Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Public Support for Abortion Rights and the Perils of “Support”

with 3 comments

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.

I’ve become increasingly critical of the central role of ‘support’ is assessing public opinion, especially as it is often done. I’ve objected to idea that submerged state polices are caused by the public, that the drone program and mass surveillance are products of public opinion and how death penalty opinions are misunderstood. This is one more example of how inattention to the details produces progressive fatalism and conservative dominance.

The point isn’t that pollsters or those who publicize them are being intentionally dishonest, but that they tend to overestimate how conservative the public is (because of conservative political outcomes) and that looking for global ‘support/oppose’ numbers may be an effective way to know who someone is going to vote for (once a race is well-defined) but it’s a poor way to understand public policy positions. And since Democrats are going to be tagged as liberal no matter what they do, they might as well get points for taking actual progressive stances and show they actually stand for something–leaving aside that it’s simply the right thing to do.

Politicians aren’t going to listen to these arguments. But those who follow politics should and press those who claim to represent them to act even when it looks like they are going against what the public ‘supports.’

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Written by David Kaib

November 22, 2013 at 9:24 am

3 Responses

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  1. Outstanding. Of course, most pollsters are hired by their clients to work in their interests, which is where a lot of the framing of certain questions originates. But even “public” pollsters, like Pew et al, also have an institutional frame in which they work. Even they are forming questions couched in what I might call “elite pop culture,” or some such silliness. I don’t read polls as voraciously as I did even a few years ago, but I can go back 20+ years and say not much has changed over the years in terms of their propensity to act as reinforcers or “sellers” of certain memes. They do have a function of informing their clients as to “what is,” but they also have the function of reinforcing “norms” as defined by their clients. That’s not inherently “wrong” in my book, but it does diminish the idea that polls are showing us “reality.”

    The example of abortion (and there are others) is telling, isn’t it? Anecdotally, I know quite a few Catholics who are anti-abortion, but self-ID as “pro-choice” simply because they are repulsed at the idea of telling other people how to live their lives. Still, in polls (pro or con), there usually isn’t a more nuanced take on the issue or people who don’t fall into one of two categories. Talented political managers can read between those lines–and actually talking to people in the field helps a lot with that–but institutional leadership typically isn’t interested, since they are essentially captured by the language they live on. They just want to know if X will help them increase their power or not. Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent” pops into my head right about… now.

    It’s at this point I normally pivot to institutional “communicators” (PR, propaganda, speechwriters and certain linguists who rely on “pop culture” to couch their messages–Lakoff/Luntz* et al) and how they drive the formation of questions and rhetoric around those questions. I’m curious as to what you think about that part of the framework as well, since they’re the ones who define the messages that drive the polling questions and how politicians and apparatchiks speak to their various publics. I just can’t get past the institutional feedback loops. Am I correct in thinking “channel dependency” in this context?

    *–I’m not saying they’re equivalent, but to be fair, they both use the language of pop culture as entree into what they see as the means of manipulation (or “good communications” in their minds).

    Ford Prefect

    November 22, 2013 at 11:51 am

    • Great comment. I tend to think you have a couple of factors at play here. 1) Conscious attempts to frame these debates in ways that serve elite interests (Luntz, for example). 2) That this factor strongly shapes what’s considered ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ and 3) misguided orthodox social science assumptions about how people think about politics. All these things tend to reinforce each other. The whole thing works in part because many of the people involved here are not consciously trying to manipulate anyone, but their actions facilitate those that are.

      There’s also the problem of inertia. Plenty of abortion rights activists use the pro-choice/pro-life terminology, and the former, IIRC was developed by abortion rights groups in the 80s as a way to use the dominant conservative framing of the time to push their agenda. But too often the language of the rest of simply tracks what is used in the media and by interest groups.

      David Kaib

      November 24, 2013 at 8:38 am

      • Thanks. And you make good sense.

        Ford Prefect

        November 26, 2013 at 6:24 pm


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