Political Environments, Political Dynamics, and the Survival of Disagreement

Robert Huckfeldt, Paul E. Johnson, John Sprague
2002 Journal of Politics  
This paper addresses a series of questions related to the survival of disagreement among interdependent citizens during an election campaign. Do campaign stimulated processes of collective deliberation result in the elimination of disagreement within networks of social communication? If not, what are the factors that sustain political heterogeneity and disagreement? And what are the consequences of political heterogeneity within these communication networks for patterns of political influence
more » ... tween and among citizens? Finally, in what manner is the influence of one citizen on another conditioned by the structure of communication networks and the distribution of preferences in the remainder of the these networks? We address these questions based on a study of electoral dynamics in the 1996 presidential campaign as it took place in the Indianapolis and St. Louis metropolitan areas. 2 preference formation and for the convergence of aggregate opinion in the campaign. The central issues revolve around the survival of political disagreement and the extent to which higher levels of interdependence among citizens serve to shield individuals from, or expose them to, the events of the campaign. Several questions become crucial. Do campaign stimulated processes of collective deliberation result in the elimination of disagreement within networks of social communication? If not, what are the factors that sustain political heterogeneity and disagreement within these networks? And what are the consequences of political heterogeneity within communication networks for patterns of political influence between and among citizens? Is the influence of one citizen on another conditioned by the distribution of preferences in the remainder of the micro-environment? Finally, what are the implications of the analysis for the penetration of individual patterns of communication and deliberation by the larger dynamics of the campaign? How does this penetration affect the dynamic consequences of communication among and between citizens? We address these questions based on a study of electoral dynamics in the 1996 presidential campaign as it took place in the Indianapolis and St. Louis metropolitan areas. Attention focuses primarily on citizens and their networks of political communication. Network data were gathered throughout much of the campaign, from early March of 1996 through early January of 1997, and hence we are able to address the dynamic relationships among citizens, within their networks of political communication. POLITICS, INTERDEPENDENCE, AND THE SURVIVAL OF DISAGREEMENT The classic statement of the socially and politically conservative consequences that arise due 3 to social communication in politics is contained in the work of Lazarsfeld and his colleagues, based on their field work in Elmira and Erie County during the 1940s (Lazarsfeld et al. 1944; Berelson et al. 1954 ). According to their argument, political preferences become individually idiosyncratic as political communication among citizens becomes less frequent during the period of time between election campaigns. In response to the stimulus of the election, the frequency of political communication increases, idiosyncratic preferences become socially visible, and hence these individuals are brought into conformity with micro-environmental surroundings. In this way, social communication creates political stability as it provides a buffer against the political volatility of the external political environment (Huckfeldt and Sprague 1995). The argument presented by Lazarsfeld and his colleagues is quite persuasive, but carried to its extreme, the logic of group conformity suggests that political disagreement should disappear within networks of social relations. Pressures toward conformity might drive out disagreement in several ways (Festinger 1957; Huckfeldt and Sprague 1995) . First, the discomfort of disagreement might encourage people to modify their patterns of social relations so as to exclude people with whom they disagree. Second, people might avoid political discussion with those associates who hold politically divergent preferences. Third, and partially as a consequence of discussion avoidance, people might incorrectly perceive agreement among those with whom they actually disagree. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, individuals might bring their own preferences into correspondence with the preferences that they encounter within their networks of social relations. As compelling as this theory of group conformity may be, it suffers from at least one major empirical weakness: campaigns do not extinguish disagreement within networks of social relations. At the end of the 1984 presidential election campaign, Huckfeldt and Sprague (1995) interviewed 4 discussion partners who had been identified by a sample of respondents from South Bend, Indiana. And at the end of the 1992 election campaign, interviewed discussion partners who had been identified by a nationally drawn sample of respondents. In both instances, no more than two-thirds of the discussion partners held a presidential candidate preference that coincided with the main respondent who named them. These measures understate the overall levels of disagreement that exist in the networks in which citizens are situated. Recall that these statistics are based on dyads rather than networks. If the probability of dyadic disagreement within a network is .7, and if the likelihood of disagreement is independent across the dyads within a network, then the probability of agreement across all the relationships within a three-discussant network drops to .7 3 or .34. In other words, disagreement and heterogeneous preferences are the rule rather than the exception within the microenvironments surrounding individual citizens. The pervasiveness of disagreement within networks of social relations forces a reassessment of social conformity as a mechanism of social influence, as well as a reconsideration of the aggregate implications of political interdependence among citizens. Indeed, the theory of the consequences of social communication for the dynamics of an election campaign might be transformed fundamentally. Rather than serving as a source of insulation from the external political environment, social communication might even serve to magnify the consequences of the external environment by exposing individuals to non-redundant, politically disparate information. DATA AND RESEARCH DESIGN We address these issues on the basis of a unique election study, conducted by the Center for
doi:10.1111/1468-2508.00115 fatcat:tj4xenlnn5fobcpmjwd73j5m3y