Thursday, March 16, 2006

American Politics: Essay on Michigan Model

As the Discipline Turns: A Comparison of the Michigan and Downs’ Models


Two methodologies in political science altered the landscape of the discipline. The “behavioral revolution” — a movement with roots dating back to the 1940s and an influence still prominent — was a fundamental departure from earlier political science that focused on “thick-description” and fact collecting. Instead, behaviorists were concerned with quantifying politics and putting the “science” into a maturing discipline. The Downsian model of political science, more commonly known as a rational choice model, further pushed political science in a more “scientific” direction, analyzing American politics from a positivist perspective rather than political science based on normative implications. Among others, two important concepts were highlighted by these new approaches to the discipline: voting and ideology. The purpose of this paper is to elaborate on these concepts and analyze in detail the diverging approaches of both schools of thought. While both pushed the discipline to a more positivist and less normative approach, the models nevertheless illuminate different aspects of voting and ideology.

Behavioralism and Downs: Putting the Science in Political Science

Behavioralism, simply put, seeks to explain politics through methods and theories accepted by the standards and assumptions of modern political science (Dahl 1961: 767). Although Robert Dahl grew critical of behavioralism after being an early proponent, he nevertheless recognized that one of the lasting impressions of the behavioral movement was in its study of voting behavior. As he noted: “Each study has profited from the last; and as broadly trained political scientists… our understanding …[has] greatly increased” (Dahl 769). National political surveys were one way that political science tried to move more “scientific” in increasing this understanding. In particular, The American Voter and the Michigan model became staples of the behaviorial diet. While earlier models, the Columbia model for example, put forth a sociological view of voter behavior, the Michigan school integrated both camps, creating a socio-psychological model. On the one hand, the sociological model was still important (education, income, class, religion, and residence), however the Michigan team believed that attitudinal concepts (party attachment, issue orientation, and candidate orientation) provided a richer understanding of politics (Niemi and Weisberg 8). The American Voter, a report detailing presidential elections in the 1950s and arguing that party identification was the most crucial element in analysis, grew out of the early Michigan work. This report is often credited with creating a “funnel of causality,” arguing that voting was the endpoint on a series of causal linkages and events (Neimi and Weisberg 8).

The Downs model, penned in Anthony Downs’ influential An Economic Theory of Democracy, argued that the goal of all governments is to get reelected (Downs 11). Therefore, government hopes to maximize political support and actors seek to achieve preconceived economic and political goals (Downs 20). Politics -- for all groups and individuals involved – is instrumental in purpose. The Downs research further elaborated a positivist model of politics, whereas political scientists “try to describe what will happen under certain conditions, not what should happen” [italics added] (Downs 14). Although both the behavioral approach and the Downsian model lent themselves to predicative analysis, one of the chief differences was rational choice’s issue-emphasis. Issues, so critiqued Neimi and Weisberg, were buried and submerged in the Michigan model (Neimi and Weisberg 9). Concerned as behavioralists were with certain attitudinal and sociological components of the individual, Downs downplayed this aspect by noting that issues, and the way parties grapple with them to win elections, drive politics.

Voting and Ideology

For Robert Putnam, voting was the “fundamental democratic principle of equality,” and to not vote was akin to withdrawing from the political community (Putnam 35). Putnam’s notion that civic communities engaged in voting were critical to democratic government was in some ways a response to earlier behavioral and rational-choice models of voting. Although Neimi and Weisberg agree that voting is the foundation of democracy, they conclude that often nonvoting can be an acceptable way of doing business (Neimi and Weisberg 20). Democracy of the kind Putnam spoke rested on rather “lofty principles,” that few citizens knew what to do with. However, behavioral analysis still tried to explain voting through survey data, seeking answers about identification, orientation and party attachment. Because the electorate makes important decisions, it is pertinent to know the composition of attitudes and knowledge individuals have about politics (Campbell, et. al 541). One question those of the Michigan school were interested in was that of electoral realignment. Walter Dean Burnham suggested that the critical election of 1896 spurred a continual disassociation from politics, with even “core” voters rejecting the ballot box (Burnham 298).[1]

Downs’ model of voting runs in contrast to these models. Downs is less concerned that voters know anything about politics or how they identify with certain politicians. Rather, Downs is concerned with whether or not individuals and parties realize their goals, whatever that might be. Therefore, non-voters for Downs are not lacking in civic virtue or missing certain knowledge and attributes. The act of voting disappears when the costs of voting outweigh the benefits, or when the goals desired cannot be accomplished through electoral means.[2] . Nie and Verba concluded that nonvoting was acceptable because citizens participated in other ways that were fruitful to their goals. For example, this is what they refer to as citizen-initiated contact (Nie and Verba 27).

In terms of studying ideology, the Downs’ model and Michigan school differed as well. More importantly, the Michigan school had its own divisions. In a seminal study on the “unsophisticated electorate,” Converse related that voter opinions tended to be ideologically inconsistent, voters had few views on important issues,[3] and participants logged random responses to questions (Converse 43). However, Nie and Anderson disagreed. In their own study on attitudes and ideology, they reported that numerous issues – social welfare, race, foreign relations, and the Cold War for instance – were very interrelated and consistent (Nie and Anderson 63). While those of the Michigan school might have disagreed with each other’s results, the ideas were the same. Ideologies and identification were important for prediction, and knowing where the voter stood – or did not stand as the case might have been, proved crucial.

Downs’ model of ideology still rests on the rational choice paradigm. As he notes: “…Uncertainty allows parties to develop ideologies as weapons in the struggle for office. In this role, ideologies are assigned specific functions that shape their nature and development” (Downs 96). For Downs, ideology is merely a construct of the parties in an attempt to get the most votes and get (or stay) elected. Whereas the behavioral model tried to explain ideology in terms of consistency from the perspective of an outside observer, Downs regarded this as superfluous. Because of the uncertainty of getting elected, ideologies are both watered down and instrumental in nature. This creates what Downs notes as “converging” to the center. Pushing ideology to the center of the political spectrum increases the likelihood of capturing as many members of the electorate as possible.


The purpose of this paper was to explore; all too briefly, voting and ideology with respect to the Michigan and Downsian models in political science. While both pushed political science into a more “scientific” realm, the models diverged in methods. The Michigan school created a socio-psychological model of political science and was interested in certain attitudinal views of the American voter. This required more quantitative scholarship that looked at and aggregated, most significantly, public opinion data. Downs was more struck by the rational and calculated ways voters and parties acted. For this reason, Downs hoped to create a predicative model to answer all questions of politics. In short, the models, although subject to much criticism, illuminated new ways to look at voting and ideology.

[1] David Mayhew has been critical of this notion, especially Burnham’s acknowledgment that the “realigning” election was the reason for the downturn. (See Mayhew 2002, 11).

[2] This might seem similar to Nie and Verba’s model. While both argue that voters sometimes act on a rational calculus, Nie and Verba were more interested in group-related participation. Downs’ model is somewhat individualistic.

[3] It is not clear for Converse what “important” views exactly are. In other words, the importance seems determined by the authors.