Sunday, March 03, 2019

The "Self-Governing Class" Splits Off in Early Adolescence, and Almost Nothing Can Induce the Rest to Join Them Thereafter

Markus Prior, a distinguished professor of politics at Princeton, has tried to figure out why some people (like me and, presumably, Professor Prior) are extremely interested in politics, and most people are not.  He shares the fruits of his research in Hooked: How Politics Captures People’s Interest (Cambridge University Press, 2019).  I read this work with great interest, as my ongoing project is to try to get more students to be active "polis makers."  Prior does clear out most of the popular explanations offered by political science.  In the end, though, he only deepens the mystery.

Below is my review for Choice, which summarizes the problem. 

About 10% of people are extremely interested in politics, and another 25% are very interested.  These constitute the “self-governing class,” which does the vast bulk of political actions of every kind, including voting.  Political interest is very stable over the life course.  Established in early adolescence, interest level solidifies in early adulthood. People who are more curious, open to experience, smarter, and from higher SES families are more likely to be highly interested in politics.  Prior (Politics, Princeton), turned to three massive panel studies, in Britain, Germany, and Switzerland, to try to answer the question “Why are some people highly interested in politics, and some are not?”  Ultimately, he could not answer the question.  The tree seems to fork in early adolescence, before most surveys begin.  The bulk of the book is given over to niceties of technical method. He clears out a number of possible explanations, showing that events, personal or political, do little more than create a small, temporary bump in political interest.  Having gone as far as survey methods are likely to go, this vital question needs qualitative work with children to get to an answer.