Something to Think About as The Democratic and Republican Conventions in the United State Get Underway: Voting Sheep, Voting Cows, and Sheeple

      Max Weber uses a great German noun Stimmvieh to describe unthinking voting behavior.  Literally translated into English, it means “voting cow,” or “voting livestock” which Weber wrote in 1918 or so.  At the time, he had this love-hate relationship with the United States, so two of his illustrative examples of “voting cows” both came from there.  He saw “voting cows” in both the United States Congress where voting members are herded into party line voting, and in the urban areas of the early twentieth century where ward bosses rounded up recent immigrants to cast votes based on pre-existing ethnic loyalties, rather than the issues involved. 

As the United States heads watches as the Republican and Democratic parties “select” Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to represent ithem in November’s presidential election, a reflection on Weber’s concept is particularly relevant.  At both conventions, delegates will be told to vote on matters big and small over which they in fact have little say–they are there only for the theater of the rituals.

I think the phenomenon is actually more general, rooted as it is in the need to conform to group dynamics, of which the Democratic and Republican conventions are only high profile examples. . In fact just yesterday I voted “aye” (or should I say “moo”) to approve meeting minutes that I had not read.  In fact now that I think of it, on most of the committees I sit, I tend to vote in such a fashion—ratifying the pre-arranged decisions that are presented to me.  I do it all the time on university committees. “How do you vote on X?”  Altogether now “Mooooo.”  Any opposed? (Silence).  The motion passes.  Now that I think of it, same thing happens on church councils, corporate boards of directors, and any number of other places people are told they have “great responsibility.”  In the end?  Mooooo!

Weber is of course writing about is the fact that people vote for things that they haven’t read all the time.  I could of course pick on the US Congress which recently passed a monster bill on health care which few if any of the members had ever read.  This is a well-known foible of the US Congress which happens time after time, no matter which party is in charge; after all Weber wrote about the phenomenon 100 years ago before there was a health care bill.  Congress seemingly has not changed.

But more to the point, I could point to the “stuff” I vote for on the local ballots every year or so (after all I am an obedient and important voter supportive of democracy!).  Thus, I am always thrilled to be ask my opinion on matters big and small, even if I don’t know anything about the subject, or for that interest have much interest in the things that appear on California’s election ballots.  After all, if paid member of Congress don’t read the bills, why should I read everything that goes together in Califronia’s version of direct democracy?  Still the fact that the Legislature and Governor asks me at the ballot box to decide big issues appeals to my vanity, and I dutifully weigh in with a considered opinion on election day.

Do I want to have the government buy bonds to do X, and Y to Z% interest rate? Oh, thank you for asking!  Moooooo!

Who do you want to vote for to assess property in your county?  Well, yes, thank you for again asking my expert opinion, and now that you mention it Moooooo!

Or do I have an opinion about the death penalty, property rights,  air pollution regulations, school policy, sales tax, or the other multitude of issues that clutter the California ballot.  Thanks for asking! Mooooo! Mooooo! And Mooooo!

So as a sociologist, I like the concept of Weber describes—but how to render Stimmvieh into English in a fashion that Weber might recognize?  “Voting cows” does not capture  the spirit of the German.  “Voting sheep” works a little better, since in the English language sheep in particular are known via metaphor for the mindless herding mentality that Weber is referring to.

Indeed in the right wing blogosphere, they have started to use the word “Sheeple” which Wikipedia defines as

a term that highlights the herd behavior of people by likening them to sheep, a herd animal…. used to describe those who voluntarily acquiesce to a suggestion without critical analysis or research.

In other words Stimmvieh.  That sounds like what I do before voting “Aye” on ratifying the minutes of meetings I have not read, voting for my county’s assessor, or weighing in on a bond issue which I really do not understand.  The problem is that the right wing in the US has somehow appropriated the word “sheeple” and it has come to be associated only with the mindless voting behavior of the Democrats, rather than voters in general like Weber intended.  But we need sheeple back, if for nothing else, because it is such a great idiomatic way to translate the equally idiomatic Stimmvieh.  After all,  Sheeplehood and Stimmvieh behavior is not only for Democrats, but all of us, including you, me, and the guy behind the tree.  It is for whomever has voted “Mooooo,” whether it was to just to go along, inattention, or boredom.

4 thoughts on “Something to Think About as The Democratic and Republican Conventions in the United State Get Underway: Voting Sheep, Voting Cows, and Sheeple

  1. I would like to see more of the comment or essay of Weber where he uses this word. Any reference for us?

  2. Tony Waters

    Hi Carol,
    We found Stimmvieh once in “Politics as Vocation,” and once in “Bureaucracy” while doing our translations. The translation is due to be published by Palsgrave MacMillan as “Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society” in April 2015, edited by myself and my wife, Dagmar Waters.

    Here are the two relevant sections where “Stimmvieh” were used. Here is the section from Politics as Vocation, which is just over halfway through the essay:

    “Well, this system means that today all English parliamentarians, with exception of a few members of the cabinet and a few loners, are nothing more than a well-habitualized and disciplined herd of cattle, voting as they are told. ”

    Here is the section from “Bureaucracy” which is on p. 13/87 in the current manuscript:

    “Basically, the same applies in situations where legitimate monarchs and their subjects nominate Beamte. The only difference is that the influence of allegiance is less controllable. In places where the need for professionally trained administration is gaining importance, such as, at the moment, in the United States, but where party followers deal with free-floating public opinion which is intellectually highly developed and educated, the appointment of unqualified Beamte by the leading party diminishes during the election. Naturally, this is especially the case when the Beamte were nominated by the party boss. However, such a free-floating public opinion is missing in the United States where the immigrants in the cities are herded together as “voting sheep.””

    Now that you’ve raised the question, I see that in “Politics as Vocation” we translated Stimmvieh as “well-disciplined herd of cattle,” and in Bureaucracy as “voting sheep.” Such are the hazards of translation! Stimmvieh is one of those really cool German combination-nouns, which are difficult to translate. “Stimm” is a ballot, and Vieh is a piece livestock, usually a cow. Stimmvieh as a single word thus becomes voting cow/sheep, etc. The point is that voters herd–not a very attractive way to think of ourselves, is it?

  3. Tony

    Well, ok–I’m on the final edits of the book mss, and just made a decision to go with “voting sheep” in the translation of Stimmvieh in both places. Sheep are led to slaughter by their shepherd to slaughter, which the image that Weber wants to evoke. “Cattle” works too, but sheep evokes a sense of innocence, too. Particularly in the case of voters in democracy, I think that this sense is important and important component of the metaphor Weber wants to evoke.

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