Tuesday, April 27, 2010Some people are confused that the Republicans would oppose financial reform when it polls in the 60% range and try to restrict abortion when 60% support Roe vs. Wade. There are a lot of instances of this, where parties push an agenda when the polls would suggest that the majority are against you. Now the obvious explanation would be that they are just supporting their base (big business and the religious right in these cases), and there's probably a great deal of truth to that. But there's more to it than that, and those who are confused are missing an important feature of public opinion by just focusing on the top-line polling reports. It's not just the question of the direction of opinion (are you for or against something), the salience of the issue matters as well. The fact is that Americans really don't pay that much attention to politics - they care if the economy is doing well and don't like scandals, but other than that they just don't care very much. So these polls are misleading in two respects: first, they are based on very limited public information, so the results can be massaged based on how one asks the question; and second - and this is the important point - if a political party defies public opinion they probably won't pay a political price for it. If there is a small number of people who will vote and contribute on an issue because they really care about it, and a larger number of people who hold the opposite opinion but don't think it's that big a deal, then from a cynical point of view it is more advantageous for a politician to do what the first group wants and gamble that the second group won't care enough to do anything about it. This is to say nothing about how easy it can be for the unscrupulous to manipulate public opinion.
And this is why we such a disconnect between public opinion and public policy, and why the system is so dominated by elites and so vulnerable to corruption. Political leaders can defy public opinion because they face an uninformed, disengaged electorate and can get away with it.