Complexity, Uncertainty, and the Status Quo Public Deposited

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  • March 20, 2019
  • Tyner, Andrew
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Political Science
  • In three empirical chapters, my dissertation presents the complexity of issue debates as a product of elite efforts to mobilize and demobilize support for issue reform. The success of these efforts depends on citizens’ ability to process large volumes of diverse information. My first chapter uses unsupervised topic modeling of congressional floor speeches to test predictions from my theory of political elites’ communication strategies. As expected, I find that supporters of reform keep issue debates simple by focusing on a small number of arguments, while opponents focus broadly on a wide range of arguments to make debates complex. They follow this strategy because complexity creates uncertainty. Uncertainty weakens attitudes, which depresses participation and support for reform. My second chapter focuses on direct democracy, and looks at one particular way that ballot measures can become more or less complex: namely, the clarity of their policy goals. I predict that clear policy goals should make citizens more likely to vote on a ballot measure, more likely to support reform when the policy goals are shared across the ideological spectrum, and more likely to vote in alignment with their political predispositions when the policy goals are associated with the political right or left. I first merge an ANES dataset that includes 81 ballot measures with hand-coded measures of their characteristics. Second, I administer an original survey experiment that varies the clarity of ballot measures’ goals. My expectations are supported in both studies. In the third chapter, I return to the causal model outlined in the first chapter to test the effects of complex debates on the mass public. Using two original survey experiments, I find that citizens who can process high volumes of political information gain stronger attitudes from complex debates, while citizens who cannot process information develop weaker issue attitudes. Taken together, my dissertation demonstrates that elites can influence who takes action on political issues through their messaging, and that they use this capacity to advance their goals.
Date of publication
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Rights statement
  • In Copyright
  • Conover, Pamela
  • Baumgartner, Frank
  • MacKuen, Michael
  • Treul, Sarah
  • Ryan, Timothy
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2018

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