Chappell Lawson
“Is There Public Opinion in Mexico?”

March 17, 2003


Chappell Lawson spoke on the relationship between the stability of voters' political attitudes and the policy preferences of leadership in his talk on Mexican public opinion on March 17.

Chappell Lawson, “Is There Public Opinion in Mexico?”
Eric Verhoogen, Department of Economics

Democracies work well when the citizenry is well-informed and attentive to the actions of its elected officials and not so well when people are easily seduced by unrealistic promises, quick to forget past events or just plain confused about important policy questions. This issue comes to the forefront in emerging democracies where citizens often have little experience in exercising their voice as an electorate: in understanding complex governance issues, in holding elected officials accountable for their campaign promises or in weighing the competing claims of rival political parties or office-seekers. Voters need not know the details of every issue, argued Chappell Lawson, Professor of Political Science at MIT during a CLAS seminar on March 17, 2003, if their political attitudes are stable and give broad direction to elected representatives. However, unstable political attitudes are likely to favor politicians promoting short-term fixes. Radical swings in policy result when these fixes fail to bring about lasting improvement, a pattern that is all too familiar to students of Latin American politics.

Does the electorate in Mexico have stable attitudes? That is the focus of recent work by Lawson and his co-author, James McCann of Purdue University. To answer it, they have drawn on data from a panel survey of attitudes that followed particular voters before, during and after the July 2002 election that brought Vicente Fox to the presidency. The results suggest that voters’ attitudes are reasonably stable at an aggregate level, but that this aggregate stability is masking volatility in attitudes at the individual level.

Using a panel survey where several interviews are conducted — in this case, four— with each individual makes it is easier to separate true changes in attitudes from random errors that enter the measurement process. Once Lawson and his co-author corrected for such errors, they came to a somewhat mixed conclusion. On one hand, voters in Mexico had fairly stable attitudes toward the major political parties and maintained a steady overall ideological orientation. On the other hand, they had unstable attitudes about two particular policy issues: what the government should do about crime and whether to privatize the electrical industry. Except for the question of ideological orientation, these patterns held true both for highly educated and for less-educated voters. Lawson found in these results grounds for some optimism about the future of democratic governance in Mexico. The stability of attitudes toward the parties means that voters may indeed have a reliable yardstick against which to measure the performance of incumbents. And it is likely, he argued, that voters’ sophistication in analyzing detailed policy issues will increase over time, as citizens gain more experience in a functioning democracy.

The audience discussion raised a number of important questions. One was whether the volatility of voters’ attitudes on policy issues should be attributed to the “cognitive limitations” of citizens — their inability or unwillingness to grapple with complex ideas — or rather a rational decision by voters that they have little real influence on the political process, and hence little to gain from putting effort into learning about policy debates. Another was whether the issues that Lawson chose to focus on were somewhat removed from most people’s everyday experience, and whether on issues that more intimately intertwined with their own experience voters would have more durable opinions. Women’s attitudes toward abortion might be one example. Also, it is not clear why the instability in beliefs at the individual level is important in itself. If politicians are interested in getting elected, and if who gets elected is a function of aggregate-level attitudes that are themselves fairly stable, then there is little reason to think that the volatility in attitudes at the individual level will lead to short-term solutions and radical swings in policy as suggested above.

These issues aside, Lawson’s work represents one of the first attempts to bring evidence from a large-scale panel survey to bear on political attitudes in a developing country, and on this ground alone it represents a valuable contribution to our understanding of the messy and uneven process of building political participation in an emerging democracy like Mexico.


 

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