Public Opinion and Voting Behavior Term Paper

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¶ … Solution to Bad Speech is More Speech?

Go ahead. Go over to your TV. Or your laptop. Turn on some news. Watch what's going on the health-care debate right now -- after more than a year of debate. And think about the prompt that we are asked to consider here: Democracy is well-served by the pattern of ideological differences that exist in the United States today. Can there be any answer other than "no"? And yet -- and this is a very big "yet" -- how can American democracy ever be served by anything other than a diversity of opinion? How can any democracy exist much less flourish without a free marketplace of ideas?

The answer to the above question, and the response to whether American democracy is being well-served by the ideological differences now at play in the country, begins in how people develop their political attitudes and their partisan alliances. Inevitably when American politics becomes rancorous, someone -- a politician, perhaps, or a member of the media -- will note that political parties are not mentioned in the Constitution. The implication of such a statement is that the Framers did not want political parties to be a part of the American political scene. And the further implication is that such a vision was both wise and feasible.

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But -- setting aside for the moment how wise such a vision might have been -- it was never feasible. People differ on important ideas. This was no doubt always true, for each one of us is an individual, shaped by both unique biology and unique experiences. There can never be complete consensus amongst a group of people about important issues. And it is probably just as inevitable as the fact that there will always be differences of opinion, there will always be groups that coalesce around such differences. And such differing groups will under most circumstances grow increasingly farther apart and more inclined to demonize each other.

Term Paper on Public Opinion and Voting Behavior Assignment

This has certainly been the case with the debate over abortion rights in the United States today. Abortion is probably the most heated topic -- more than gay rights, more than health care, more than tax cuts. And the current structure of the way in which Americans learn about and talk about public issues is directly responsible for much of the heat around this issue. This is not to say that the issue of abortion would not in any case be passionate. It is, as Lawrence Tribe wrote, a clash of absolutes. Just as one cannot be a little pregnant, one can not be a little not-pregnant.

Other political issues -- such as health-care or gay rights -- have area for negotiation. There could be a public option for health-care, for example, or insurance cooperatives or no public option for adults but one for children. These are all intermediate positions. Compromises that keep everyone a little satisfied and a little dissatisfied. Such decisions are the fabric of democracy as -- I believe -- it was imagined by the Framers. Or hoped for by the Framers. A debate. An exchange of possibilities and hopes. A conversation in which different truths were exchanged and molded and finally hammered into law.

But such a process requires honest brokers. And while such people -- in legislatures and executive offices, in corporate offices, in the media -- exist, they are time and again shouted down by what would on the internet be called trolls. These agents provacateurs are anything but honest brokers. Rush Limbaugh, for example, is not a man with America's best interests at heart. And this should be acknowledged by both the members of the left and the right. His job is to light and throw the Molotov cocktails. And laugh.

There was a time -- or at least we as Americans tell ourselves this -- that American political policy was shaped in much larger measure by political intellectuals. But this is no longer true, and hasn't been since at least the rise of talk radio and the more recent and more venomous rise of the right-wing blogosphere. How many people who call for the demonization of abortion-rights advocates have read Tribe's exquisitely researched and considered discussion of abortion? How many have listened to Limbaugh expound on women's rights? The difference in those two numbers alone tells us a great deal about how the country is not being well served by the current ideology of the American polity.

How an individual comes to hold certain political points-of-view is to some extent mysterious. Or it might be more accurate to say that it is so complex that it is difficult to determine exactly how any one element of this process will play out for an individual. Certainly one's family of origin matters a great deal in this issue -- although a person might rebel against her parents as well as conform to his. Where one grows up in the country matters, but again not in an entirely predictable way. One might conform to the conservatism of South Carolina, for example, or rebel against it.

Ideology is also determined at least in some measure by demographics. Women tend to be more liberal than men. Blacks more liberal than whites. Asian-Americans more conservative than whites. There are long-standing reasons (based in culture, in economics, in history) for these values and such facts have a certain predictive value. but, again, in any specific case, things get complicated. A white, evangelical woman from Alabama is likely to be anti-abortion in her beliefs. But what if she is a survivor of rape? What if her daughter is? These personal experiences are likely to make her more inclined to be pro-choice. More likely. Probably.

In an ideal democracy, people would be able to come together with both those with whom they agree and those with whom they do not agree and discuss serious issues. If one thinks of the stereotypical image of the New England town hall meeting, where voices may be raised in passion but there is also silence to allow for people to listen to others. But this is simply not how opinions are formed, traded, and reinforced in America today. As we grow in important ways isolated from each other in our physical communities, we grow closer to virtual communities that reflect only our own opinions. And such communities serve the purpose of letting us close our eyes and our ears so that no new information can get in.

The opinions of Americans about abortion have grown both more extreme and more ossified in the last decade. While there was opposition to the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in 1973 from the beginning, there was no widespread support for the murder of abortion providers. Now doctors are killed and there are celebrations of such murders. If we could go back to 1973, would we have been able to foresee an abortion provider being murdered in his own church? How did things get this bad?

The quick answer is that people turned on their radios and shut their doors, and their hearts, to other voices. And it is also true in part because people became more ignorant, especially of history. People are the most easily persuadable into extreme positions -- and into violence -- when they have too few of their own opinions based on facts. How many of those shouting at women entering family-planning centers and holding up huge pictures of fetuses know the history of abortion in the United States?

In fact, abortion was legal at the time of the country's birth. (it is intriguing to think that the Framers might have written to right to abortion into the Constitution if they could have foreseen what would happen.) it wasn't until the late 19th century, when doctors wanted the business that had gone to midwives and other lay female healers, that abortion become illegal. (in other words, it was money, and not morality, that shifted abortion policy.) if people knew this, would they vote differently today? Perhaps not, but they would certainly have more facts about the situation. Facts are, in a democracy, the raw material of ideology.

It is important to note here that, of course, this nation is not a democracy. Republics like ours allow for ideology to be developed in less fact-based ways. The less directly we are connected to each other, the easier it is not to hear each other. And the easier it is to lie about each other. This fact affects the relationship between political ideology and party affiliation. People who do not know a great deal from their own experience or study about an issue -- and this is true not only of abortion but any public issue -- tend to rely on group membership as a substitute.

If one does not have a firm grasp of the different options for health-care reform (and this must by now include a very large number of Americans, given… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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