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Leave-Us-Alone Democracy

Editorial addressing a study showing that people don’t want more political power, and that many would prefer less. The study by John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth A. Theiss-Morse concluded that people want the government’s most important decisions to be made by leading experts in the field.

Pertinent Excerpt:

The two professors found that democracy alternately bores people silly or upsets them in a fingernails-across-the blackboard, cellophane-crinkling sort of way. “They want democracy — they just don’t want to see it,” Hibbing said. “They don’t want to see debate. They don’t want to see compromise. They don’t want to see multiple issues dealt with at the same time.”

What most Americans say they want is an unobtrusive, well-behaved, low-demand brand of politics that these researchers call ‘stealth democracy,’ which is also the title of their newly published book (Cambridge University Press) summarizing the results of a Gallup national survey and eight focus groups that Hibbing and Theiss-Morse conducted.

Here’s the full editorial, in case it becomes unavailable on the Washington Post website…

Leave-Us-Alone Democracy

Sunday, February 2, 2003; Page B05

Ask some political reformers to offer a cure-all for what ails politics, and they’ll prescribe some version of the ’60s bromide “Power to the People!”

Well, it turns out that the people don’t want more political power — and many would prefer less, say University of Nebraska political scientists John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth A. Theiss-Morse.

Based on the results of a national survey, the researchers concluded that nearly half of us would prefer that the government’s most significant decisions were made by “experts” or “business leaders” rather than by politicians or — heaven forbid — the average citizen.

The two professors found that democracy alternately bores people silly or upsets them in a fingernails-across-the blackboard, cellophane-crinkling sort of way. “They want democracy — they just don’t want to see it,” Hibbing said. “They don’t want to see debate. They don’t want to see compromise. They don’t want to see multiple issues dealt with at the same time.”

What most Americans say they want is an unobtrusive, well-behaved, low-demand brand of politics that these researchers call “stealth democracy,” which is also the title of their newly published book (Cambridge University Press) summarizing the results of a Gallup national survey and eight focus groups that Hibbing and Theiss-Morse conducted.

In both the survey and group discussions, most people “expressed no desire to learn more about the issues, to get involved themselves or be kept more abreast of these issues,” Hibbing said. “They’re happy to turn it over to others.” (There are, of course, a few exceptions — the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks or war with Iraq among them, he said.)

In the poll, respondents were asked if the country would be better off if decisions were left “to successful business people,” and one-third agreed. Then the respondents were asked if the country would be better off if political decisions were left to “unelected experts,” and again, a third agreed. All told, nearly half —

48 percent — said “yes to one or both of these items, which suggested to us a less than committed attitude to accountability and representative democracy,” Hibbing said.

The professors also found that most of those surveyed hate it when the two major political parties go after each other on major issues — sort of the political equivalent of children’s aversion to seeing their parents argue.

In one study Hibbing cited, participants were divided into three groups. One read a description of a heated political debate; the second read a description of a “pleasant” debate between politicians, and the third group read a description of a political discussion in which the politicians weren’t disagreeing.

“Of course people preferred the pleasant debate to the heated one. But even more significant was that most preferred no debate at all,” Hibbing said. “People prefer their politics to be neat, clean and nonvisible.”

But wait a minute. Didn’t he and his research partner also find that 84 percent of those interviewed had said the people want to claim more power for themselves through initiatives and referendums?

Well, yes, Hibbing said. “What they told us is that they still wanted those mechanisms to be there, in case there is a major issue that affects their lives.” But until then, politicians shouldn’t bother knocking.

“We are not taking the line that people are incapable of engaging in politics,” Hibbing said. “The truth is, they don’t want to.”

Age-Old Question

The age difference between husbands and wives continues to shrink, and that means Americans now in their early fifties likely will spend nearly $800 million a year less on nursing home care in their lifetimes than recent generations of seniors have paid, according to two researchers’ calculations.

Darius Lakdawalla of the RAND Corp. and Robert F. Schoeni of the University of Michigan used Census data to determine that among people born in 1900, husbands tended to be about 41/2 years older than their wives. For individuals born in 1950, the age-at-marriage gap closes to about 21/2 years.

The researchers don’t try to explain why the gap is shrinking — they’re economists, not sociologists. But they do estimate that this modest change will mean that about 27,000 fewer women will require nursing home care than if the age difference hadn’t narrowed. But at the same time, the number of men in nursing home facilities will increase by about 12,000.

Here’s why: A wife with an older husband is more likely to outlive him and enter a nursing home than a wife whose husband is closer to her age, they reported in a study sponsored by the National Institute on Aging.

That’s mostly good news. It means that more women will have husbands to care for them at home, which reduces the annual expenditures of women in nursing homes by nearly $1.4 billion, the researchers estimate.

But those savings will be offset by an additional $600 million a year to take care of men who enter nursing homes after their spouses die, Lakdawalla and Schoeni reported.

What About

The Nerds?

Life is like high school, according to two researchers who tracked a sample of high schoolers through their early twenties to see if the teenagers’ perceptions of themselves accurately predicted what they would be like as young adults.

In 1987, Jacquelynne Eccles, a senior research scientist at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, asked 900 high school sophomores which of the five character types in the popular 1985 coming-of-age movie “The Breakfast Club” they most resembled: Jocks, Princesses, Basket Cases, Brains or Criminals.

Twenty-eight percent identified themselves as Jocks, 40 percent as Princesses, 12 percent as Brains, 11 percent as Basket Cases and 9 percent as Criminals. As it happened, these thumbnail descriptions were remarkably helpful in charting their lives after high school and college, Eccles reported in a recent issue of the Journal of Adolescent Research.

Half of all Brains went on to graduate from college, compared with 17 percent of the Criminals, 29 percent of the Basket Cases, 30 percent of the Jocks and 36 percent of the Princesses. One in four Basket Cases said they had gone to a psychologist by age 24, compared with only 6 percent of the Jocks.

Jocks, particularly female athletes, were earning more money at 24 than any other group, Eccles and her research team found. (We presume the Brains were still in grad school.) But Jocks also had their problems: They were more likely to be in alcohol recovery programs (5 percent) than any other group except the Criminals (11 percent).

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

Richard Morin

Online Washington Post. February 2, 2003. (2003)

Resource Link: www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A8766-2003Jan31?language=printer

From Lars Hasselblad Torres’ ‘Webliography.’

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Add a Comment

  1. John Backman Says:

    These findings are certainly disturbing, and they put us in an awkward position: promoting and recommending what we believe is best for democracy in a culture that’s highly skeptical of “people telling us what to do.”

    How then do we inspire people to sign on to D&D efforts? Perhaps my old minister’s dictum about faith–“it’s caught, not taught”–applies here: once they experience the idea of deliberative democracy, they might be far more enthusiastic about it. I believe some folks out there have seen this at work, and it’d be good to hear their input.

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