Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Posts Tagged ‘public opinion

Black and White Americans are Most Concerned About Jobs and Poverty, But Also Other Things

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According to Wesley Lowery , Black Americans now see race relations as nation’s most important problem. Read past the headline, and you learn that actually, ‘race relations’ is tied with ‘unemployment/jobs,’ which is a bit less exciting.  Here’s the full table, from the poll from Gallup.

Most Important Problem

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Written by David Kaib

June 17, 2015 at 9:18 pm

Americans Remain Divided on Completely Meaningless Question

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A recent Gallup poll (h/t Jonathan Cohn) provides another illustration of a point I’ve made before–view of Americans as presented in the media are a product of the weird sorts of questions asked by pollsters. gov activity poll Now, what on earth is this asking? Do people really have opinions on “how active” government should be, unmoored from the specific things government does? We know that many people would like government to address a range of problems – like poverty and lack of health care and improving public education. But “every area it can”? Why should anyone have an opinion about that?

The reason this makes sense to Gallup and their audience is because many things government does are naturalized. meaning it’s not seen as a choice. Property protection, contract enforcement, the military, prisons and policing–these things are likely covered under most people’s understandings of “basic functions.” But of course, government could be sprawling and expensive while only doing these things (especially the last two). Political scientists have been pleading for over a generation with people not to ask only about “government” in general but to pair that with more specific questions. I’d go further and say asking about “government” when we know full well it means different things to different people makes no sense unless you are trying to mislead. That’s not to say that’s what’s happening here. It’s exceedingly common to see people act like talk about “government” is not inherently contestable and ambiguous. Those who want government to act to serve the interests of those at the bottom often use this language. But it doesn’t make it useful for understanding people’s positions on what government should be doing (let alone for enlisting support for specific policies).

For what it’s worth, this is why ‘big government’ is a concept that causes such confusion. As near as I can tell, ‘big government’ means actions that punish the powerful or help out the disadvantaged, while not big government are actions that punish the disadvantaged or serve the interests of the powerful. So ‘anti-government’ conservatives railing against ‘big government’ can expand the carceral state, the national security state, the bloated military. And that’s why people can say ‘keep the government out of my Medicare’. It looks foolish because we don’t mean the same thing by these terms as those we criticize. It would make both polling and politics easier if we all meant the same thing by terms.

But sadly, that’s not how things work.

Written by David Kaib

October 2, 2014 at 9:40 pm

Americans Sound Confused About Equality if You Ask the Wrong Question

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According to Drew Desilver at the Pew Research Center, most Americans (65%) agree that the gap between the rich and everyone else is growing, which is true. “But ask people why the gap has grown, and their answers are all over the place.”

Among people who said the gap between the rich and everyone else has grown, we asked an “open-ended question” — what, in their own words, the main reason was. About a fifth (20%) said tax loopholes (or, more generally, tax laws skewed to favor the rich) were the main reason. Ten percent pinned the blame on Congress or government policies more broadly; about as many (9%) cited the lackluster job market, while 6% named corporations or business executives.

But well over half of the people who saw a widening gap cited a host of other reasons, among them (in no particular order): Obama and Democrats, Bush and Republicans, the education system, the capitalist system, the stock market, banks, lobbyists, the strong/weak work ethic of the rich/poor, too much public assistance, not enough public assistance, over-regulation, under-regulation, the rich having more power and opportunity, the rich not spending enough, and simply “a lot of greedy people out there.”

This is presented as a combination of public confusion and disagreement. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

April 29, 2014 at 1:36 pm

Five Economic Reforms Americans are Open To

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Last week, Jesse Myerson caused a major stir with a Rolling Stone piece, Five Economic Reforms Millennials Should Be Fighting For. It’s a great piece, and we should all be fighting for them.

It’s a new year, but one thing hasn’t changed: The economy still blows. Five years after Wall Street crashed, America’s banker-gamblers have only gotten richer, while huge swaths of the country are still drowning in personal debt, tens of millions of Americans remain unemployed – and the new jobs being created are largely low-wage, sub-contracted, part-time grunt work.

Millennials have been especially hard-hit by the downturn, which is probably why so many people in this generation (like myself) regard capitalism with a level of suspicion that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. But that egalitarian impulse isn’t often accompanied by concrete proposals about how to get out of this catastrophe. Here are a few things we might want to start fighting for, pronto, if we want to grow old in a just, fair society, rather than the economic hellhole our parents have handed us.

The piece did two things. First, it drove conservatives absolutely insane, and second, it led to a serious discussion of these policies that previously were largely at the margins of the agenda.

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Written by David Kaib

January 14, 2014 at 10:42 pm

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

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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.

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Written by David Kaib

November 22, 2013 at 9:24 am

The Patriot Act, ‘support’ for public policies and the construction of democratic control

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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.

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Written by David Kaib

July 9, 2013 at 12:31 pm

How the Media Convinces Us ‘The People Support It’ – Mass Surveillance and Polls

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[Updated Below]

[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 »

Written by David Kaib

June 12, 2013 at 10:30 am

Predistribution, Public Opinion and Unilateral Executive Action

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The Market St Quentin

A market, which exists, unlike “the market” which does not. (St Quinton Saturday Market by M Hobbs)

Matt Bruenig has a good post on predistribution, “measures governments take to reduce or eliminate inequality in market incomes” as “the most viable way to give a boost to low-income workers.”

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.

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Asymmetric Misperceptions and the Conservative Construction of ‘Public Opinion’

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SurveysThere’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.

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Written by David Kaib

March 10, 2013 at 7:54 am

The War on Terror and Democratic Efficiency

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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.

Written by David Kaib

February 12, 2013 at 7:25 am

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