Posts Tagged ‘public opinion’
Jodi Jacobson, at RH Reality Check, talks about the disconnect between the public and politicians on abortion, which touches on something I’ve been emphasizing here.
Consistent rejection by actual voters of attempts to give the state control over women’s bodies tells us three things. One, polls that attempt to divide people into neat boxes such as “pro-choice” and “pro-life” or to measure support for hypothetical restrictions on abortion in generic terms do not reflect how people really feel about safe abortion care. In fact, when asked specifically about who should make decisions on how and when to bear children and under what circumstances to terminate a pregnancy, voters make clear they do not want to interfere in the deeply personal decisions they believe belong between a woman, her partner and family, and her medical advisers, even in cases of later abortion. In short, voters do not want legislators playing god or doctor.
Not long ago, I argued that how poll questions are often framed, and more important, how they are interpreted in the media, worked to reinforce the status quo, specifically on the issue of mass surveillance.
I’ve since ran across an article (h/t Chris Bowers) that addresses this issue and sheds some important light on my point: Samuel J. Best and Monika L. McDermott, Measuring Opinions vs. Non-Opinions – The Case of the USA Patriot Act (pdf). They investigate whether pollsters are manufacturing opinions on subjects where they don’t exist, in response to the pressure to add public opinion to political debates. In essence, they argue that respondents do not know what the Patriot Act (a complex piece of legislation) does, but use clues from the wording of questions to make up for that ignorance. So what appears to be actual opinions about the law (which for the record, shows very different levels of support depending on the question wording) is simply an artifact.
[Update II: 6-13-13]
On Sunday, I noticed (and tweeted) that Steve Kornacki kept saying that Americans strongly supported all manner of spying on Americans in the name of terror, moving quickly from blanket statements to anecdotes about what he was hearing from people. Of course, to make such a claim requires more than anecdote. Absent polling you are just guessing (or projecting your own onto the public). That said, presuming there is public ‘support’ for policies that enjoy strong elite support is a standard element of democratic efficiency. Nor was Kornacki alone. Such claims had been ubiquitous.
It is true that a Democratic Administration, despite challenging many Bush-era practices when it came to these issues, had embraced much of the same. While jettisoning the term War of Terror, it has continued to engage in scare tactics which vastly over inflate the dangers of terrorism (pdf). Given what we know about the dynamics of public opinion, it should have been obvious that more Democratic voters were going to move towards the pro-surveillance position since the Bush-era. Elite discourse influences poll results. (I’ve discussed this before in the context of the so-called war on terror). Read the rest of this entry »
As far I am concerned, there is no moral or political difference between the two. Predistributive institutions and redistributive institutions are both just institutions. What matters is achieving greater economic equality, not so much the precise institutional regime that we use to get there. If anything, I tend to find so-called redistributive institutions more attractive because they are easier to fine tune and strike me as more liberating.
I certainly agree on the ‘no difference’ point. Why is it more viable?
But, as Hacker correctly points out, my view is almost certainly an outlying one. For cultural or other reasons, Americans tend to be more supportive of equality-producing measures that get baked into paychecks than they are of equality-producing measures that go through more overt government channels. As a result, the US has a very stingy welfare state and delivers much of its government spending through opaque, submerged mechanisms like tax credits.
There’s been a lot of buzz about an excellent (but not yet peer-reviewed) working paper by David Broockman and Chris Skovron, “What Politicians Believe About Their Constituents: Asymmetric Misperceptions and Prospects for Constituency Control,” which looks at state legislative candidates’ perceptions of their constituents’ opinions. The findings are striking, but unlike many others, I don’t find them all that surprising:
Actual district opinion explains only a modest share of the variation in politicians’ perceptions of their districts’ views. Moreover, there is a striking conservative bias in politicians’ perceptions, particularly among conservatives: conservative politicians systematically believe their constituents are more conservative than they actually are by over 20 percentage points, while liberal politicians also typically overestimate their constituents’ conservatism by several percentage points.
Glenn Greenwald has a post calling out those Democrats who have embraced an all-powerful presidency as long as it’s in the hands of a Democrat. While it’s been clear for some time that this was true, in light of the recent release of the so-called ‘white paper’ (Greenwald calls it the DOJ kill list memo), a surprising number of commentators are now admitting it. At the same time, many others have suddenly been discussing and criticizing the kill list policy despite the fact that very little new information has come to light.
In response to criticisms of these policies, it is a common retort that the public demands it. That is, it is the public, not elites that are driving this. And since we are a democracy, its inevitable that policies the public supports will win out. Greenwald demolishes this claim.
Beyond the inherent dangers of fealty to political leaders for partisan gain, this behavior has a substantial effect on the ability to fight radical government policies. Progressives often excuse Obama’s embrace of these extremist Bush/Cheney terror policies on the ground that Americans support these policies and therefore he’s constrained. But that claim reverses causation: it is true that politicians sometimes follow public opinion, but it’s also true that public opinion often follows politicians.
In particular, whenever the two political parties agree on a policy, it is almost certain that public opinion will overwhelmingly support it. When Obama was first inaugurated in 2009, numerous polls showed pluralities or even majorities in support of investigations into Bush-era criminal policies of torture and warrantless eavesdropping. That was because many Democrats believed Obama would pursue such investigations (because he led them to believe he would), but once he made clear he opposed those investigations, huge numbers of loyal Democrats followed their leader and joined Republicans in opposing them, thus creating majorities against them.
Obama didn’t refrain from investigating Bush-era crimes because public opinion opposed that. The reverse was true: public opinion supported those investigations, and turned against them only once Obama announced he opposed them. We see this over and over: when Obama was in favor of closing Guantanamo and ending Bush-era terrorism policies, large percentages supported him (and even elected him as he advocated that), but then once he embraced those policies as his own, large majorities switched and began supporting them.
Progressive willingness to acquiesce to or even outright support Obama’s radical policies – in the name of partisan loyalty – are precisely what ensures the continuation of those policies.
This should come as no surprise. It’s long been obvious that elite activities often drive polling results (which is a measure of some phenomenon called public opinion, not the thing itself) and that there is often a broad disconnect between what the public says in polls and what elites do in both domestic and foreign policy. But using the normative idea of democracy as an unexamined lens for understanding the realities of politics obscures this. This episode is as good an illustration of the problem of the idea of democratic efficiency as one could hope for.
Democratic efficiency, used to justify elite actions by blaming the people, is a cop-out.
A couple of other notes:
Falguni A. Sheth has more on the white paper.
Crooked Timber has a post discussing post-democracy.
In the Democratic Strategist, Andrew Levinson (pdf) tries to bring some reality to discussion of the white working class, which is generally stereotypes as monolithic and regressive. This is more evidence against the idea that ‘American is a conservative nation’ as a catch-all explanation for politics, and the progressive fatalism that view leads to.
The majority of white working class Americans are simply not firm, deeply committed conservatives. Those who express “strong” support for conservative propositions represent slightly less than 40% of the total. The critical swing group within white working class America is composed of the ambivalent or open-minded.
This is an extremely surprising result since virtually all political commentary about the white working class today is based on the assumption that these voters are generally quite deeply conservative and that conservatives very substantially outnumber liberal/progressives in white working class America.
Part of the difficulty is weaknesses in standard ways of polling, which uses conventional framing (i.e. elite framing) to force people into yes / no answers, and then aggregates across relatively gross categories (white, or white working class) and then overemphasizes slightly differences in means across such categories (i.e. 30% versus 25%?). Different types of questions yield different types of results, yet only some of these get treated as truth.
When questions about moral issues are not framed as abstract statements of approval or disapproval for traditional “morality” in general but rather as questions about the more practical question of whether government should be made responsible for enforcing conservative morality, only 29% of white working class voters turn out to be conservative “true believers” who strongly agree with the idea. In fact, a significantly larger group of 43% strongly disagrees and holds that the government is actually “getting too involved” in the issue.
But even more significant, nearly a quarter of the respondents are somewhat ambivalent or open-minded on this issue. As the chart below makes dramatically clear, they represent the key swing group whose support can convert either side into a majority.
It’s easy to move unproblematically from the results of polls to interpretations about people, but there is always interpretation involved, framing always matters, and there is always simplification. We (social scientists, especially) prefer the idea that if we just choose the right tools than interpretation is unnecessary. But that’s simply not true. And if interpretation isn’t done explicitly and carefully, we end up just using our own biases and stereotypes.
The other issues concerns on what terrain you contest. But of course, sometimes financing campaigns is in tension with appealing to voters.
As can be seen, on the distinct subset of “populist” issues about corporate profits, power and the role of wall street a majority of white American workers—54%—strongly agree with a liberal/progressive view. In contrast, only 20% strongly agree with the conservative, pro-business perspective.
(All this reminds me of the controversy over the role of African-Americans in the approval of Prop 8. Classism remains a serious problem.)
Of course, getting this wrong stands in the way of changing things. It’s easy to believe that progress is stymied because a large swath of the population is inherently opposed to your goals. It lets you off the hook. To believe that people can change places a responsibility on activists to reach out, to do the hard work of organizing.
But it’s not true. The road ahead may be difficult. But it’s not impossible.
There has been a lot of attention in progressive circles about framing, but because of the way we tend to think and talk about politics, framing itself is poorly understood. Our standard frame of politics is steeped in a particular view of the US constitutional system – American democracy. This view places two party electoral politics at the center, sees formal decision making (without attending to the boundaries of what’s possible) as the only thing of significance in politics, and includes a sharp distinction between the economy and politics, or markets and government. This view is a hindrance to progressive politics, I believe, because it is confuses a way of justifying a state of affairs (legitimation) with a way of making senses of a state of affairs.
What does this have to do with framing? When you use this politics-as-democracy lens to make sense of politics, you overestimate the role of elections, of formal decisions, and the role of individuals. (I’ve referred to this idea that individual choice manifests itself in an unmediated fashion in politics and policy as ‘democratic efficiency’.) As a results, the central (only?) drivers in politics appear to be 1) voting and 2) public opinion. Given that, framing must be (it is inconceivable to think of it any other way) about changing the minds of voters usually in an unmediated fashion (i.e. presidential speeches producing shifts in public opinion, campaign tactics producing electoral majorities). Framing is about communication, only.
The problem is that this does not fit with the arguments of those who talk about framing. To take George Lakoff as a prime example–his field is cognitive linguistics, he has helped found the interdisciplinary field of cognitive studies, his books all reference thinking or the mind (Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain, Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision).
Framing, then, is first and foremost about being clearer with ourselves about what we stand for. It’s about being clearer about what unites us, and what divides us from our ideological opponents. This is necessary to build stronger coalitions, form longer term plans, and decide what things we want to push for, and it requires not just talking differently but building a progressive infrastructure to develop better frames and embed them in our institutions. It’s about recapturing the confidence those on the left had in the post-Great Depression period that our approach is better than then alternative and more appealing. (This sort of confidence is something conservatives have built in the wake of the Civil Rights and it remains a key strength for their movement). It’s about finding things that unite our side and divide or weaken the other side. It’s about mobilizing your own supporters and demobilizing* resistance.
Even so, some might think these things will involve persuasion. Certainly, any discussion of rhetoric will implicate persuasion, but the important thing to remember here is that people are ambivalent. We listen to, or participate in, elite discourse, we organize our own thinking around liberal-conservative ideology, talk about opinion polls revealing beliefs. But most regular people are not engaged with this discourse, don’t organize their thinking on a lib-con spectrum, and have more complex views than can be captured by a single poll question. Lakoff suggests that most people have progressive and conservative frames available to them, that many of us can actively use both frames, but that conservatives have been far more successful at activating conservative frames. This means that even self-professed liberals / progressives often argue within conservative frames rather than challenging them. The issue is less convincing people to abandon a strongly held consistent position than activating one way of thinking over another.
Most people who study and talk about American politics don’t think like this. They think about the importance of getting 50% plus 1. As a result, talk of framing (and for that matter, organizing) sounds like naive gibberish. Or in some cases, it means people who want to use framing but don’t understand it speak naive gibberish, thinking that if we could only get the right sound bite it would turn the tide, something Lakoff has always rejected. I suspect part of the reason is that those who focus on framing haven’t really challenged the politics-as-democracy frame or recognized the way it distorts these discussions.
*It doesn’t mean putting barriers in the way of participation. I object to that on principle regardless of the context.
Today, Up With Chris Hayes featured a good discussion of wrongful convictions and the death penalty. But Chris repeated a misleading claim about public opinion on the death penalty that highlights a larger problem. The claim was that Americans overwhelmingly support the death penalty, and therefore efforts to repeal the death penalty face a serious challenge in terms of changing people’s minds. Chris pointed to a poll showing that a solid majority of Americans said the death penalty was morally justified. More typically, people point to polls that ask simply if people support or oppose the death penalty.
Intuitively, this makes sense. The problem is that it’s a false choice. When polls offer people alternatives to the death penalty, those numbers shift considerably. Gallup has shown this for some time. When offered the choice of the death penalty versus life without parole, public opinion is evenly split. The abolitionist Death Penalty Information Center offers an even more nuanced look.
Note, this poll doesn’t offer people new information, it simply gives them additional choices. What happens when people do hear new information? The numbers shift even more.
What does this mean? It means that many of those people who are allegedly supportive of the death penalty would chose another penalty if given the choice. It means that ‘support’ is soft. Hardly the stuff of fatalism.
I know why someone who supports the death penalty might prefer the first set of questions over the second. But why would an opponent? And Chris is not unusual here. Why do death penalty opponents so often fail to offer the full picture? I don’t know the answer. I suspect a lot of progressives, after years of conservative dominance (which is not the same as majority support for conservative opinions) have adopted an identity of being on defense, of being outnumbered, and just see the world through that lens. But doing so is both distorting and poses a barrier for those who seek progressive change.
* I’m leaving aside three important issues. First, public opinion does not generally drive policy. Second, results of polling is not the same as strongly and sincerely held opinions. Three, we know that polling responses are partly a product of elite discourse. Right now, both parties are pro-death penalty, and as a result, so is the media. If one party were to offer a different view, it would change media coverage and likely move polls as well.