‘42 per cent’ figure is drawn from a study of political attitudes and behavior conducted in 1973 at the National Opinion Research Center by N. H. Nie, S. Verba, A. Greeley and J. Petrocik, and is cited here with their kind permission.

17 Easton, , A Systems Analysis, p. 399.

18 Muller, , ‘Representation of Citizens’, p. 1152, italics in original.

19 Muller, ‘Representation of Citizens’.

20 See in a similarWahlke, Vein, ‘Policy Demands and System Support’, p. 288.

21 Muller, , ‘Representation of Citizens’, p. 1156. It may be interesting to note that, if this typology is sustained, diffuse support which Murphy and Tanenhaus define as ‘the degree to which people think a court carries out its overall responsibilities in an impartial and competent fashion’ (‘Public Opinion and the United States Supreme Court’, p. 370) becomes just a variety of specific support in Muller’s terms. This is an important consideration in the interpretation of their findings by Murphy and Tanenhaus as they themselves would probably be the first to recognize (see their fn. 20). If they are in fact testing for specific rather than diffuse support, this would help to account for the unexpectedly high correlation between their measure and policy issue clusters.

22 Loewenberg, ‘The Influence of Parliamentary Behavior on Regime Stability’, p. 184. Davidson and Parker share this point of view when they write that ‘the distinction Easton makes between specific and diffuse support is based on the underlying motivation for support. Clearly such motives would be difficult to detect empirically. We have chosen to avoid such an empirical problem by regarding support as ‘an aggregate characteristic of the population’ – a strategy which eliminated the need to measure individual motives for supportive actions.’ Davidson, R. H. and Parker, G. R., ‘Positive Support for Political Institutions: the Case of Congress,’ Western Political Quarterly, XXV (1972), 600–12, p. 602.

23 See for example Patterson, S. C., Wahlke, J. C. and Boynton, G. R., ‘Dimensions of Support in Legislative Systems’ in Kornberg, A., ed., Legislatures in Comparative Perspective (New York: McKay, 1970), 282313 at p. 297 where the authors state that ‘specific and diffuse support are not strongly related’. See also the numerous other references there to research and publications in which the same authors have participated. Boynton, G. R. and Loewenberg, G., ‘The Development of Public Support for Parliament in Germany 1951–59’, British Journal of Political Science, III (1973). 169–89, p. 172.

24 Easton, D., A Systems Analysis, p. 273. For one of the most direct applications of the concept of diffuse support as positive or negative evaluations, undifferentiated into subdimensions, see Dennis, J., ‘Support for the Party System in the Mass Public’, American Political Science Review, LX (1966), 600–15.

25 For some discussion of the relationship see Patterson, , Wahlke, and Boynton, , ‘Dimensions of Support in Legislative Systems’, p. 297.

26 See my interpretation of the forced relocation of the Japanese-Americans during World War II in the U.S., in ‘Theoretical Approaches to Political Support’, in manuscript.

27 See Davies, J. C., ‘Toward a Theory of Revolution’, American Sociological Review, XXVII (1962), 518 and related literature.

28 See Boynton and Loewenberg, ‘Development of Public Support for Parliament in Germany’, and also their ‘Sources of the Growth of Public Support for the Federal Republic in Postwar Germany’ (manuscript, 1973); and Muller, ‘Representation of Citizens’, Table 2 ff. and pp. 1163–5 where he demonstrates that instrumental and expressive performance are associated with legitimacy, one form of diffuse support.

29 Merriam, C. E., Political Power (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1934).

30 Easton, ‘Theoretical Approaches to Political Support’.

31 Gamson, W., Power and Discontent (Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey, 1968), p. 54.

32 As reported in Wahlke, , ‘Policy Demands and System Support’, p. 288.

33 See Easton, , A Systems Analysis, p. 278 ff.; Gamson, , Power and Discontent, p. 43; and Parsons, T., Sociological Theory and Modem Society (New York: Free Press, 1967).

34 Socialization studies have explored the level of trust that has been generated in the United States and other democratic regimes, both in young people and adults. As an alternative to direct studies of socialization, W. Murphy and J. Tanenhaus are proposing the use of a learning model to account for variations in diffuse support for the Supreme Court. Patterns learned early in life are conceived to be intervening variables in adult responses to the behavior of the Supreme Court.

35 It is precisely this stage that, many argue, we are about to reach in the United States today. Watergate has threatened not only confidence in a given President but in the office of the presidency itself. Is the United States moving from an unwillingness to trust one or another president or administration to a distrust of all presidents or administrations? The verbal shift may be small but the attitudinal leap can be traumatic for a system.

36 ‘[Mistrust] of government has a “political” basis; people are cynical of public officials when they disapprove of what they are doing.’ Also, measures of political trust ‘are strongly colored by evaluations of incumbent authorities’. Citrin, J. and Elkins, D. J., ‘Political Disaffection in Great Britain: Some Data from Student and General Population Samples’, in manuscript at p. 60.

37 Citrin, and Elkins, , ‘Political Disaffection in Great Britain’, pp. 25 and 32.

38 Citrin, and Elkins, , ‘Political Disaffection in Great Britain’, pp. 1011.

39 See Easton, , A Systems Analysis, pp. 278310, for an extended discussion.

40 Easton, , A Systems Analysis, p. 278.

41 For the table and its analysis, see Easton, , A Systems Analysis, p. 287 ff. For an application of this typology about legitimacy, see Muller, , ‘Representation of Citizens’, p. 1163 ff.; Correlates and Consequences of Beliefs in the Legitimacy of Regime Structures’, Midwest Journal of Political Science, XIV (1970), 392412; and A Test of a Partial Theory of Potential Political Violence’, American Political Science Review, LXVI (1972), 928–59. It is also instructive to examine the way in which a belief in the legitimacy of the Supreme Court is defined and measured by Murphy, W. F. and Tanenhaus, J. in The Study of Public Law (New York: Random House, 1972) and in many other publications by them about support for the courts.

42 Boynton, G. R., Patterson, S. C. and Hedlund, R. D., ‘The Structure of Public Support for Legislative Institutions’, Midwest Journal of Political Science, XII (1968), 163–80, p. 169 and the publications of J. Dennis with others on public support for political parties and regime norms. See also Wahlke, , ‘Policy Demands and System Support’, p. 285; Boynton, and Loewenberg, , ‘Development of Public Support for Parliament in Germany’, at p. 171; and Patterson, Boynton, G. R., Patterson, S. C. and Hedlund, R. D., ‘The Structure of Public Support for Legislative Institutions’, Midwest Journal of Political Science, XII (1968), 163–80, p. 169 and the publications of J. Dennis with others on public support for political parties and regime norms. See also Wahlke, , ‘Policy Demands and System Support’, p. 285; Boynton, and Loewenberg, , ‘Development of Public Support for Parliament in Germany’, at p. 171; and Patterson, , Wahlke, and Boynton, , ‘Dimensions of Support in Legislative Systems’, p. 292. For the way in which structural commitment may emerge in the processes of socialization, see Abramson, P. R. and Inglehart, R., ‘The Development of Systemic Support in Four Western Democracies’, Comparative Political Studies, II (1970), 419–42, esp. p. 421. For the moral or value component likely to be found in the idea of commitment, see Becker, H. S., ‘Notes on the Concept of Commitment’, American Journal of Sociology, LXVI (1960), 3240, p. 39; also Abramson, E., Cutler, H. A., Kautz, R. W. and Mendelson, M., who in ‘Social Power and Commitment: A Theoretical Statement’, American Sociological Review, XXIII (1958), 1522, at p. 16 write: ‘Committed lines, unlike open and closed lines, are sequences of action with penalties and costs so arranged as to guarantee their selection. … The penalty, whatever its nature, is brought to bear on the actor for any action other than the one recognized as legitimate. The legitimacy of action lies in previous commitment or inner compulsion to follow only certain lines of action.’

43 Dennis, J. and Mccrone, D., ‘Preadult Development of Political Party Identification in Western Democracies’, Comparative Political Studies, III (1970), 243–63. p. 244.

44 See Dennis, J., Lindberg, L., Mccrone, D. and Stiefbold, R., ‘Political Socialization to Democratic Orientations in Four Western Systems’, Comparative Political Studies, 1 (1968) 71101, p. 73. For positive support generated in processes of socialization and interpreted as contributing to the growth or decline of legitimating attitudes, see Easton, D. and Dennis, J., Children in the Political System: Origins of Political Legitimacy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969).

43 Muller, for example, in ‘Correlates and Consequences of Beliefs in the Legitimacy of Regime Structures’ considers trust to be a synonym for personal legitimacy.

46 Patterson, S. C., Boynton, G. R. and Hedlund, R. D., ‘Perceptions and Expectations of the Legislature and Support for It’, American Journal of Sociology, LXXV (1969), 6276; Boynton, Patterson and Hedlund, ‘Structure of Public Support for Legislative Institutions’; and Patterson, Wahlke and Bovnton, ‘Dimensions of Support in Legislative Systems’.

47 Patterson, , Wahlke, and Boynton, , ‘Dimensions of Support in Legislative Systems’, p. 292.

48 It is true Boynton, Patterson and Hedlund, in ‘Structure of Public Support for Legislative Institutions’ d o find a compliance factor in a principal component analysis. However this discovery is not inconsistent with my comments. In the first place, as in all such analyses, one gets out of them what is put in and the survey items were predisposed to permit such a cluster to emerge. In the second place, the factor could be expected to present itself. The investigators had under study circumstances in which, in the absence of coercion, compliant responses could correctly be interpreted as reflecting a favorable evaluation. If the Iowa legislature had passed a law that was vehemently opposed and honored in the breach, negative responses to the survey questions could not necessarily have been interpreted to mean low diffuse support for the legislature.

49 See, for example, Finifter, A. W., ed., Alienation and the Social System (New York: Wiley, 1972) and Schwartz, D. C., Political Alienation and Political Behavior (Chicago: Aldine, 1972).

50 Finister, A. W., ‘Dimensions of Political Alienation’, in Finifter, Alienation and the Social System, 189212.

51 Citrin, and Elkins, , ‘Political Disaffection in Great Britain,’ pp. 78.

52 Finister, , Alienation and the Social System, p. 191.

53 Finister, Alienation and the Social System.

54 Feierabend, I. K., Feierabend, R. L. and Nesvold, B. A., ‘Social Change and Political Violence: Cross-National Patterns’ in Feierabend, I. K., Feierabend, R. L. and Gurr, T. R., Anger, Violence and Politics (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972), pp. 107–24, esp. at p. 109.

55 See Easton, ‘Theoretical Approaches to Political Support’, in manuscript.

* Queen’s University, Kingston, Ont. and University of Chicago.

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British Journal of Political Science
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