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Do Elections Sway Political Opinion?

UB law professor's book contends it's 'nearly impossible' to persuade voters during an election campaign

Release Date: May 21, 2009

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UB Law Professor James Gardner's new book takes a critical look at the U.S. election process.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A new book on the role American elections play in shaping how its citizens arrive at political opinions -- written by nationally known University at Buffalo Law School election expert James A. Gardner -- is available online through Oxford University Press and Amazon.com. beginning today.

Gardner's latest book, "What Are Campaigns For? The Role of Persuasion in Electoral Law and Politics," looks at the expectations shared by many Americans that political campaigns should shape what people think about the major political issues in the election.

Gardner argues that "it is next to impossible to persuade voters during an election campaign of anything they do not already believe."

A frequent consultant of national media on election policy, and UB's Joseph W. Belluck and Laura L. Aswad Professor of Civil Justice, Gardner says persuasion – or how citizens come to believe a certain way about the crucial issues in any given campaign -- does not and need not occur in an election. The American political process provides for better ways to have this comprehensive debate that ultimately shapes how they vote.

"The kinds of legal reforms that would be necessary to make election campaigns truly destabilizing events would require very significant changes in public life – forced encounters with unwanted ideas and people, for example – that are in strong tension with other deeply-rooted aspects of American public and constitutional culture," Gardner writes. "The longing for meaningfully persuasive elections is thus a kind of contemporary democratic 'Lost Cause,' and we shall have to get beyond it in order to move forward."

Gardner's book considers whether Americans lose something essential to democracy if elections fail to provide a forum for debating issues that matter to voters. American citizens, Gardner argues, lose nothing by holding these kinds of elections because they have better ways to shape their opinions on crucial campaign topics.

Gardner argues that democratic theory actually does not require election campaigns to be anything more than affirmation of people's existing opinions. "As long as our political system offers opportunities for political deliberation and opinion-formation outside of the electoral arena," Gardner says, "there is no pressing need for it to offer those opportunities within the campaign setting as well."

"The critique of American elections appears to have its source in a long-standing elite frustration and impatience with the course and slow pace of social reform in the United States," he writes. "American social critics are committed to democracy, but wish that it would issue in different and faster results. They therefore long for a kind of electoral democracy that would genuinely (though only modestly) destabilize majoritarian public opinion."

"What Are Campaigns For?" has received glowing reviews from legal scholars. Guy-Uriel E. Charles of Duke Law School, called Gardner's latest book "a masterful account by a genuinely learned and gifted academic on a subject that is critical to democracy but too-long neglected."

Daniel P. Tokaji of Ohio State University, said Gardner "makes a compelling case that our expectations regarding political campaigns are unrealistic, distracting us from the most formidable challenges that our democracy faces. Scholars, advocates, policymakers, and ordinary citizens would all do well to heed his advice."

Gardner's research interests include the theoretical foundations of the constitutional structure of politics, the institutionalization through law of principles of democracy, constitutional structures of federalism, and sub-national constitutional law. He is the author or editor of five books and more than 40 articles

Media Contact Information

Charles Anzalone
Senior Editor, Law, Social Work and Education
Tel: 716-645-4600
anzalon@buffalo.edu