The Undecided Decide: By BECKY O'MALLEY

Tuesday August 31, 2004

Louis Menand has a critical essay in the latest New Yorker which vamps off a thesis in a 1964 book by Philip Converse, The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics: Only about 10 percent of the public has what might be called a political belief system. Menand reports Converse’s interpretation of surveys of the 1956 electorate as showing that voters are perfectly capable of holding conflicting opinions simultaneously, for example wanting both lower taxes and more government programs. Such studies of voter behavior are increasingly rehashed as contemporary polls seem to show the country poised on a knife edge between presidential candidates. Very few voters are still undecided, so how this few will make up their minds is consuming a lot of ink these days. One of our correspondents has suggested that people who haven’t made up their minds yet should be disqualified, presumably as too dumb to vote, and that’s an appealing idea, but it won’t happen. Pundits continue to speculate on what will change the hearts and minds of the remaining voters. 

A new exhibit about how Californians reacted to the war in Vietnam has just opened at the Oakland Museum to rave reviews. The attempt to influence public opinion to end the war consumed most of the sixties for many here and elsewhere. I found Menand’s discussion of Converse’s seminal book particularly interesting in this context, because I best remember Phil and Jean Converse (his wife and intellectual colleague) from Ann Arbor, where we all lived in the ‘60s, as early, vigorous and stalwart opponents of the Vietnam war. I knew that Phil was some sort of a big cheese in the academic world of political science, but being more interested in politics than in political theory I knew little about his work. It’s fascinating now to think that even when his own research told him that voters, as Menand paraphrased it, “don’t really have meaningful political beliefs,” he and his wife still attempted, in their personal life, to influence those beliefs.  

We humans continue to believe that what we do will improve the course of history, despite a good bit of evidence to the contrary. That’s why some hundreds of thousands of good folks marched in New York on Sunday, including many Berkeleyans. Will it make any difference?  

“Hope springs eternal in the human breast; Man never Is, but always To be blest.”  

A good number of the marchers, the grannies and the greybeards, some of whose dispatches are in this issue, remember the darkest days of the struggle against the Vietnam war, and hope that their actions now can convince the country that the Iraq war is another big mistake. They hope that voters will be able to translate that belief into, if not exactly a vote for Kerry, at least a vote against Bush.  

Will the small number of remaining unconvinced voters make the connection between what’s happening in their own lives and the policies of the Bush administration? Do they understand that they and their children will be paying for decades to come for a pointless excursion into a distant place to find non-existent weapons of mass destruction? Are they aware that a small group of war profiteers is amassing dollars paid from the pockets of middle and working class taxpayers, and that the rich pay very little of the cost of war? Do they know that invading Iraq has not aided any realistic struggle against genuine terrorism, but has displaced one? Or will they believe the outright lies that they will be seeing from sources like the notorious Swift Boat Veterans, endlessly replayed on the duplicitous Fox network, and reject Kerry based on a vague perception of supposed “character” flaws? Pundits, essayists, academics and pollsters are busy trying to predict what these voters will do in November, but really, no one knows.