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Hard Issues, Core Values and Vertical Constraint: The Case of Nuclear Power

  • Philip H. Pollock, Stuart A. Lilie and M. Elliot Vittes

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Under what conditions are mass attitudes towards particular issues ‘vertically’ constrained by core cultural values? Vertical constraint is shaped by three related variables: the objective content of the issue, the way the issue is framed by elites and the individual's level of attentiveness to the controversy. Some issues are ‘easy’. They so permeate social discourse that people encounter, often without wanting to, many social agents offering shortcuts for the vertical, values-to-issue link. Most issues, however, are ‘hard’. Arcane in content and bereft of vigorous mediation, hard issues are more difficult for individuals to tie to core values. As the inferential connection between value and issue lengthens, and as social agents become fewer and more remote, an individual's ability to use values to interpret issues will increasingly depend on whether the decision makers, activists and other elites directly involved in the debate can create a connection and, of course, on whether the individual is paying attention. An analysis of the nuclear power controversy, a highly complex technical issue, reveals that a value-based interpretation favoured by elites and promoted by the media is faithfully reflected in how the mass public understands the issue. Furthermore, non-elites who are more attuned to political life are more polarized on the basis of these core values.

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1 Kinder, Donald R., ‘Diversity and Complexity in American Public Opinion’, in Finifter, Ada W., ed., Political Science: The State of the Discipline (Washington, DC: American Political Science Association, 1983). The ‘ideological possibility’ was first eulogized by Converse, Philip, ‘The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics’, in Apter, David, ed., Ideology and Discontent (New York: Free Press, 1964).

2 Wildavsky, Aaron, ‘Choosing Preferences by Constructing Institutions: A Cultural Theory of Preference Formation’, American Political Science Review, 81 (1987), 321, at p. 8.

3 Feldman, Stanley, ‘Economic Individualism and American Public Opinion’, American Politics Quarterly, 11 (1983), 329; Feldman, Stanley, ‘Structure and Consistency in Public Opinion: The Role of Core Beliefs and Values’, American Journal of Political Science, 32 (1988), 416–40.

4 Feldman, , ‘Economic Individualism and American Public Opinion’, p. 4.

5 Topf, Richard, ‘Political Change and Political Culture in Britain, 1959–87’, in Gibbins, John R., ed., Contemporary Political Culture (London: Sage, 1989), pp. 5280; Minkenberg, Michael and Inglehart, Ronald, ‘Neoconservatism and Value Change in the USA: Tendencies in the Mass Public of a Postindustrial Society’, also in Gibbins, , ed., Contemporary Political Culture, pp. 81109; Inglehart, , Culture Shift (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990); Maddox, William S. and Lilie, Stuart A., Beyond Liberal and Conservative: Reassessing the Political Spectrum (Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 1984).

6 Although there is general scholarly agreement on the existence of these two dimensions, there is also important debate concerning their origins, dynamics and appropriate measurement. Inglehart has argued that the moral dimension reflects a change in value priorities from economic concerns to expressive needs – a shift fuelled by generational replacement. For example, see Inglehart, , ‘Changing Paradigms in Comparative Political Behavior’, in Finifter, , ed., Political Science: The State of the Discipline, pp. 429–69; ‘The Changing Structure of Political Cleavages in Western Society’, in Dalton, Russell J., Flanagan, Scott C. and Beck, Paul Allen, eds, Electoral Change in Advanced Industrial Democracies: Realignment or Dealignment? (Princelon, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), pp. 2569; and Culture Shift. Flanagan has challenged Inglehart on both methodological grounds and on the substantive point that conflict over traditional values reflects different value preferences, as well as changed priorities. See Inglehart, and Flanagan, , ‘Value Change in Industrial Societies’, American Political Science Review, 81 (1987), 12891319.

7 Carmines, Edward G. and Stimson, James A., ‘The Two Faces of Issue Voting’, American Political Science Review, 74 (1980), 7891; Carmines, and Stimson, , Issue Evolution (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989).

8 Carmines, and Stimson, , ‘The Two Faces of Issue Voting’, p. 80.

9 Carmines, and Stimson, , ‘The Two Faces of Issue Voting’.

10 This term is used by Gamson, William A. and Modigliani, Andre, ‘Media Discourse and Public Opinion on Nuclear Power: A Constructionist Approach’, American Journal of Sociology, 95 (1989), 137.

11 Gamson, and Modigliani, , ‘Media Discourse’.

12 For example, Converse, , ‘The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics’; McClosky, Herbert and Zaller, John, The American Ethos (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984); Jacobson, Gary C. and Kernell, Samuel, Strategy and Choice in Congressional Elections, 2nd edn (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983); Carmines, and Stimson, , Issue Evolution; Mazur, Alan, The Dynamics of Technical Controversy (Washington, DC: Communications Press, 1981); Spector, Malcolm and Kitsuse, John I., Constructing Social Problems (New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 1987); Gamson, William A., ‘Political Discourse and Collective Action’, International Social Movement Research, 1 (1988), 219–44.

13 Carmines, and Stimson, , Issue Evolution, pp. 67.

14 Carmines, and Stimson, , Issue Evolution, p. 7, p. 4.

15 Carmines, and Stimson, , Issue Evolution, p. 10.

16 One can argue about the degree of elite control over mass perceptions of issues. To what extent do issues in themselves impart objective information and stimuli, and to what extent are issues simply ‘what people say they are’? Carmines and Stimson appear to think that elites exercise enough control over mass perceptions to have a significant impact on an issue's evolution. Thus ‘racial desegregation could be complex and Vietnam simple if the issues had evolved that way in the political system and if the voters saw them that way’ (Carmines, and Stimson, , ‘The Two Faces of Issue Voting’, p. 81, emphasis in original). Our own analysis rests on the idea that any given issue has objective aspects that place limits – narrow or broad – on the subjective claims that can be made about it.

17 Carmines, and Stimson, , ‘The Two Faces of Issue Voting’, p. 80.

18 Carmines, and Stimson, , Issue Evolution, pp. 1112.

19 Carmines, and Stimson, , Issue Evolution, p. 90.

20 See, for example, Opp, Karl-Dieter, ‘Soft Incentives and Collective Action: Participation in the Anti-Nuclear Movement’, British Journal of Political Science, 16 (1986), 87112; Price, Jerome, The Antinuclear Movement, revd edn (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990); Del Sesto, Steven L., ‘Conflicting Ideologies of Nuclear Power: Congressional Testimony on Nuclear Reactor Safety’, Public Policy, 28 (1980), 3970; Ladd, Anthony E., Hood, Thomas C. and Van Liere, Kent D., ‘Ideological Themes in the Antinuclear Movement: Consensus and Diversity’, Sociological Inquiry, 53 (1983), 252–72; Scaminaci, James III and Dunlap, Riley E., ‘No Nukes! A Comparison of Participants in Two National Antinuclear Demonstrations’, Sociological Inquiry, 56 (1986), 272–82.

21 George, David L. and Southwell, Priscilla L., ‘Opinion on the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant: The Effects of Situation and Socialization’, Social Science Quarterly, 67 (1986), 722–35; Kuklinski, James H., Metlay, Daniel S. and Kay, W. D., ‘Citizen Knowledge and Choices on the Complex Issue of Nuclear Energy’, American Journal of Political Science, 26 (1982), 615–42; Mitchell, Robert Cameron, ‘Rationality and Irrationality in the Public's Perception of Nuclear Power’, in Freudenburg, William R. and Rosa, Eugene A., eds, Public Reactions to Nuclear Power: Are There Critical Masses? (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1984), pp. 137–79; Benedict, Robert, Bone, Hugh, Leavel, Willard and White, Ross, ‘The Voters and Attitudes Toward Nuclear Power: A Comparative Study of Nuclear Moratorium Initiatives’, Western Political Quarterly, 33 (1980), 723.

22 George, and Southwell, , ‘Opinion on the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant’; Kuklinski, et al. , ‘Citizen Knowledge and Choices on the Complex Issue of Nuclear Energy’; Benedict, et al. , ‘The Voters and Attitudes Toward Nuclear Power’.

23 Kuklinski, et al. , ‘Citizen Knowledge and Choices on the Complex Issue of Nuclear Energy’, p. 633.

24 Mazur, Alan, ‘Media Influences on Public Attitudes Toward Nuclear Power’, in Freudenburg, and Rosa, , eds, Public Reactions to Nuclear Power, pp. 97114; this quote, p. 98.

25 Carmines, and Stimson, , Issue Evolution, p. 7.

26 Mazur's ‘issue surfer’ metaphor captures the competitive, opportunistic atmosphere activists must exploit in order for their interpretation of the issue to succeed: ‘We may visualize the nuclear power controversy as a surfer riding successive waves that are large national issues – first the fallout wave, then the environmental wave, and then the energy wave … As each wave diminishes, the challengers fall unless they can catch another wave’ (Mazur, , ‘Media Influences on Public Attitudes Toward Nuclear Power’, p. 105).

27 Mazur, , ‘Media Influences on Public Attitudes Toward Nuclear Power’, p. 99, p. 101.

28 Nimmo, Dan and Combs, James E., Nightly Horrors (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985), pp. 6086; Rothman, Stanley and Lichter, S. Robert, ‘Elite Ideology and Risk Perception in Nuclear Energy Policy’, American Political Science Review, 81 (1987), 381404; Gamson, and Modigliani, , ‘Media Discourse’.

29 Rothman, and Lichter, , ‘Elite Ideology and Risk Perception in Nuclear Energy Policy’, p. 386. In most of their analysis Rothman and Lichter use a seven-point scale to measure opinions about safety, ranging from 1 (very unsafe) to 7 (very safe). The figures they present, and which we are recounting, are the percentages of respondents who rate safety at 5 or higher on this scale. The percentages range from a low of 6.4 per cent for representatives of public interest groups to 98.7 per cent for nuclear energy experts. Later in their analysis they employ a ‘nuclear support’ scale, ranging from -9 to +9. This scale shows finer distinctions among journalists (television reporters score the lowest, science journalists score higher), and it reveals persistent differences between journalists in general and the scientific community. See Rothman, and Lichter, , pp. 385–6, especially Table 1, and p. 393, Table 7.

30 Rothman, and Lichter, , ‘Elite Ideology and Risk Perception in Nuclear Energy Policy’, pp. 388–9. Rothman and Lichter did a factor analysis of responses to a number of questions. Two factors were found. The first set of nine items, which they interpret as ‘liberalism’, includes four questions tapping attitudes towards business or capitalism, one dealing with equality, two on homosexuality, one question about the environment and one question about national security. Thus Rothman and Lichter's measure of ‘liberalism’ is skewed towards evaluations of the economic system. Similarly, their five-item ‘alienation’ scale includes three questions about American economic institutions.

31 Gamson, and Modigliani, , ‘Media Discourse’, p. 3.

32 Gamson, and Modigliani, , ‘Media Discourse’, p. 5.

33 Gamson, and Modigliani, , ‘Media Discourse’, p. 4.

34 Gamson, and Modigliani, , ‘Media Discourse’, p. 25.

35 Gamson, and Modigliani, , ‘Media Discourse’, pp. 23–4.

36 Gamson, and Modigliani, , ‘Media Discourse’, p. 22, p. 24.

37 Gamson, and Modigliani, , ‘Media Discourse’, p. 25. Elites and activists who are immersed in the controversy naturally have difficulty understanding how the public could remain unaware of their rationales of support or opposition. For example, after surveying the contentious elite debate over the monetary costs and benefits of nuclear power, Price, a self-proclaimed opponent, laments that ‘many of the basic arguments of antinuclear activists have not yet filtered into the public mind’ (Price, , The Antinuclear Movement, p. 129).

38 Gamson, and Modigliani, , ‘Media Discourse’, p. 27.

39 Gamson, and Modigliani, , ‘Media Discourse’, p. 22.

40 See Gamson, William A., ‘The Fluoridation Dialogue: Is It an Ideological Conflict?’, Public Opinion Quarterly, 25 (1961), 526–37.

41 As noted above, the hypothesized relationship between moralism and perceptions of nuclear power is less clear cut. In the absence of firm expectations, we shall treat this relationship as an open question during our investigation.

42 The Appendix contains complete methodological information about the data set and survey questions. In addition, we have placed in the Appendix all details regarding scale construction, background variables and all procedures used throughout this article.

43 Topf, , ‘Political Change and Political Culture in Britain, 1959–87’, p. 69.

44 This is apparently the case, as well, among environmentalism's activist stratum. The ideology of the environmental movement, at least in the American case, has focused on what Schnaiberg calls ‘politics of error’ (our industrial society has been inattentive to the ecology), not ‘politics of sin’ (corporate greed has polluted our environment). Thus the appeals of environmentalism have not been consistent with an explicit anti-corporate view. See Schnaiberg, Allan, ‘Redistributive Goals versus Distributive Politics: Social Equity Limits in Environmental and Appropriate Technology Movements’, Sociological Inquiry, 52 (1983), 200–19. Similarly, broad social theories, like those of Claus Offe or Ronald Inglehart, interpret environmental movements as responses to altered priorities among individuals who are not firmly attached to the interests of capital or to the interest of labour. See Offe, Claus, ‘New Social Movements: Challenging the Boundaries of Institutional Politics’, Social Research, 52 (1985), 817–68; Inglehart, , Culture Shift.

45 For each scale, respondents scoring at least one standard deviation above the scale's sample mean are ‘high’. Respondents scoring at least one standard deviation below the sample mean are ‘low’.

46 On the statistical properties and estimation of probit models, see Aldrich, John H. and Nelson, Forrest D., Linear Probability, Logit, and Probit Models (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1984). In this analysis we use the probit analysis software developed by Dubin, Jeffrey A. and Rivers, R. Douglas, Statistical Software Tools, version 2.0 (Pasadena, Calif.: Dubin/sRivers Research, 1989).

47 Kuklinski, , Metlay, and Kay, , ‘Citizen Knowledge and Choices on the Complex Issue of Nuclear Energy’; Mitchell, , ‘Rationality and Irrationality in the Public's Perception of Nuclear Power’.

48 The relationship to gender is especially durable and interesting. In Rothman and Lichter's analysis of elite attitudes (‘Elite Ideology and Risk Perception in Nuclear Energy Policy’, pp. 388–9), gender is the only background characteristic to rival the explanatory importance of their ‘liberalism’ and ‘alienation’ variables. For a thorough analysis and discussion of mass-level gender differences, see Mitchell, , ‘Rationality and Irrationality in the Public's Perception of Nuclear Power’.

49 The coefficients in the model for assessments of environmental damage (the second model of Table 4) suggest neutralizing effects so strong that they may even reverse the relationships between the dependent variable and moral values and ideological labels. The interaction terms, INV*Moralism and INV*Liberalism, are indeed very large relative to the base effects of these values.

50 Theoretically, environmental beliefs are not causally related to these issues and so we have dropped ‘Environmentalism’ from this part of the analysis. See the Appendix for descriptions of the dependent variables analysed in Table 5.

51 During 1989–90 the flag issue had been kept in the limelight of elite-level debate, first by the Supreme Court's decision in June 1989 invalidating laws against flag burning, then by Congress's subsequent statutory attempt (October 1989) to restrict flag desecration. Our data were collected between the passage of that law and the Supreme Court's June 1990 rejection of it.

52 Zaller, John R., ‘Information, Values, and Opinion’, American Political Science Review, 85 (1991), 1215–37.

53 McClosky, and Zaller, , The American Ethos.

54 Inglehart, , ‘The Changing Structure of Political Cleavages in Western Society’, pp. 53–7.

55 See Abramson, Paul R., Political Attitudes in America (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1983), chap. 13.

56 Douglas, Mary and Wildavsky, Aaron, Risk and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).

57 Wildavsky, , ‘Choosing Preferences by Constructing Institutions’, p. 14.

58 One interesting implication of Wildavsky's theory is that, if the perceived risk is social, not technical, the cultural types should array themselves quite differently. For example, supporters of hierarchy would see AIDS as a grave social threat and would tend to think that people with the virus should be identified and isolated. Egalitarians, perceiving less risk from the disease, would reject compulsory testing as an attempt by a domineering hierarchy to confer inferior status on an affected group. See Wildavsky, , ‘Choosing Preferences by Constructing Institutions’, p. 15. See also Thompson, Michael, Ellis, Richard and Wildavsky, Aaron, Cultural Theory (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1990).

59 Wildavsky, , ‘Choosing Preferences by Constructing Institutions’, p. 14.

60 Rothman, and Lichter, , ‘Elite Ideology and Risk Perception in Nuclear Energy Policy’, p. 396.

61 This view of the anti-corporate nature of adversarial elites is, of course, rather controversial. See Helm, Charles J., Rothman, Stanley and Lichter, S. Robert, ‘Is Opposition to Nuclear Energy an Ideological Critique?American Political Science Review, 83 (1989), 943–51.

62 See Franklin, Charles H. and Kosaki, Liane C., ‘Republican Schoolmaster: The US Supreme Court, Public Opinion, and Abortion’, American Political Science Review, 83 (1989), 751–71.

* Department of Political Science, The University of Central Florida, Orlando, Florida. The research reported in this article was supported in part by a grant from the Gulf Coast Hazardous Substance Research Center.

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Hard Issues, Core Values and Vertical Constraint: The Case of Nuclear Power

  • Philip H. Pollock, Stuart A. Lilie and M. Elliot Vittes

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