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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society


  VOLUME 8 (2001)

A Logic of Expressive Choice, by Alexander A. Schuessler, Princeton: Princeton University Press (2000), 177 pp.


Reviewed by Melinda A. Mueller, Department of Political Science, Eastern Illinois University, Charleston, IL.


In A Logic of Expressive Choice, Alexander Schuessler uses rational choice theory, as well as sociology and anthropology—to explain why people choose to participate in elections. In doing so, he responds to some unanswered questions political economists have raised concerning political participation, and he presents a new set of questions for theorists to explore.

At the heart of Schuessler’s research is the question of why people bother participating in elections at all, when the likelihood that they will affect the election’s outcome is very small. Electoral participation is a classic collective action problem. Since incentives for voting are low, and the likelihood that one person can change the turnout of an election is also low, we should expect low voter turnout. People behave as "free-riders," relying on others to make electoral choices for them. The dilemma facing rational choice theorists was why people still vote at all. Granted, voter turnout has decreased in the U.S., but about half of the voting-age population still participates. What makes any voter turn out at the polls, when there are so few direct rewards from voting?

Schuessler tackles this question, and related ones, by arguing that political participation is not based solely on instrumental rewards. Instead, people receive expressive benefits from voting and other forms of political participation. While other social scientists have made similar arguments, Schuessler’s is different in that he develops a formal model for explaining and predicting expressive participation. Furthermore, he argues that campaign strategists recognize the expressive benefits of voting today, and focus increasingly on the symbols associated with voting for a particular candidate or party.

Schuessler bases his argument on his "jukebox" model of participation. In Chapter Two, he draws an analogy between voting and a jukebox in an Italian restaurant located in Boston. Restaurant patrons can privately select a jukebox song, and patrons have no way of knowing which songs other patrons have already selected. Each song is played only once—even if several other patrons already selected it. Restaurant patrons receive an expressive benefit from hearing their song; they like to be associated with a particular song, even if they weren’t personally responsible for selecting the song. Schuessler explains that voting is similar: we vote in private, and have no direct way of knowing how others are voting. Also, it doesn’t matter how many people voted for the winning candidate, as long as the candidate received enough votes to win. Voters receive an expressive benefit from participation, such as the ability to associate themselves with a particular party or candidate.

Thus, according to Schuessler’s theory, a person voting in the 2000 election may have been more concerned with being associated with the Republican, Democratic, or Green parties, or their respective candidates, than with the election’s outcome. Voting has a certain status attached to it, like drinking a type of soda or driving a type of car. Schuessler’s model provides a sound explanation for why so many people do vote in the U.S., despite the lack of instrumental rewards, and despite the fact that the impact of their vote is small. In Chapters Three and Four, Schuessler provides a very thorough literature review of voter turnout and voter choice, and argues that many of the current models, which focus primarily on the instrumental rewards of voting, are incomplete. In these chapters, he outlines his expressive model of voting, drawing heavily from sociological theories.

Schuessler’s model also helps to explain how campaigns in the U.S. have changed over the past forty years. Chapter Five, entitled "Soft Drinks and Presidents," explains how the rise of mass marketing techniques developed through the twentieth century, and ultimately became used for campaigning as well as selling products. Schuessler focuses on the marketing of soft drinks in particular. Since the mid-twentieth century, the competition between Pepsi and Coca-Cola was based more on lifestyle and image than on the price or quality of the products. For instance, Pepsi marketed its product to the "Pepsi Generation," suggesting that those who drank Pepsi were young and more modern. However, Pepsi marketers didn’t directly claim that Pepsi drinkers were young—they wanted the actual demographics of their consumers to remain ambiguous, to attract as many consumers as possible. With this style of marketing, soft drink choice had become a lifestyle choice.

Schuessler claims that campaign strategists have developed similar techniques to attract voters to certain candidates and voters. Campaign mottos, like Reagan’s "It’s Morning Again in America," or Clinton’s "Building a Bridge to the Twenty-First Century," are prime examples of ambiguous "feel-good" expressive messages. The messages were not urging people to vote for Reagan or Clinton because of specific policy choices, but because they would feel good about voting for them, and being associated with them. Indeed, most campaign mottos from recent elections focus more on symbols and feelings than on policy choices.

In Chapters Six and Seven, Schuessler outlines the formal model of expressive voting that he developed in previous chapters. This model shows how a theory of expressive choice predicts electoral phenomena, including momentum and bandwagons, as well as negative campaigning. In Chapter Eight, Schuessler provides a formal model to explain behavior by campaign managers and strategists. In particular, he shows that a campaign manager strategically focuses on symbols that make his or her own candidate’s message somewhat ambiguous, to attract voters with expressive symbols. At the same time, campaign managers develop negative attacks on their candidate’s opponents. The negative symbols associated with the opponents can deter turnout and polarize voters, and often result in more voters being attracted to the campaign manager’s candidate. Altogether, Schuessler argues that an expressive campaign—focusing on symbols and lifestyles—will be more successful than a instrumental campaign—focusing on policies. It is worth noting that while Schuessler attempts to keep his model basic for readers who lack a strong background in formal modeling techniques, the material is still rather complicated for a non-expert. Nonetheless, his substantive explanation of the model is still clear and readable.

Schuessler’s theory provides a stronger explanation for campaign managers’ behavior than it does for voters’ behavior. Clearly, campaign managers do focus on symbolic messages to persuade voters—expressive campaigns do appear to be more effective than instrumental ones. Indeed, many political pundits and critics argued that the 2000 election was so full of ambiguity and negativity, that it was difficult to distinguish the two major candidates. However, if voter turnout and voter choice are something akin to the kind of car we drive and the kind of soda we drink, then why don’t more people vote? If people are so easily persuaded to purchase sports utility vehicles, despite their low gas mileage and poor safety record, then why aren’t they more easily persuaded to vote? It’s likely that the expressive benefit of voting just isn’t as important to us as the expressive benefit of driving a type of car, but more research must be done to explain why about 50 percent of eligible voters choose not to participate at all. While negative campaigning may deter some voters, using it as the sole explanation seems insufficient.

Furthermore, Schuessler’s research raises important normative questions about the types of campaigns we have today. The effect of electing a candidate is fundamentally different from the effect of choosing a car or a soft drink. Is ambiguity and negativity appropriate, given the importance of elected offices, particularly the presidency?

Overall, this text would be excellent for graduate level courses on voting behavior and rational choice theory. His work is a fine example of how rational choice theory can be integrated with other theoretical frameworks. It is always fascinating to see a theory that turns a question around and attempts to provide a more innovative answer. Even if the answer is somewhat incomplete, it offers new in-roads for future research.