Book/Article Reviews

Hearing the Other Side

Diana Mutz’s Hearing the Other Side is one of my favorite books on political behavior and  among the most influential books in my own intellectual development. It’s easy to read, short, and has a very high insight-per-page ratio. It’s one of the pieces that made me realize just how irrelevant most philosophical democratic theory is to justifying actual democracy. Highly recommended.

Here’s the summary I wrote of it in a early draft of chapter 7 of The Ethics of Voting:

Let’s describe two kinds of democratic citizens.

  1. Deliberative citizens have frequent significant cross-cutting political discussion. That is, they frequently consider and respond to contrary views.  They are careful in forming their own political preferences.  They are able to articulate good reasons on behalf of contrary views.  They have high levels of political knowledge.
  2. Participatory citizens engage heavily with politics. They run for office, run campaigns, vote, give money to campaigns, attend town hall meetings, engage in protests, write letters to the editor, etc.

In principle, a good deliberative citizen can also be a good participatory citizen.  These aren’t logically exclusive categories.  Most democratic theorists wish citizens to be deliberative and participatory.

However, Diana Mutz’s empirical work shows that deliberation and participation don’t come together.  Deliberative citizens don’t participate much, and participatory citizens do not deliberate much.  The people who are most active in politics tend to be (in my words, not Mutz’s) cartoon ideologues.[i]  The people who are most careful in formulating their own political views and who spend the most time considering contrary views tend not to participate in politics.

Being exposed to contrary points of view tends to lessen one’s enthusiasm for one’s own political views.  Deliberation with others who hold contrary views tends to make one ambivalent and apathetic about politics.[ii] True-believers make better activists than cautious, self-skeptical thinkers.  (Imagine a street evangelist saying, “Hear ye!  My religion might be the one true path, but, you know, there are some good grounds for doubt!”)  Cross-cutting political exposure decreases the likelihood that a person will vote, reduces the number of political activities a person engages in, and makes people take longer to decide how to vote.[iii]

In contrast, active, participatory citizens tend not to engage in much deliberation and tend not to have much cross-cutting political discussion.[iv]  Instead, they seek out and interact only with others with whom they already agree.   When asked why other people hold contrary points of view, participatory citizens tend to respond that others must be stupid or corrupt.  Participatory citizens are often unable to give charitable explanations of why people might hold contrary views.  (This is worrisome, because people who tend to demonize all contrary views tend to be unjustified in their own views.)  In contrast, citizens who exhibit high degrees of the deliberative virtues are able to give charitable accounts of contrary viewpoints.

Many deliberative democratic political theorists hold that the government should provide more meaningful opportunities for political participation.  Mutz argues that if we created these opportunities, the people most likely to take advantage of them are extremists and partisans.  The empirical evidence suggests that the people most willing to bear the personal costs (in terms of time and effort) of participation are those with the most extreme views.[v]  Extremists are interested in politics and tend to be the most dissatisfied with the status quo, and thus tend to be the most highly participatory citizens.

Mutz’s empirical findings give us reason to worry.  Politically active citizens wield more influence than the inactive citizens.  Yet the deliberative citizens (who tend to be inactive) will tend to have better grounds for their views than the participatory citizens.  So, Mutz’s work suggests that politics tends to be run by people with poor epistemic credentials.[vi]  Politically active citizens tend to lack the deliberative virtues, to be extremists, and to think that anyone who disagrees with them is corrupt and stupid.

[i] See Mutz 2006, 128.

[ii] Mutz 2006,120.

[iii] Mutz 2006, 92, 110, 112-113.

[iv] Mutz 2006, 30. The more people join voluntary associations, the less they engage in cross-cutting discussions. What demographic factors best predict that one will engage in cross-cutting political discussion?  Apparently, being non-white, poor, and uneducated. The reason for this is that white, rich, educated people have more control over the kinds of interactions they have with others.  People generally do not enjoy having cross-cutting political discussions.  They enjoy agreement.  So, those with the most control over their lives choose not to engage in cross-cutting discussions.  See Mutz 2006, 27, 31, 46-47.

[v] Mutz 2006, 135-136.

[vi] I don’t want to overstate these worries.  Caplan (2007, 198) argues that the well educated tend not only to be have sounder economic beliefs than the uneducated, but the educated are more likely to vote than the uneducated.  The median voter has greater economic literacy than the median non-voter. So, Mutz’s findings give us reason to worry about who participates in politics, but some other findings give us contrary reasons.


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Author: Jason Brennan
  • Jeff Sylvester

    I need to read this book. The description of the “Deliberative” citizen is exactly me. I spend loads of time thinking about politics, but don’t always (or usually) participate. Maybe I am not as weird as I thought!

  • stevenjohnson2

    The correlation between political activism and actual policy is so weak that the importance of this assessment of the general populace is moot.

    • Jason Brennan

      Activism, sure, but voting behavior?

      • stevenjohnson2

        In this country, the voting behavior of the population at large does not correlate with policy formation at all, so far as I can tell. That recent study that concluded the US is effectively an oligarchy certainly jibes with a lifetime’s experience.

        There may be a correlation between voting behavior and past policies, but that seems to me to be a rather difficult empirical question. And one not especially accessible to personal experience either.

        • Jason Brennan

          I know that study, and it’s probably overstated. But even if that study is right, Mutz’s point still holds. Page and Gilens show that certain voters matter much more than others, and Mutz shows us that how *those* voters think is scary.

          • stevenjohnson2

            Not In my public library, more expensive than I like.

  • A. Alexander Minsky

    This article had definitely whetted my appetite to read the book. I would only hasten to add that most citizens are neither deliberative or activist. Instead, a majority of folks only take a passing interest in politics, if that. Whether this represents passive contentment or damnable apathy is a subject open for debate and conjecture.

  • Benjamin Cliff

    I have had growing aversion to calling myself an activist, and have more recently rejected the label entirely. I realized at some point: that my idea of what activism should be was not just in the minority, but practically non-existent in the real world. Signaling, circle jerks, and close-knit political cults abound.. But almost no one was willing to be humble, have an open mind, or listen to others about issues.

    I am not even talking about being agnostic or apathetic on issues. But simply not having the attitude that any incoming people who disagreed: just needed to time to learn and to get with the program/agenda, or were bad people.

    It seemed to be asking too much that leaders understood there was room for some reasonable disagreement and more than one view point on some issue.

  • Al

    So, how do you reconcile this with the fact that low-information voters are less likely to vote?

  • CbyN

    A somewhat dismissive explanation is that most people aren’t thoughtful, at least with respect to topics relevant to political philosophy, and have little in the way of self-reflection or introspection. The deliberative camp thus has a self-selection bias for more thoughtful people.

    The problem remains however, and it is quite obvious to my mind. People gravitate to things they are good at and like doing and institutions foster and have a natural momentum to reflect, for better or worse, the kinds of individuals that fill them. Powerful institutions tend to draw people prone to wanting power, and there is no more powerful institution than government.