Arnold Kling  

Murray Edelman and the Myth of the Rational Voter

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Critical Review has come out with an issue for which I have been waiting eagerly, because it has a symposium on Murray Edelman, a political scientist. My father knew Edelman and was a big fan of his 1964 book The Symbolic Uses of Politics.

Edelman took my co-blogger's view that voters are not rational. As Samuel DeCanio (one of the forum's authors) puts it,


Edelman (1964,5) thus characterizes the private sphere as “the immediate world in which people make and do things that have directly observable consequences.” In this sphere, unlike in the public sphere, “men can check their acts and assumptions against the consequences and correct errors..."

...However, the public realm has no similar meaning to the citizen-observer, nor can the citizen test the important consequences of public policies, as they can in the private realm. Instead of experiencing feedback from political decisions,“for most men most of the time politics is a series of pictures in the mind, placed there by television news, newspapers, magazines, and discussions. The pictures create a moving panorama taking place in a world the mass public never quite touches, yet one its members come to fear or cheer, often with passion and sometimes with action” (Edelman 1964, 5). In politics “there is no such check on fantasies and conceptualizing”

DeCanio goes on to discuss Edelman's view of the relationship between political elites and masses.


Political elites may be able to capitalize upon the fact that “it is apparently intolerable for men to admit the key role of accident, of ignorance, and of unplanned processes in their affairs”: in that context, “the leader serves a vital function by personifying and reifying the process. . . . Incumbents of high public office therefore become objects of acclaim for the satisfied, scapegoats for the unsatisfied, and symbols of aspirations or of whatever is opposed.”

As you can see, my idea of Economic Attribution Errors probably was stolen from Murray Edelman, by way of my father.

Edelman thus maintains that the nature of knowledge in complex modern societies has led to the creation of a new type of leadership, whose power “depends . . . upon the impossibility of demonstrating success or failure. . . . The clue to what is politically effective is to be found not so much in verifiable good or bad effects flowing from political acts as in whether the incumbent can continue indefinitely to convey the impression of knowing what is to be done” (Edelman 1964, 76-77, emph. added). Such leaders, who are judged by their effectiveness at “getting things done” (bills passed, agencies created, appropriations increased) rather than by the effect of those “things” on the problems they are supposed to solve, gain power and popular approval for their visible personal qualities because voters find it so difficult to perceive the consequences, beneficial or deleterious, stemming from the actual decisions leaders make.

Thus, Edelman also anticipated my most recent essay, A Preference for Ignorance.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (1 to date)
Jon writes:

This situation is less different in the private sphere then one is lead to believe. I take a drug and get better; I have no way of knowing whether that is because of or in spite of the drug. In corporations people play a similar game -- often successfully for a while. In the investment world we joke about confusing "brains with a bull market."

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