EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Overview

An abundance of polling data shows that the majority of Americans is quite dissatisfied with the American government. While this dissatisfaction has moderated a bit of late, it is still historically very high. Given that the US economy is sustaining an unprecedented boom, that the US prevailed in the Cold War, and that there are no longer any serious threats to American security, one might expect Americans to show higher levels of satisfaction. Nonetheless, as has been widely noted, less than a third of Americans say that they "trust the government in Washington to do what is right" most of the time—as compared to the 1960s, when three-quarters felt this way. Disenchantment with government has also contributed to declining voter turnout.

This dynamic raises fundamental questions. Why are Americans so dissatisfied with the government? Do they perceive that the government is not doing what is best for the interests of the public? Do they think that the government is not doing what the public wants? If so, what do they perceive as driving government decisions? What do they see as the antidote to the present situation?

Another recent issue that highlighted public dissatisfaction with the government was the impeachment of the President. With the exception of the final Senate vote against impeachment, virtually every step taken by Congress was opposed by a strong majority of Americans, and provoked widespread annoyance.

This brought to the surface fundamental questions about how the government should make decisions. Throughout the impeachment process numerous members of Congress asserted that their constituents wanted their member to vote according to his or her sense of what is right, not to follow the polls. But is this true? How much do Americans think elected officials should pay attention to majority opinion? What do they think about polls? Do Americans believe that there is some wisdom in public opinion, or do they perceive it as being too emotional, volatile and uninformed to offer a basis for decisionmaking?

Americans complain about how politicians are partisan and parochial. But do Americans really want elected officials to set aside their party agenda in favor of majority opinion? Do they really want elected officials to set aside the interests of their district in favor of the national interest?

To find how Americans feel about all of these issues, the Center on Policy Attitudes conducted an in-depth study that included:

• a review of existing polling data going back several decades;
• focus groups in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Baltimore, Maryland; and Roanoke, Virginia;
• a nationwide poll of a random sample of 1,204 respondents (margin of error 3-4%) conducted January 26-31, 1999 (results were weighted to be demographically representative).

The study also included an analysis of public attitudes on the specific case of the impeachment process, which is presented in Appendix A. A demographic analysis can be found in Appendix B, and the complete questionnaire and results of the COPA poll in Appendix C. Appendix D provides an explanation of how the poll was conducted.

Findings

1The public’s dissatisfaction with the US government is largely due to the perception that elected officials, acting in their self-interest, give priority to special interests and partisan agendas, over the interests of the public as a whole. Most Americans feel that they are marginalized from the decisionmaking process, that elected officials neither pay attention to nor understand the public, and that most of the decisions the government makes are not the decisions that the majority of Americans would make. (go to section 1)

2 To better serve the interests of the whole public, an overwhelming majority feels the majority public should have much more influence over government decisions. A strong majority expresses confidence in the public’s judgment, and says it would give more credence to the decisions of a random sample of Americans informed on all sides of an issue than to the decisions of Congress. (go to section 2)

3When elected officials make decisions, a strong majority feels that the views of the majority of the public should have more influence than the views of the official. At the same time, most Americans do feel that elected officials have an important role to play: that elected officials should not simply follow ill-informed majority opinion, but try to determine what the majority would favor if it had more complete information; and that elected officials should consult their own sense of what is right and, ideally, find policies that integrate their values as well as those of the majority. (go to section 3)

4 A strong majority feels that policymakers should pay close attention to polls when making public policy, even though many are uncertain about their accuracy. Consistent with this position, a majority thinks that policymakers should be more influenced by the views of the general majority than by the vocal public that actively calls or writes their representatives. (go to section 4)

5 The majority feels that members of Congress should make a conscious effort to look beyond the parochial interests of their district so as to find consensus and make decisions that are best for the nation as a whole. They reject the view that if members simply pursue the interests of their own district, the political system will be self-correcting and produce policies that serve the best interest of all. (go to section 5)

6Majority support exists for increasing the influence of the majority, even though the public as a whole underestimates the competence of the majority to make judgments on public policy. (go to section 6)

7An overwhelming majority believes that if the public gained more influence, this would counteract a perceived trend toward wealth concentrating in fewer hands, concurrent with the perceived increase in the influence of the wealthy.
(go to
section 7)

8 Though the public is quite critical of how the government in aggregate represents them, Americans are less apt to be so critical of their own representative. This may help explain why the public continues to reelect incumbents while still expressing such dissatisfaction with Congress. Apparently the public does not see the problem as lying in the individual member as much as with the political system. (go to section 8)

Reality Check: Does the Government Do What the Public Wants?

Conclusion

Appendix A: The Case of the Impeachment Process

Appendix B: Demographic Variations

Appendix C: Questionnaire

Appendix D: How the Study Was Conducted