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Party Elites, Voters and Political Attitudes: Testing Three Explanations for Mass-Elite Differences*

  • Ian McAllister (a1)

The extent of differences in mass-elite political opinion and their theoretical implications have long been a source of interest to democratic theorists. Early classical democratic theorists saw education as the solution to mass-elite political differences, with an educated mass public displaying the same support for democratic institutions as their elite counterparts. By contrast, the later democratic elitists saw little that would reduce mass-elite differences. More recently, modern elite theorists have argued that elites are more polarized on political issues than mass publics, and that political conflict can be moderated by the ability of elites to downplay potentially divisive issues. Using Australia as a case study, these three approaches to mass-elite political differences are analyzed using a matched survey of voters and candidates conducted at the Australia 1987 federal election. The results show little support for education as a factor reducing mass-elite differences and point to the democratic elitists' argument that mass-elite political differences are fixed and enduring. In line with modern elite theories, the results also confirm the existence of more intense issue polarization among elites than among voters, and elites' ability to control the issues that reach the political agenda.

Les théoriciens de la démocratic se sont intéressés depuis longtemps aux différences entre les opinions des masses et celles des élites, et aux conséquences théoriques de ces différences. Les théoriciens classiques de la démocratic ont regardé l'éducation comme une solution pour ces différences, suggérant que des masses instruites et leurs contreparties dans les élites donneront le même appui aux institutions démocratiques. Par contraste, les théoriciens démocratiques récents des élites ont vu peu d'occasion de réduire ces différences. Plus récemment, les théoriciens modernes des élites ont soutenu que les élites sont plus polarisées que les masses sur les questions politiques, et que les conflits politiques peuvent être modérés par la capacité des élites d'accepter tacitement des compromis sur les questions potentiellement controversées. Avec l'Australie comme exemple, nous analysons ces trois approches aux différences politiques entre les masses et les élites, utilisant des enquêtes par sondage des électeurs et des candidats de l'élection australienne de 1987. Les résultats ne donnent pas beaucoup d'appui à l'hypothèse que l'éducation réduit les différences politiques entre les masses et les élites; et ils soulignent les arguments des théoriciens démocratiques des élites que les différences politiques entre les masses et les élites sont fixées et durables. En rapport avec les théories modernes des élites, les résultats confirment aussi l'existence d'une polarisation parmi les élites quant aux questions politiques qui est plus intense que celle parmi les électeurs, et la capacité des élites de contrôler les problèmes politiques à l'ordre du jour.

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1 There is a voluminous literature on this topic. For useful introductions, see Eulau, Heinz and Wahlke, John, eds., The Politics of Representation (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1978); Pennock, J. Roland and Chapman, John W., eds., Representation (New York: Atherton, 1968); and Pitkin, Hannah, The Concept of Representation (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967).

2 See Bachrach, P., The Theory of Democratic Elitism: A Critique (Boston: Little, Brown, 1967); Kariel, Henry S., ed., Frontiers of Democratic Theory (New York: Random, 1975); Pateman, Carol, Participation and Political Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970); and Sartori, Giovanni, The Theory of Democracy Revisited Parts 1 and 2 (London: Chatham House, 1987).

3 See Field, G. Lowell and Higley, John, Elitism (London: Routledge and Regan Paul, 1980); Higley, John, Deacon, Desley and Smart, Don, Elites in Australia (Melbourne: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979); and Higley, John and Moore, Gwen, “Elite Integration in Australia and the United States,” American Political Science Review 75 (1981), 573597.

4 Hollander, R., Video Democracy (Mt. Airey, Mass.: Lomond, 1985); De Sola Poole, I., Technologies of Freedom (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1983); and Atherton, F. Christopher, Teledemocracy: Can Technology Protect Democracy? (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1987).

5 Almond, Gabriel A. and Verba, Sidney, The Civic Culture (Boston: Little, Brown, 1963), 338.

6 Field and Higley, Elitism.

7 Medding, Peter Y., “Patterns of Elite Consensus and Elite Competition: A Model and a Case Study,” in Clarke, Harold D. and Czudnowski, Moshe, eds., Political Elites in Anglo-American Democracies (Dekalb, III.: Northern Illinois University Press, 1987).

8 See, for example, Sullivan, John L., Pierseson, James and Marcus, George E., Political Tolerance and American Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982); Sniderman, Paul M., Tetlock, Philip E., Glaser, James M., Green, Donald Philip and Hout, Michael, “Principled Tolerance and the American Mass Public,” British Journal of Political Science 19 (1989), 2545.

9 Budge, Compare Ian, Agreement and the Stability of Democracy (Chicago: Markham, 1970); Graetz, Brian and McAllister, Ian, “Mass-Elite Linkages in Australia: Empirical Evidence,” Politics 20 (1985), 6576; Higley, Deacon and Smart, Elites in Australia; Higley, John, Field, G. Lowell and Groholt, Knut, Elite Structures and Ideology (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976); Peter Y. Medding, “Patterns of Elite Consensus and Elite Competition”; Searing, Donald D., “A Theory of Political Socialisation: Institution Support and Deradicalization in Britain,” British Journal of Political Science 16 (1986), 341376; and Sullivan, John L. et al. , Political Tolerance in Context: Support for Unpopular Minorities in Israel, New Zealand and the United States (Boulder: Westview, 1985).

10 Kavanagh, Denis, Political Science and Political Behaviour (London: Allen and Unwin, 1983), 175.

11 Parry, Geraint, “Citizenship and Knowledge,” in Birnbaum, Pierre, Lively, Jack and Parry, Geraint, eds., Democracy, Consensus and Social Contract (London: Sage, 1978).

12 Mill, John Stuart, Utilitarianism, Liberty and Representative Government (London: John Dent, 1910), 276ff.

13 de Tocqueville, Alexis, Democracy in America (London: Fontana, 1968), 323ff.

14 Tapper, Ted, Political Education and Stability: Elite Responses to Political Conflict (London: Wiley, 1976), and Thompson, Dennis F., John Stuart Mill and Representative Government (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976).

15 Parry, “Citizenship and Knowledge,” 42.

16 The group was not homogeneous, though proponents shared a common label. Thompson, for example, identifies three types: scientific, humanist and religious (John Stuart Mill and Representative Government, 8–9).

17 See Thompson, Dennis F., The Democratic Citizen: Social Science and Democratic Theory in the Twentieth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970).

18 Friedrich, Carl J., The New Belief in the Common Man (Boston: Little, Brown, 1942), 113.

19 See Thompson, The Democratic Citizen, 14.

20 See Kavanagh, Political Science and Political Behaviour, 176.

21 See Almond and Verba, The Civic Culture.

22 Huntington, Samuel H., Political Order in Changing Societies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974).

23 Schumpeter, Joseph A., Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (New York: Harper & Row, 1942), 289.

24 Plamenatz, John, Democracy and Illusion (London: Longman, 1973).

25 Almond and Verba, The Civic Culture, 360.

26 See Dahl, Robert A., Who Governs? (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961), and Dahl, Robert A., Polyarchy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971).

27 See Field and Higley, Elitism; Higley, John and Cushing, Robert G., “Consensus and Conflict Among Australia's Leaders,” Politics 12 (1977), 3858; Higley, Deacon and Smart, Elites in Australia; Higley, Field and Groholt, Elite Structures and Ideology; and Higley and Moore, “Elite Integration in Australia and the United States.”

28 Field and Higley, Elitism, 37.

29 Medding, Peter Y., “Ruling Elite Models: A Critique and an Alternative,” Political Studies 33 (1982), 393412, and Medding, “Patterns of Elite Consensus and Elite Competition,” 30.

30 See Prothro, James W. and Grigg, Charles M., “Fundamental Principles of Democracy: Bases of Agreement and Disagreement,” Journal of Politics 22 (1960), 276294.

31 McCloskey, Herbert, Hoffman, Paul J. and O'Hara, Rosemary, “Issue Conflict and Consensus among Party Leaders and Followers,” American Political Science Review 54 (1960), 406427, and McCloskey, Herbert, “Consensus and Ideology in American Politics,” American Political Science Review 58 (1964), 361382.

32 See Key, V. O., Public Opinion and American Democracy (New York: Knopf, 1962); Higley and Moore, “Elite Integration in Australia and the United States”; and Putnam, Robert D., The Comparative Study of Political Elites (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1976).

33 Searing, “A Theory of Political Socialisation.”

34 Alford, Robert R. and Scoble, Harry M., “Community Leadership, Social Status and Political Behavior,” American Sociological Review 33 (1968), 259271.

35 Jackman, Robert W., “Political Elites, Mass Publics, and Support for Democratic Principles,” Journal of Politics 34 (1972), 752773.

36 Namely, big business, trade unions, federal public service, federal and state politics, mass media, voluntary associations, major universities and research centres.

37 Higley, Deacon and Smart, Elites in Australia.

38 Medding, “Patterns of Elite Consensus and Elite Competition,” 37.

39 Graetz and McAllister, “Mass-Elite Linkages in Australia.” The Graetz and McAllister study, like that by Higley, Deacon and Smart, was based on an elite sample that included a minority of elected representatives, the majority being made up of leaders in business, commerce, the trade unions and the public service.

40 A similar procedure is used in my analysis of intra-party variations in political attitudes. See McAllister, Ian, “Party Adaptation and Factionalism Within the Australian Party System,” American Journal of Political Science 35 (1991), 206227.

41 Norman, Barry, The New Right (New York: Croom Helm, 1987).

42 This finding of attitudinal constraint between voters and political elites is a common one; see, for example, Converse, Philip E., “The Nature of Belief Systems Among Mass Publics,” in Apter, David E., ed., Ideology and Discontent (New York: Free Press, 1964).

43 Inglehart, Ronald, The Silent Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), and Inglehart, Ronald, Value Change in Advanced Industrial Societies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).

44 In the event, the third factor had an eigenvalue of less than 1 (the default) and would have been excluded from the final solution even if it had not been constrained to two factors.

45 For a similar analysis with in the context of British elections in the 1970s and 1980s, see Franklin, Mark N., “The Resurgence of Conservatism in British Elections Since 1974,” in Cooper, Barry, Kornberg, Allan and Mishler, William, eds., The Resurgence of Conservatism in Anglo-American Democracies (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1988).

46 This argument stems from Louis Hartz's theory that colonial societies are cultural “fragments” of the donor society at the time of colonization. In this formulation Canadian and United States political culture is a fragment of eighteenth-century Lockean notions of individual liberty, while Australian political culture is a fragment of nineteenth-century Benthamite notions of utilitarianism. See Collins, Hugh, “Political Ideology in Australia: The Distinctiveness of a Benthamite Society,” Daedalus 114 (1985), 147169.

47 Successive polls have indicated that compulsory voting is supported by upwards of two-thirds of all voters. See McAllister, Ian, “Australia: Changing Social Structure, Stable Politics,” in Franklin, Mark N., Mackie, Tom and Valen, Henry, eds., Electoral Change (London: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

48 See Falk, Jim, Taking Australia off the Map (Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin, 1983).

49 The analysis is limited to House of Representatives candidates, since Senate candidates are elected from a whole state. The percentage vote is the first preference vote received by each candidate. To measure candidate-voter attitudinal differences, candidates are matched to the voters within their constituency.

50 See McCloskey, Hoffman and O'Hara, “Issue Conflict and Consensus among Party Leaders and Followers”; Stouffer, Samuel A., Communism, Conformity, and Civil Liberties (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1963); and Prothro and Grigg, “Fundamental Principles of Democracy.”

51 See Putnam, The Comparative Study of Political Elites, and Searing, “A Theory of Political Socialisation.”

52 Elling, Richard C., “Ideological Change in the United States Senate: Time and Electoral Responsiveness,” Legislative Studies Quarterly 7 (1982), 7592.

53 Party membership or activism represents a further dimension of division among voters, which has been shown to be important by other studies (see, for example, Miller, Warren E. and Jennings, M. Kent, Parties in Transition [New York: Russell Sage, 1986], chap. 9). Unfortunately, the voter survey did not ask a question on party membership or activism, so we were unable to test the hypothesis here.

54 See Sartori, The Theory of Democracy Revisited Parts I and 2, 224–26.

55 Field and Higley, Elitism, 117.

56 Lawson, Kay, ed., Political Parties and Linkage (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), and Lawson, Kay, “When Linkage Fails,” in Lawson, Kay and Merkl, Peter, eds., When Parties Fail (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988).

57 Bean, Clive and McAllister, Ian, “Factions and Tendencies within the Australian Party System,” Politics 24 (1989), 7999, and Ian McAllister, “Party Adaptation and Factionalism.”

58 Lloyd, Clem and Swann, W., “National Factions and the Australian Labor Party,” Politics 22 (1987), 107.

59 Senate candidates are elected by proportional representation from a single state or territory, and they usually have a six-year term if elected. House of Representatives candidates are elected by preferential voting in single-member electorates.

60 Dillmann, D., Mail and Telephone Surveys (New York: Wiley, 1979).

61 Full details of the survey procedures can be found in Jones, Roger et al. , The 1987 Australian Election Study: Users Guide for the Machine-Readable Data File (Canberra: Social Science Data Archives, 1987).

62 See Kim, Jae-On and Mueller, Charles W., Factor Analysis: Statistical Methods and Practical Issues (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1978).

* The 1987 Australian Election Study was conducted by Roger Jones, Ian McAllister, Anthony Mughan, Alvaro Ascui (candidate and voter samples) and Marian Simms (candidate sample), and was funded by the University of New South Wales and the Australian National University. The data are available from the Social Science Data Archives at the Australian National University. Thanks to John Higley, Richard Rose and the anonymous referees from this Journal for comments on an earlier draft of the article, and to Alvaro Ascui and Pramod Adhikari for research assistance. The usual disclaimer applies.

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