Some questions

The link between public opinion and public policy

Early theorists in modern political science had high hopes for using new survey techniques to analyze the individual-level psychological and behavorial processes which constitute modern liberal democracy. Berelson (1952), for instance, noted that democratic theory assumes that citizens meet certain requirements related to tolerance, patience, interest, knowledge, and the will to participate.

But early research in political behavior was extremely bleak: most people had little knowledge of politics, most political opinions were not based on facts, most people were generally authoritarian and prejudiced, they typically only listened to views they already agreed with, and participation in politics was low (Prothro and Grigg 1960; McCloskey 1964; Cobb and Elder 1971, 893). In short, much of this first wave of political science research, largely based on the new survey methods growing popular at the time, would have seemed damning evidence that the citizens of the United States’ simply do not constitute what is called democracy.

Rather than take these studies as ammunition to protest the US political system–and perhaps joining the students, the blacks, and the women who at this very time were doing precisely this–the next wave of political scientists simply argued that early theorists of democracy had too narrow a definition of democracy. The new idea was that “democracy” only requires an empirical relationship between public opinion and policymaking in the aggregate. If the actual direction of state policymaking were to show zero correlation with shifts in public opinion, this would be damning evidence that what the public wants has no affect on the policies pursued by state elites. But so long as policymaking in general moves in response to aggregate public opinion, this is adequate evidence that the “macropolity” is indeed a functioning democracy. And indeed, since then, political scientists have found that in democracies, shifts in public opinion tend to be followed by corresponding shifts in policymaking. Many scholars interpert these findings as evidence that democratic institutions deliver what they’re supposed to: mass public control over the general direction of national policymaking.

As scholars pointed out even at the time, it is a very conservative move to solve the problem of undemocratic realities by simply weakening the definition of democracy (Easton 1969; Walker 1966; Bachrach 1967). I’m interested in specifying and, in the future, measuring and testing two specific aspects of this politically and therefore scientifically problematic move.

1.) I hypothesize that a crucial unjustified problem at this moment in political science, a theoretical and empirical problem never yet adequately addressed and which bears extraordinary significance for true popular social change, is that what people express as their opinion is significantly determined by what the status quo institutions at that moment will permit. This is because in general, people do not express political demands for policy changes which they believe are impossible given the institutional landscape. Such an articulation is seen as stupid, naive, or simply meaningless, so individuals calculate and articulate their political desires in a way that effectively assumes the institutional status quo as given. In this way, discourse on the level of “public opinion” (e.g., asking people questions about what a current government should do) contains an “approval” of the status quo which is not real but is simply assumed into their answer by the nature of the question. Political science since this period essentially imputes to citizens a baseline level of “support” for a status quo which is really nothing more than their degree of capitulation to a status quo which (variably and contingently) presents itself as given and unmovable. These two components–sincere approval of the status quo and mere compliance with power (the very nature of which is to be taken as given)–have never been adequately disaggregated. Public opinion has only ever been, from its beginning, a measured aggregate response to questions which are generated in part by an unmeasured quantum of political force.

In this light, we might begin to hypothesize that political practices such as delegation, the proliferation of subnational and/or supranational bureacracies charged with certain policymaking imperatives and/or prohibitions, have more to do with public opinion than is typically thought. For instance, the European Commission was designed to be the “engine” of European integration precisely because it would be insulated from the snags of domestic resistances. We might hypothesize that the establishment of a bureaucratically insulated policymaking institution such as the EC (or any other sub- or supra-national institution which removes a portion of policymaking power from democratic control) lowers the salience of certain public opinion questions and/or decreases the tendency of citizens to articulate certain approvals or disapprovals. Political scientists such as Timothy Hellwig have shown that citizens do indeed discount their judgments of the political landscape based on exogenous changes such as economic globalization, but this logic ought to apply to any institutional change with any effect on what it is possible for certain actors to do or not do. Specifically, purposeful institutional innovations might have the effect of ameliorating citizens negative judgments of certain actors or other previously existing institutions, or perhaps they might diffuse blame across so many institutions that citizens no longer feel dissatisfied with any of them. More specifically in our example, the advent of the EC might weaken citizens’ negative judgments of domestic policymakers, if they believe domestic policymakers have a weaker institutional role in setting policy than before the advent of the EC.

Researchers will have to disaggregate these “authentic-individual” and “forced-institutional” components of public opinion data before we can take them seriously as reflections of genuine support or disapproval of the political status quo.

2.) Another extraordinary threat to this already conservative rationalization of contemporary public policymaking is the possibility that public opinion is itself determined by political and economic elites. For, of course, if changes in public opinion were found to be determined by status quo political factors not democratically determined (distinct from and in addition to the baseline bias caused by institutions, outlined above), then even robust correlations between aggregate public opinion and policymaking could no longer be taken seriously as evidence of democracy.

This is the claim of critics such as David Harvey. They point to the 1970s as a crucial period. The example of Lewis Powell’s memo to the US Chamber of Commerce (Harvey 2005, 43). The Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers began a significant and documented intensification of its spending, lobbying, and membership. The Business Roundtable is founded in 1972. Corporate interests start funding a large group of think-tanks and academic institutions as well. NBER is an example. The Trilateral commission in 1973, the report by political scientists called “The Crisis of Democracy.” Nozick, Milton Freedom on TV. Of course, this remains to be demonstrated very convincingly in the quantitative literature, but I should like to try.

But even the mainstream “public policy” literature testifies to the fact that “political marketing” has as much to do with selling political products, i.e. producing political ideas, as gauging what citizens demand (Lees-Marshment 2011, 9). They quite openly and uncontroversially use techniques of manipulation, taken from advertising and marketing. So it is hardly a fringe left-wing idea that public opinion is the object as much as it is the subject of policymakers.

Cite this post: RIS Citation BibTeX Entry

Murphy, Justin. 2014. "The link between public opinion and public policy," (April 24, 2017).