Skip navigation
College Quarterly
Fall 2011 - Volume 14 Number 4
The Political Psychology of Democratic Citizenship
Eugene Borgida, Christopher M. Frederico & John L. Sullivan, eds.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2009
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Picking up The Political Psychology of Democratic Citizenship was like getting an invitation to a college reunion, and immediately sensing that the return would be difficult and disorienting. That things had changed after forty-five years was to be expected, but the added realization that my memories might have become distorted was disquieting. It was discomfiting.

After graduation, from 1967 to about 1980, my main research interest was in empirical democratic theory, which I approached largely a semantic perspective. I wanted to know what democracy meant in what passes for the real world. I had already come to believe that re-reading the great books from Plato's anti-democratic dystopia, The Republic, to explorations of what C. B. Macpherson famously called the "political theory of possessive individualism in early modern liberals like Hobbes and Locke, and on to more recent advocates of democracy from John Stuart Mill and John Dewey, to finally to the political scientists of the 1950s and 1960s did not help much.1 John Gellner2 had convinced me that a close textual reading of the canon amounted to little more than an exercise in intellectual flatulence, the passing of an antique wind (to borrow a phrase from George Grant). Following the lead of the contributors to a then-contemporary anthology, Empirical Democratic Theory,3 it seemed that, to me that if the task was to understand democracy, the path was somehow to conjoin normative assessments (what is good) with empirical analysis (what is real). The idea was not new. Lenin, for instance, had recommended it some time before. My ambitions, of course, were far more modest.

In my years in graduate school and beyond, there was a robust debate within the discipline of political science about how much how much or how little popular participation could be managed without destabilizing modern democratic systems. So-called "classical" democratic theory was chastised by so-called "realists," because it assumed that modern citizens would or could accept the "burden" of political engagement. Instead, they urged contentment with a political system in which competing interest groups implicitly represented the needs and wishes of citizens, and their countervailing powers ensured that no single group or interest would permanently dominate the others. Politics was portrayed as a kind of game, in which "values" were authoritative allocated in a kind of friendly give-and-take. The rules were understood and respected. No defeat was seen as final. No interest forever ignored.

In the alternative, people who favoured a more participatory form of government chafed under the recognition that the kind of pluralist democracy described by the realists was a sham. You didn't have to be a Marxist or even a "new leftist" to appreciate that the apologists for the political system of the day defended arrangements that were inherently unfair, discriminatory, always class-based, always gender-based and often race-based. The realists defended mainly the interests of privileged elites, and were caught off-guard when their complacency was upended, especially in the United States, by the civil rights movement, the "counter-culture," the anti-war movement, and the emergence of feminism. Those who had comfortably assumed the "end of ideology" and praised pluralist democracy as "the good society in operation" were shown to be among the least "realistic."

In my own work, I sought to explore the language of democracy in order to probe empirically the ideology of democracy, and especially liberal democracy as practiced in the Anglo-American political systems. I understood that, like any normative term, its definition was apt to be highly contested. Like justice, freedom, beauty and similar abstract ideas and ideals, democracy meant different things to different people, and no constructive or even sensible political discussion could reach fulfillment as long as the participants disagreed profoundly on the meaning of their terms. Then, as now, it seemed that most political debaters literally didn't know what they were talking about.

There were, however, plenty of other approaches. For example, not everyone agreed with me that searching the canon of Western philosophy was futile as a guide to contemporary politics. There were those then and there are those now (though fewer) who consider the works of ancient, medieval, early modern and contemporary political philosophers to constitute a grand historical conversation. They believe that bringing Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Bentham, Mill and, perhaps, John Rawls and Richard Rorty into a virtual chat-room or academic seminar will have salutary effects on our polity. I have no great faith in the practicality of their endeavours, but I wish them well.

More promising have been the political economists who chart the patterns of power in society and seek links to the dominant mode of production and distribution of resources, goods and services. Connecting political fortunes with economic fortunes allows investigators to learn with some precision what most citizens know almost intuitively; namely, that public policies may vary, but whether seemingly generous to the poor and working classes or not, the general function of government is to protect property and maintain social stability, which most often means repressing the expressed needs of the ruled in the interest of the rulers or, better, ensuring that the interests of the marginalized and oppressed never got expressed at all.

As well, a sizable portion of political science literature has concentrated on analyzing political attitudes and actions. Borrowing from sociology and statistics, and attempting to mimic the methods of the natural sciences, "behaviouralism" was, for a time, all the rage until its practitioners found more lucrative places for their talents in professional opinion polling, often with firms seeking to improve the position of the political parties that employed them.4 True, some academics continue to ask ordinary citizens what they think about this or that controversial issue and to predict what effect independent variables will have in dependent variables such as voting behaviour; but, very few political scientists still expect that the "science" part of the "political" will build up a store of verifiable hypotheses and a consequent body of theory that will turn the study of politics into an imitation of the "hard" sciences in the near or distant future. For a while, however, entrepreneurial academics, drawn to something called "polimetrics," sought to turn political studies into exercises in operational definition and mathematical prediction. Confidence in such model making has largely vanished.

In sum, my experience with the discipline involved my own putative specialty (rather pretentiously called "quantitative linguistics"), but I was also well aware of the influence of political economy, philosophy, political sociology and specific "paradigms" such as "systems theory," as well as the somewhat stuffier fields of institutional and policy analysis.5 In all of this, except for people drawn to the likes of Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Theodor Adorno and other practitioners of "critical theory" who often dragged some Freudian baggage along with them, the discipline of psychology hardly mattered. To most of us, psychology came in three forms: torturing rats, talking people out of their imponderable anxieties, and feeding sedatives to noisy children and serial killers.

In the past few years, however, I have been revisiting democratic theory—both normative and empirical—in the hope of putting together a college program in "democracy and citizenship," and it was in this context that I encountered The Political Psychology of Democratic Citizenship. I won't go so far as to say that it added a whole new dimension to my efforts, but I can acknowledge that it has re-opened and extended an interest that long sat dormant, and that was underappreciated when I pursued these issues more extensively long, long ago.

Now, what are these issues? From the standpoint of Borgida, Frederico and Sullivan (hereafter BFS), the pertinent categories for analysis are:

  • civic knowledge (how and what do people learn about politics);
  • persuasion processes (what strategies are effective in producing desired decisions and political actions);
  • group identity (what are the connections between involvement—voluntary or not—in subcultures and demographics and political behaviour and belief);
  • hate crimes and tolerance (issues in stereotyping and paths to a more harmonious society);
  • technology and mass media (exploring how the media shape social and collective identity and behaviour).

As well, the book contains a helpful introduction by the editors and three provocative commentaries, in which three essays on broader, contextualizing themes explore the promise and the limitations of psychology for understanding and enhancing democracy. Within this discourse, two dominant themes can be traced.6

On the one hand, write BFS in their opening essay, there are those "elite" democratic theorists who, having witnessed the excesses of mass movements in the politics of early 20th-century communism, fascism and Nazism (as well as in assorted riots, social banditry and "lynch mobs" in various times and places throughout modernity), came to the conclusion that excessive popular involvement in politics was apt to be dangerous, and that mass hysteria was more likely to describe mass involvement than the pleasantries of a "New England town meeting" on a larger scale. These critics may best be described as "democratic revisionists." They were committed to democracy, of course, but they were more worried about the tyranny that they believed followed the massification of political life than the enhancement of the citizenry through healthy political engagement. Indeed, says BFS, they took a decidedly "dim view of the abilities and potential of citizens," and therefore subscribed to a narrow conception of democracy in which competition among qualified elites was all that was needed and that more might undermine the entire project. As long as trustworthy leaders of established interest groups (producers and consumers, owners and workers, industrialists and agriculturalists, diverse ethnic communities and other demographic cohorts, various regional groupings, and so on) functioned to aggregate opinions and apply pressure to "big tent" political parties which from time to time subjected their candidates for office to the popular vote, then the system was in good, reliable and responsible hands.

On the other hand, there were those who believed not only that the people at large were inherently trustworthy, but that the practice of democracy would enhance their sophistication and ability to handle "direct democracy." Moreover, in the event that democratic life became unruly, there was comfort to be found in the adage, attributed to (among others) the thoroughly democratic American philosopher John Dewey, the otherwise curmudgeonly Baltimore newspaper writer H. L. Mencken and New York Governor and one-time US Presidential candidate Al Smith, the only cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy. Democracy, they seemed to agree, required some hard work and perhaps a little training, but its eventual benefits were greater than its interim inconveniences.

By these lights, it was not the people (or the masses or "ordinary" citizens) who were to be feared, but the economic, political, religious, social and military elites who were apt to do damage to the common weal. A singular event in the development of this perspective was the publication of The Power Elite7, C. Wright Mills' memorable reflection on the dominant influences in the United States in the decades following World War II. It was a fine preface to the farewell address by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the old general's warning of the controlling force of the emerging "military-industrial complex." Both betokened a vibrant trend in the academic study and advocacy of democracy in which urged the view "that citizens engage in sufficient micromanagement to constrain and restrain political elites through well-informed exercises of vigilance, electoral power, and mechanisms of direct democracy, such as referendum and recall." In the event, such efforts quickly devolved into the mass demonstrations accompanying the nuclear disarmament movement in the United Kingdom, the flowering of opposition to the conflict in Vietnam, the events in Paris in May, 1968, global feminism and a growing rebelliousness in the Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe. Academic enthusiasts of participatory democracy were not entirely displeased.8

In terms of this theoretical tension and its obvious practical implications, The Political Psychology of Democratic Citizenship falls slightly toward the revisionist side. It is interested more in the "health" of democracy as a system than in the "health" of the citizens themselves. Whereas participatory democrats saw, in Macpherson's words, "democracy as developmental, as a matter of improvement of mankind," this volume continues the merely empiricist tradition which "treats democracy as a mechanism, the essential function of which is to maintain equilibrium … (accordingly) democracy is simply a means by which men as they are now can register their wants as political consumers in the political market."9

An alternative approach, especially to the normative side of the argument, might have started with Aristotle's definition of humanity as zoon politikon, political animals whose very nature was to engage in community discussion and collective action, and whose "psychology" was intimately involved in the active creation of social arrangements. So, a psychology of politics would link the health of the individual to the health of the polity, raise issues about personal fulfillment in the public sphere, and perhaps even inquire about whether excessive privacy is not a dimension of system-saving repression of the innate need for sociability. From there, the sorts of explorations once intimated by Herbert Marcuse could be recast in a (post)modern form, and the deep questions about individual alienation from Marx to Martin Seeman could be articulated and various theories could be explored.10 In short, psychology could be used as an emancipatory science and not as a means of promoting accommodation.

Instead, BFS have chosen to ply their trade in calmer waters. It's not that the editors are either unaware or uninterested in what I take to be the core issue; both in their own contribution and in their critique of previous work by political scientists, social psychologists and others, they are acutely aware of the "political" element in political psychology.11 Nonetheless, in ways somewhat reminiscent of Seymour Martin Lipset's fashioning of the empirical conditions in which democracy might flourish, the contributors to The Political Psychology of Democratic Citizenship summarize studies on attitudinal and behavioural variables such as emotions, motivations, expectations, identity, tolerance and facilitators of harmonious intergroup relations.12 While the shift, as is to be expected in a book about political psychology and not political sociology, the same underlying principles are in play in research in both disciplines. Democracy is to be explained by the circumstances in which it emerges and takes shape. The preexisting conditional factors may be economic, social or psychological, but they are in each case determinative. Politics, in theory and practice, is the consequence of other human mental states and material conditions. Reduced to its simplest formula, democracy can be recast as children playing nicely together—a charming sentiment but one that avoids two crucial questions: what if the rules of the game are rigged, and what if the children wish to take control of their own rules.

Reassuring paeans to liberal democracy in the 1950s and early 1960s failed to detect seismic shifts in the body politic. The rise of the putatively radical movements to address issues of "social justice" which had apparently escaped the notice of "elite" theorists may not have been as transformational as some people thought at the time, and a few continue to think now in retrospect. Indeed, the rise of the "new right," of "neoliberalism" and the affirmation of the values that now annoy the "Occupy" movement and anyone thinking seriously about the future of the planet have almost certainly had a greater impact on modern democracies than the civil rights and anti-war protesters and hippies did nearly half a century ago. The ease with which certain vested interests and the individuals associated with them have managed to increase their already vast personal and corporate fortunes while the middle class is depleted and the poor remain chronically poor. That they have done so in ways that fail most tests of morality and remain on the good side of the law mostly with the help of an indifferent administration and a helpful Supreme Court.

What, then, can political psychology say about the fact that events such as the financial crisis of 2008, the intensifying energy conundrum and the constant war drums that are beaten even as the longest wars in the history of the United States, Canada and the NATO allies show few signs of abatement? The best answer I can provide is: not all that much. This is not in any way a criticism of the writers or the competence of their work. The research upon which the contributions are based is certainly up to the standards of the profession. The work that they have done to recapitulate recent work in political psychology displays familiarity with the field, sensitivity to its purposes and accomplishments and an eagerness to get on with the job. I therefore turn to the three closing commentaries, for they give the most incisive arguments about the state and the future of political psychology.

The first, by David O. Sears, is notable. He presents the following "general thesis." It has mainly to do with the alleged political biases of his colleagues. "Experimental social psychology in the United States," he tells us, "is strongly skewed to the political left, especially in domains focused on intergroup relations." By this he means that those who study ethnic relations, multiculturalism and so on bring with them a "conflict" model to describe and explain the politics of race and ethnicity (he uses the terms interchangeably). This prejudice colours (so to speak) the kind of analysis that they provide in contrast to psychological theories that emphasize "individualism" and "assimilation." It forms, he says, a strong left-wing "political subtext" that has, since the civil rights movement in the infamous 1960s, made "race far more salient in American society." Some of his arguments are well made and relate to methodological issues. Too many studies, for example, are done of the attitudes of college students who may be "unreliable guides" to the views of the general population. What I find dubious, however, is the primary point that psychologists (and, I suppose, social scientists generally) are hard-core leftists. They may well be concentrated on the left wing of American politics, but the spectrum of political ideology in the United States is not as wide as many Americans seem to think. In a political culture where "socialist" is a term of opprobrium and where universal health care is so demonized that President Obama's health insurance reforms did not even attempt to install a "public option," it may be better to say that the entire US attitudinal continuum is so far to the right that people in the centre of Canadian or European politics would be classified as left-wing extremists for doing away with capital punishment, enforcing strict gun laws and embracing a wide range of community and social services provided by all levels of government. Moreover, it may be that, when Americans study race and ethnic relations, they do not "make" such matters "salient," but rather report back on what already is. Racism and ethnic conflict have been endemic to American society since before Benjamin Franklin urged the extermination of aboriginal Americans. To imagine that race was not salient before the civil rights movement is to assume that rigid racial segregation was somehow "normal." In any case, the pertinent effect of studying intergroup relations using psychological methods is to steer away from structural issues and focus on individual beliefs and behaviour, either to show why conflict exists or to generate ideas about conflict reduction. That may be reformist or even liberal, but it would not strike a non-American as being part of common leftist doctrine.

In the second concluding essay, Lindsey C. Levitan, Penny S. Visser and Susan T. Fiske write enthusiastically about interdisciplinarity in political psychology. They are almost giddy in their praise for what they call "synergistic interdisciplinary connections" among psychology, political science, sociology, mass communications, behavioral economics, neuroscience and (who knows?) perhaps anthropology as well. Their chapter is a "celebration of political psychology" and an announcement that "these are good times for political psychology". Despite the understandable "turf wars" among social scientists concerned with democracy, they see reason for optimism that, instead of merely borrowing a concept here or a methodology there, we will soon witness "a fully integrated and synergistic political psychology" that will provide "significant advances in our understanding of the complex questions that captivate us." Now, a clue to their intent is available in the use of the phrase "behavioral economics." Using the model of the rational, self-interested decision maker, "behavioral" economics harkens back to the "behavioral revolution" in political science forty or fifty years ago. Once again, efforts are made to marginalize structural features and bring the study of democratic politics down to research into why we hold particular attitudes, adopt specific beliefs and make specific choices about concrete activities. The authors admit that psychologists tend to do their work in laboratories, whereas political scientists favour statistical analyses of aggregate data, but they are convinced that the goals of both are the same and that both theoretical and methodological variations can be overcome with imagination and good will. What is not so magnanimously taken into account are the issues that will be lost as political psychology individualizes and arguably trivializes its subject matter.

George C. Marcus has the final word. He asks and answers the question: "What has political psychology to offer regarding democratic citizenship?" The theme that Marcus establishes for political psychology is illuminating: it is the study of "citizen competence" and the resulting debate over whether citizens are ill-equipped to meet the demands of sound democratic decision making."

Marcus professedly disagrees with such a narrow perspective. Democracy, he says "demands a wide array of challenges, each demanding different civic skills." His personal judgement is that, on the whole, citizens do a pretty good job. He even acknowledges that it is sometimes necessary to accept an "agonistic view of democratic politics—one that places citizens at the centre of conflict over power and resources."

In reviewing the emergence of political psychology, Marcus correctly says that it has been preoccupied with the "historic concern about an unruly public," a concern that held great sway in Plato and has captured the imagination of "conservatives" ever since. Willing to balance the desire for social harmony with an invitation to greater public participation in democratic politics, he worries that too little involvement may be the result of "fears, alienation and cynicism," a toxic brew.

Marcus also comments that political psychology has been "deeply committed to cognitive explanations. Simply put, the theory (I would say inherent ideology) of political psychology holds that political activity is caused by a dynamic that includes personal attitudes and beliefs (including "semantic-based memory" and the generation of persuasive messages "semantic contemporary communications"), with each acting on the other to produce behavioural results. He worries that this approach misses "the larger problem … [that the] American public is ill-prepared and finds unattractive the particular demands of citizenship in a political context that is highly conflict-laden". So, once again, we are left with the problem of the play-pen and children who do not behave nicely. The real larger problem, of course, is that the playpen is dominated by a small number of bullies who intimidate, threaten and break down their less powerful playmates. The question of conflict management and harmony continues to trump consideration of differential power and rigged games. Marcus concludes with a rehearsal of studies that have attempted to incorporate "agonistic" behaviour, to take account of conflict and to find a path to civic competence. It is not all bad.

Nevertheless, I am forced to return to my original analogy and worry some about the college reunion. When I was exploring the semantics of democratic thought, seeking to isolate competing definitions of democracy, it was not because I thought that the ideas in people's heads were the "cause" of their actions. Our concepts surely shape our attitudes and influence our actions. They mediate but they are not the ultimate causes of our behaviour. They, like other perceptual, cognitive, deliberative and verbal and non-verbal relations are themselves socially constructed. They are neither direct representations of an external world nor is the external world a direct projection of internal mental states. The relationship is one of mediation, with our intellectual prowess capable of interrogating and modifying our thought. There is an element of independent individual agency, to be sure; but, it exists within culturally defined boundaries. In the end, therefore, I found very little relationship between my interest in deconstructing ideology using a number of empirical means borrowed from psychology, and the aims of political psychologists today. They participate in a process that turns politics into an exercise in social control, more than social creativity, system maintenance rather than social justice and, above all, a matter of management and not emancipation from both material and ideological constraints.

Political psychology, as represented in BFS, has much in common with Samara, a charitable organization that studies democracy in Canada.13 Well-funded and dedicated to its own version of democratic principles, it produces research reports, assists educators and citizens in its aspiration to promote a citizenry that knows politics matter and feels heard by their government and compelled to be involved. One of its earliest and most successful projects was a set of interviews with departing Members of Parliament about their experience as politicians. It aimed at producing a "job description" for politicians of the sort that might be drawn by the Human Resources Department of a major private corporation. It discussed emotions, motivations, expectations and identities. It fit a management model intended to smooth the way for an efficient decision-making process which allowed interest articulation and institutional legitimation to work hand-in-glove. Questions of dominant power, hegemonic ideology and tonic, transformational change were not addressed. System sustainability seemed to be the top priority and the molding of public participation to fit comfortably within the presumptions of elite democracy appeared to be the strategic aim. How much turbulence the system could sustain remained a moot point. The same may be said for the political psychology of presented by BFS.

Endnotes:

1. The classic texts are well known and widely available. Younger readers might wish to be reminded of Macpherson's splendid interpretation of the early liberals in The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962). This seminal work was followed by a number of slimmer volumes of interest to students of democracy in general, and include: The Real World of Democracy (Toronto: CBC, 1965), based on the Massey Lectures; Democratic Theory: Essays in Retrieval (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973); The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977);

2. John G. Gunnell, "The Idea of a Conceptual Framework: A Philosophical Critique," paper for the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association," Washington, 1968 and "Political Science and the Philosophy of Science: An Overview and Argument," paper for the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association," Chicago, 1969. His ideas were later consolidated in Between Philosophy and Politics: The Alienation of Political Theory (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986).

3. Charles E. Cnudde & Deane E. Neubauer, Empirical Democratic Theory (Chicago: Markham, 1969).

4. See, for example, Heinz Eulau's description of the state of political science, The Behavioral Persuasion in Politics (New York: Random House, 1963).

5. The wide-scale appropriation of systems theory, largely from electrical engineering and making terms like "inputs," "outputs" and "feedback" fashionable, followed the publication of David Easton's influential tome, The Political System: An Inquiry into the State of Political Science (New York: Knopf, 1953).

6. An excellent anthology that gives expression to both sides is Henry S. Kariel, Frontiers of Democratic Theory (New York: Random House, 1970).

7. C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956).

8. See, for example, Henry S. Kariel, The Promise of Politics (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1966) and Carole Pateman, Participation and Democratic Theory (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1970).

9. Macpherson, "Revisionist Liberalism," in Democratic Theory, pp. 78-79.

10. The basis for Marcuse's critique can largely be found in Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (New York: Vintage, 1955), and his more popular application came in One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (Boston: Beacon, 1964. Marx's critical insight was made in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, which are available in a number of places. The pertinent sections can be found in Erich Fromm's Marx's Concept of Man, pp. 93-110, along with a useful essay on the topic from a "humanistic" perspective by Fromm on pp. 43-58 (New York: Ungar, 1961). Seeman recast the message in terms more agreeable to American social science in "On the Meaning of Alienation," American Sociological Review, Vol. 24, No. 6 (December, 1959), pp. 783-791.

11. In addition to what I have termed "elite" or "revisionist" democratic theory (they call it the "representative liberal" tradition and "classical" or "participatory" mode (which they call "participatory liberal," they add two others: the "discursive tradition" associated mainly with Jürgen Habermas and the "constructionist tradition," identified with Michel Foucault. Partly because these thinkers were generally unknown outside of Europe when the main battles over democratic theory were being fought in American political science, and partly because it is possible to consider them as adjuncts to participatory theory (they acknowledge at least that "the line between participatory liberal and discursive theories is not easy to draw," p. 280).

12. Seymour Martin Lipset, "Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy," The American Political Science Review," Vol. 53, No. 1 (March, 1959), pp. 69-105.

13. Information about Samara and its activities is freely available http://www.samaracanada.com/


Howard A. Doughty, teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at howard_doughty@post.com

Contents