By Benjamin Page & Robert Shapiro
The thesis of this book is that American public opinion is rational, and changes in reasonable ways, based on events and information. The authors use data from public surveys from 1935 to 1990 to show that public opinion tends to change very little over time, and when it does change, it changes in meaningful ways based on changing conditions, information, and events. The authors cover a wide variety of domestic and foreign policy issues, providing numerous examples of these rational changes in public opinion. They show that though different groups within America (by sex, race, religion, income, etc.) may have different views, in most cases, these groups change their views in parallel. They suggest that the primary causes of change are economic changes in society over time, events, and information. They warn that though some sources provide legitimate education for the public, it is also possible for the public to be mislead or manipulated, particularly when one group (such as the government) has a monopoly on information, and there are not many contradictory voices. They suggest that the best method for improving democracy would be to improve the system for providing information to the public.
1. Rational Public Opinion
This book shows that the American public, as a collectivity, holds a number of real, stable, and sensible opinions about public policy and that these opinions develop and change in a reasonable fashion, responding to changing circumstances and to new information. It bases these claims based on data from surveys of the public about policy preferences from 1935 to 1990.
The Uniformed Citizen/ Early Survey Evidence/ The Extent of Public Knowledge
Conventional wisdom and some early survey work suggested that public opinion was not rational or stable. Even Madison and others argued in the Federalist Papers that the government needed to be insulated from the “temporary errors and delusions” of the public. Early survey data tended to reinforce this claim. Surveys showed that individuals seemed to change their answers, and did not provide reliable, predictable answers on one survey to the next. This was taken as evidence of “nonattitudes” and lack of understanding of public policy. Further, studies showed that the public lacked significant knowledge about politics. Only 52% of American adults knew there were two U.S. senators from their state, and only 23% knew the SALT talks involved the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
Shapiro and Page argue that these early studies of public opinion were faulty. First, early surveys didn’t take into account the effects of measurement errors and changes in question wording, which explains some of the variance in individual responses. Also, even if individuals are not well informed about political trivia, this will not prevent them from having real and rational opinions on public policy issues.
From Individual Ignorance to Collective Wisdom
Individuals all have fundamental needs and values that are enduring. They also have uncertain beliefs about how public policies relate to these needs and values. Finally, they collect incomplete fragments of information that help them create the beliefs about how public policies relate to their needs and values. If this model is correct, it suggests that additional information will affect these beliefs and peoples policy preferences will change. Changes in opinion based on new information may look like “nonattitudes,” but over long periods, an individual’s average opinions would reflect their underlying needs and values.
Collective public policy preferences are created by aggregating individual preferences. Therefore, even if there are random deviations from preferences, these will cancel out in a large sample, and the true, long-term of opinions of individuals will be reflected. Even if individual opinions are ill-informed, shallow, and fluctuating, collective opinion can be real, highly stable, and based on all available information.
Another idea that supports this conclusion is the Condorcet jury theorem. This theorem shows that if a number of individuals independently try to answer a question of fact, and if each has the same fairly good (more than 50/50) chance of being correct, then a collective decision by majority vote will have a much higher probability of being correct. This suggests that the public as a whole will have a high probability of correctly reflecting the interests of the majority.
2. The Myth of Capricious Change
To answer questions about public opinion, the authors gathered aggregate data from all available national surveys on public policy preferences that took place between 1935 and 1990. These included 1,128 survey questions asked with identical wording at two or more points in time. In examining public opinion change, they have considered any change of more than 6 percentage points statistically significant.
The first finding was that more than half (58%) of the 1,128 repeated policy questions showed no significant opinion change at all, with domestic policy was slightly more stable than foreign policy. This helps provide support for the theory that public opinion is stable, not wildly changing. Even in the 556 instances where changes were detected, most changes were only 6-7% in magnitude. Only 13% of the 556 instances of significant change involved changes of 20% or more. These large changes usually occurred gradually over long time periods, and were primarily related to issues of civil liberties, abortion, and other social issues.
Abrupt Changes in Preferences
Abrupt changes in policy preferences are defined as a change in the rate of 10% or more in one year. This type of change occurred in 41% of the 556 instances of change. Abrupt changes were much more likely in foreign policy (31%) than domestic policy (12%). This is probably because circumstances change more quickly in international affairs. These abrupt changes are often not very large, and do not represent violent movement of opinion. The largest changes can be seen as a reasonable response to changing conditions. The number of people wanted to reduce military effort in the Vietnam War went up significantly after the Tet offensive (a successful North Korea attack).
Fluctuations in Preferences
Fluctuations in public opinion were defined as two or more significant changes in opposite directions within two years, or three or more changes within four years. Only 18% of the 173 questions that were asked frequently enough to detect fluctuations actually showed fluctuation. Often these were in response to “shifting referents” where the question wording remained the same, but the reality was changing. For example, asking whether taxes are “too high” when the actual tax rate is changing over time.
Gradual Shifts of Opinion
More than half (59%) of the 556 instances of change were neither abrupt nor fluctuations, and instead represented gradual shifts of opinion. This also helps to support the theory that public opinion does not fluctuate wildly.
3. Opinions about Social Issues
Though the statistics about the stability of public opinion support the argument that public opinion is rational, to show that this is truly the case, it is necessary to look at instances where public policy changed (or stayed the same) and see if these changes were reasonable given the circumstances. Chapters three and four of the book examine a large number of specific domestic issues, matching data on public opinion trends with the current events at the time. Chapter three examines social issues including: civil rights and racial equality, civil liberties, crime, punishment, and gun control, capital punishment, women’s and minorities’ rights, birth control, abortion, life-styles, and traditional values. Authors find some of the largest public opinion changes they found were on issues of social policy, such as civil rights, which gradually increased a great deal from 1935 to 1990. These changes cannot be explained by any particular event or set of events. Instead, the authors suggest that these changes are part of a larger global trend towards toleration and liberalization. Data on social issues also show that the public is able to make distinctions among alternative policies, and that the types of changes that occur are reasonable.
4. Economic Welfare
In chapter four, the specific issues examined include: social security, employment, income maintenance, redistribution, medical care, education, cities and race, labor-management relations, strikes, economic regulation, private property and capitalism, inflation and price controls, balanced budget, energy, nuclear power, the environment, health, safety, deregulation, re-regulation, progressive taxation, and other domestic issues. The opinion changes on economic issues are smaller than those found in social issues. It is found that opinions about employment, inflation, taxes, and other issues vary according to actual changes in prices, unemployment, and tax rates. This helps to prove that public opinion reacts rationally to changes in conditions. American public opinion displays a support for individualism as well as a limited, but still substantial, welfare state. Americans support government action on education, jobs, and medical care, and show a willingness to pay taxes for these purposes (though they tend to think taxes are too high, in general). These differences help to show that public opinion reflects important distinctions among policies based on basic values.
An example of misleading information is shown in the example of nuclear energy, where most information came directly from government officials. People were not aware of the dangers and full costs of the new technology. Opinions on this issue changed abruptly after the Three Mile Island incident. However, when multiple sources of information exist, Americans are able to judge what is in their interest.
5. Foreign Policy: World War II and the Cold War & 6. Vietnam Détente, and the New Cold War
Chapters 5 and 6 cover foreign policy, primarily in chronological order. Chapter 5 discusses isolationism and internationalism, party leadership, Hitler’s Germany and World War II, President Roosevelt’s Role, Wartime and Postwar Opinion, the Soviet Union and the Early Cold War, the Korean War, and the United Nations. Chapter 6 covers the Peaceful Eisenhower Decade, the Vietnam War, the Gulf of Tonkin and Escalation, Vietnam Disillusionment, Vietnam Withdrawal, Effects of Vietnam, China, the Middle East, the 1982 Lebanon Invasion, Détente, a New Cold War, Iran and Afghanistan, Central America, and Renewed Détente.
By comparing changes in public policy with actual historic events, the authors show that Americans are able to make distinctions among alternative policies. For example, depending on current conditions, they may favor sending arms rather than American troops. In general, opinions on foreign policy are stable, with changes caused by events and new information. Hitler’s conquests in Europe led to increased support for sending aid to allies. The outbreak of the Korean war increased support for military spending. While the authors recognize that not every citizen receives all information, individuals form an opinion based on partial information, cue-taking, and debating, creating a rational collective public opinion.
Foreign policy provides more examples of the public being misled or manipulated. Because foreign policy information tends to be highly centralized (with the government releasing facts, rather than a wide variety of sources or contradicting voices), it is easier for this manipulation to occur. The public can only form opinions based on the relevant information. Also, it is possible for the government to manipulate or cause events on its own (provoking the attack at Tonkin, for example), which is another method of manipulation. In some instances, however, attempts at manipulation do not succeed, such as Reagan’s efforts to get the public to support Nicaraguan “freedom fighters.”
7. Parallel Politics
Though this book focuses on collective public opinion, it is important to recognize that different groups within the United States (defined by age, sex, religion, etc.) often have different opinions. However, examining survey response from different groups, we find that though they do have different opinions, opinion change almost always occurs in parallel. The chapter looks in detail at the difference in opinion and the difference in opinion change among groups including: men and women, blacks and whites, income groups, young and old, Catholics, Jews, and Protestants, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, Northerners and Southerners, City and Country Dwellers, and the Schooled and Unschooled.
Often they find significant differences in policy preferences among these groups. This reflects the fact that the U.S. is a pluralistic nation with many distinct groupings, and public opinion is not uniform across groups. For example, women tend to be less supportive of the use of force and more supportive of social welfare programs than men. However, most of the time, the policy preferences of different subgroups changed in the same ways – the trend lines were mostly parallel. When trends are not parallel, this is often due to convergence of opinions. For example, over time the opinions of Southerners tended to converge with those of Northerners in support of civil rights. An exception is seen in the opinion changes among partisan groups, which do tend to diverge with relation to actions by political leadership. The phenomenon of parallel public reflects the stability of public opinion. The lack of divergences in opinion shows that policy preferences seem to be formed not just on self interest, but on the public good and the national interest.
8. The Causes of Collective Opinion Change
Now that we understand that public opinion often moves in parallel, we can search for the overall causes of these changes. Examination of the trends and historical events show that public opinion has generally shifted in comprehensible ways, not wildly or randomly. Events tend to be one of the major causes of change, but it is also very important how the events are interpreted and shown by the media. Gradual changes are hard to explain, since they do not reflect clear reactions to individual events. Instead it is likely economic growth and accompanying changes in society that have been a fundamental cause of some of the slow changes in American public opinion. These include industrialization, the shift from farming to industry to service, the migration from rural areas to cities and then to suburbs, increased income, increased leisure time, increased consumption, and increased education. Further, increased travel and communication made possible by technology has exposed Americans to more diverse people and ideas.
The media plays a particularly important role in influencing opinion. The authors found that news commentary often has a dramatic positive impact on opinion, possibly because they are held in high esteem. It may also be possible that the commentators are simply reflecting a more general bias in TV coverage of an issue. Experts are also able to have a large positive impact, likely because they are seen as impartial and credible. Presidents have a relatively small impact on public opinion, though popular presidents have nearly twice the effect of as the unpopular. Interest groups often have a negative effect on public opinion. For example, protesters often lead the public to provide more support to the thing they are protesting against.
The authors suggest that public opinion changes based on complex web of information flow among: World and national events, interpretations by experts, commentators, and officials, mass media reports, policy actions, gradual social and economic trends, organized interests, corporations, and social movements.
9. Education and Manipulation of Public Opinion
A central point that the authors make is that the public can only base their opinions on the information that is available. Opinions will be based on education or on manipulation. If public system is often or easily manipulated, then it doesn’t make sense for government to rule based on public opinion. However, though manipulation does occur, the authors don’t believe that this is always the case.
To understand how the public forms opinions, we must use clear definitions of education, misleading information, and manipulation. Individuals or institutions that influence public opinion by providing correct, helpful political information can be said to educate the public. Those who influence public opinion by providing incorrect, biased, or selective information, or erroneous interpretations, may be said to mislead the public. If government officials or others mislead the public consciously and deliberately, by means of lies, falsehoods, deception, or concealment, we say they manipulate the public – implies conscious, intentional human action.
Educating the Public
The public can get education from a number of sources. Formal schooling teaches many citizens about politics and policies, but it falls short in teaching Americans about geography, world history, and some other relevant issues. Experts can also play an important role in educating the public by providing accurate and useful information. People like Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader may play this role. Politicians may be thought to educate the public, but often they provide only symbolic arguments and not facts or information that truly educate. Social movements can draw attention to problems, corporations can fund research, and direct experience among citizens can inform opinion.
A particularly important source of information and public education comes through collective deliberation. The deliberative process in the United States is highly decentralized and does include omni-competent citizens. Instead, researchers apply their knowledge to relevant policy issues. Experts, analysts and commentators examine and test the results. The media and others report on these findings. This allows the public to become more than the sum of its parts, in keeping with philosophical ideals such as those expressed by Dahl and Dewey.
Misleading and Manipulating the Public
It is also possible for the public to be mislead or manipulated. This can occur if those in power manipulate the agenda, so the issues the public learns about are limited. Studies show that the amount of media coverage given to a particular issue effects how important the public believes the issue to be. Foreign policy provides more opportunities for misleading and manipulating the public. The “missile gap,” the Gulf of Tonkin events, the conduct of the Vietnam War, and the Soviet Scare of the 1970s are all events in which the president and other officials mislead or manipulated the public by not provided full information. Also, covert operations, by nature, mislead the public. Manipulation of domestic public policy is less common, but is possible, as in the case of nuclear energy, as discussed earlier.
The authors suggest that a pattern of misleading or biased information can be detected in the United States over time. These include a nationalist and ethnocentric bias (Americans focus more on the U.S. and Europe than on problems in Asia and Africa), anti-communist bias, pro-capitalist bias (taught in schools, by industry), minimal government bias (government is seen as wasteful), pro-incumbent and pro-status quo bias, and partisan bias (the party that holds power in Washington can shape the debate.)
10. Democracy, Information, and the Rational Public
The Political Capacity of the Public
1. American’s collective policy preferences are real, knowable, differentiated, patterned, and coherent.
2. Collective policy preferences are generally stable; they change in understandable, predictable ways.
3. Citizens are not incapable of knowing their own interest or the public good.
4. The public generally reacts to new situations and new information in sensible, reasonable ways. (Note that this refers to something more than the “predictable,” “understandable” responses of proposition 2.)
5. Collective deliberation often works well.
6. Political education in the United States could be improved.
7. Lack of available information may permit government non-responsiveness to public opinion.
8. Elites sometimes mislead the public or manipulate its policy preferences.
9. The “marketplace of ideas” cannot always be counted upon to reveal political truth.
Improving American Democracy
In conclusion, the authors argue that if democracy is not working, it cannot be blamed on the public. Politicians should pay attention to polls and public opinion. The chief focus for improvement should be on the political information system. We should improve public education, both experience and information, for citizens.
They close with a quote from Thomas Jefferson (in an 1820 letter to William Jarvis): “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their own control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion by education.”