The Assault on Public Opinion


One of the underlying premises of a democracy is that government must be responsive to the will of the people. The clearest manifestation of that obligation is the direct election of government officials. How the concept works between elections is not always so clear.

Our understanding of “what the public wants” can come from a number of different sources.  For some, public opinion is identical to what we personally believe.  Many of us live in political bubbles and find our opinions reaffirmed regularly by almost everyone in our immediate circle.

There is growing evidence that our society has become increasingly segregated into like-minded communities.  We encounter few, if any, people who see the world differently than we do.  It is too easy to slide from that reality to the belief that most people have similar opinions.  The corollary to that phenomenon is that we are amazed when we discover there are others out there who disagree with us and wonder what is wrong with them.

This pattern, which has increased sharply in the last two decades, helps to explain the growing polarization of our politics.  If we constantly get reinforcement of our own views, we are more and more inclined to dismiss any contrary opinions.  Where and how we get our news tends to follow the same outline.  The world of Fox viewers has almost no overlap to that of MSNBC watchers.  When you live in an echo chamber, other perspectives can’t easily break through the noise clutter.

A second source of our views about “what the public wants” comes from people we view as authority figures.  On lots of public issues, we have little or no direct experience or first-hand knowledge.  This source certainly overlaps with elements of the first factor, the reinforcement of our views, but fills in when we have less to go on.

Some authority figures are friends and acquaintances, people whose opinion we particularly value on topics that we see as their area of expertise.    Often, however, these sources are public figures, perhaps the president, or a leading figure in whichever political party we identify with, or an individual who has achieved a level of success that we believe warrants our attention.

Elected officials frequently tell us that they have taken a particular action or position in response to the public will.  The dilemma, of course, is that you hear that assertion from politicians on opposing sides of an issue.  Claiming that the public supports you is a way to legitimize your stance as well as a way to persuade people to agree with you.

In an era where charges of “fake news” are thrown about with abandon, it’s hard not to be skeptical about claims of popularity for someone’s newest initiative.  Yet, sometimes, the public–which may not have had any firm opinion on a particular issue–decides to follow and ratify a claim based primarily on exhortation.

A third, and seemingly more scientific, source is public opinion polls.  Here again, elected officials cite approvingly favorable polls and characterize unfavorable ones as flawed.   The recent debates about, first, the Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and, more recently, the Congressional tax bill demonstrate that public opinion polls are easily disregarded by politicians when they have the votes.

Survey research, after achieving real influence in the post World War II period, has been in a more troubled time recently.  Failing to predict a number of election outcomes correctly hurt their credibility.  Increasing questions about methodology, including how to account for cell phone users in their samples, made some people skeptical.  And, perhaps counter-intuitively, the proliferation of new polls resulted in conflicting results with no clear way to choose among them.

When you look at these three sources for answering the question “What does the public want?”, it’s apparent that finding anything near a consensus is almost impossible.  We have become an increasingly fragmented society and body politic with less and less ability to agree on common ground.

Some of the problems that I have described are inherent in human nature. But some are the product of a deliberate and calculated assault on the very idea that there is an identifiable public will.  We are living in a period when determined political minorities have been able to pursue their interests without regard to any broader public will.

Congress refuses to enact what a majority of Americans see as “common sense” gun regulations.  The entire Republican Party resists efforts to deal with climate change even as polls show a majority of citizens concerned about its impact.   Providing access to affordable health care is clearly more important to most voters than it is to Congressmen who currently dominate the legislative process.

Money has become a critical factor in our elections, diminishing the impact of individual voters.  Gerrymandering has allowed minority policies to be pushed by those who manage to rig the system to their benefit.  We have a president who casts aside truth, long-held norms and even respect for our constitutional system.

We are left with only one effective means of expressing public opinion, one that many citizens voluntarily give up.  Voting is the last best hope for retaining democratic government but it only works if citizens get up off their lethargy and participate in the political system.  So many of the pillars of our system are under attack and have already been eroded.  This is no time for complacency.

At the end of the day, the true measure of patriotism and love of country isn’t clapping for a speech or having a show of military force, but voting.  The next real test of whether our democracy will endure comes in the General Election of November 2018.   It’s not someone else’s responsibility; this is on all of us.