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The "Wildavsky Heuristic": The Cultural Orientation of Mass Political Opinion

Cultural worldviews determine political attitudes, not because ordinary citizens are moral zealots but because they are cognitive misers who naturally rely on cultural cues to orient their policy positions.

In a provocative 1987 article, Aaron Wildavsky asserted that culture operates as the fundamental orienting force in the generation of mass political opinion. The meanings and interpersonal associations that inhere in discrete ways of life, he argued, shape the heuristic processes by which politically unsophisticated individuals, in particular, determine what policies and candidates to support. This paper systematize Wildavsky's theory, integrating it with existing accounts of mass opinion formation. It also presents the results of an original empirical study (N = 1800) that confirms that the cultural ways of life featured in Wildavsky's writings powerfully explain a range of policy positions among persons of all levels of political sophistication.


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