5 The majority feels that members of Congress should make a conscious effort to look beyond the parochial interests of their district in order 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.

As discussed above, many Americans complain that members of Congress often do not make decisions that serve the interest of the nation as a whole. But in many cases, such decisions are the outcome of members pursuing the parochial interests of their own districts. While Americans may complain about the aggregate outcome of such decisions, are they really ready to favor having their member set aside these parochial interests in favor of the collective interest?

Some would argue that it is an appropriate role for a member of Congress to pursue his or her district’s interests, and that the democratic process itself will sort out what is best for the nation as a whole. Most respondents, however, rejected this argument. Instead, the majority (67%) favor a consensus-building approach that involves conscious efforts to think about what is best for the country.

The question of national and parochial interests was discussed in the focus groups. A man stated:

I would hope that I would be of enough character that ... if the good of the state or the region that I represent is going to harm the rest of the country, that I would have enough courage to vote [according to what’s best for the country] ... Because [otherwise] it’s going to harm the whole.

A woman joined in:

I think that being a good politician is being able to think and see things more globally, looking at the whole picture, because your decision is going to affect everyone—not just one little group.

When asked directly in polls, a majority also endorses the principle that members of Congress should think in terms of the country as a whole. In the current poll COPA asked, "Do you think your own representative in Congress should be more interested in doing what’s best for the country, or what’s best for your congressional district?" Just 38% said the representative should do what’s best for the district, while 52% said "what’s best for the country." When ABC asked the same question in September 1994, support for focusing on what’s best for the country was even higher—63% (best for district: 33%).

Similarly, in a 1992 University of Nebraska study, 85% agreed that "members of Congress should do what is best for the entire country, not just their district." To make the question a bit more challenging, the study also asked, "To help balance the budget, would you encourage your representative to quit trying to bring federal projects back to your district, even if other representatives around the country did not quit?" Fifty-five percent said yes. Asked to rank functions of members of Congress by their importance, bringing money or projects back to the district was ranked lowest.

Most respondents in the current poll claimed that they think more in terms of the country as a whole in making their own electoral decisions. Repeating a question from an October 1994 CBS News poll, COPA asked, "What is more important when you vote for Congress—how things are going in the country overall, or how things are going in your own district?" Just 37% said the district (26% in 1994), while 59% said the country as a whole (66% in 1994).

Americans also express support for officials who are willing to make compromises. A November 1997 Pew Center poll found 78% said they "like political leaders who are willing to make compromises in order to get the job done." The percentage saying that they feel this way "completely" is also up significantly since 1987 -from 16% to 32%. Interestingly, respondents under 30 were also more likely to say they feel this way completely (46%) than those over 50 (26%). In a September 1994 ABC News poll, 68% said that "a major reason Congress doesn’t get more done" was "Congress members ... not [being] willing enough to compromise. "

6 Majority 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.

Majority support for increasing the influence of the public is not derived from idealized estimations of its competence to make judgments. In fact, the public as a whole underestimates the competence of the majority.

To explore the public’s appraisal of the public, poll questions were designed that used the respondents’ assessment of their own competence as a reference point. Respondents were asked, "Compared to the average American, would you say you are more able or less able to make reasonable judgments about national issues?" Given that this was a representative sample, if the public was perceiving itself correctly, the percentage of respondents saying that they were more competent and the number saying they were less competent than average would be equal. In fact, by a nearly three-to-one ratio, more respondents said they were more competent than average. This suggests that the public as a whole underestimates the competence of the majority public.

The same dynamic occurs on the related question of how closely Americans follow current national affairs. Asked, "Would you say you follow what’s going on in government and public affairs more closely or less closely than the average American?", 57% said more and 25% said less. (In March 1997, Roper asked in a related question, "In terms of how most Americans act," how good a job "we as a society are now doing" on "keeping fully informed about news and public issues." Only 26% thought Americans were doing an excellent or good job, while 70% thought Americans were doing a fair or poor job.)

This dynamic has been explored in various studies that have found, for example, that the public tends to underestimate how free the public is from racism and sexism. Earlier COPA studies have revealed that the public tends to underestimate how willing the average American is to contribute to UN peacekeeping and to take steps to ameliorate global warming.

7 An 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.

In the focus groups, the dominant explanation for why the public is being marginalized from government decisionmaking was that "money" is gaining an increasingly disproportionate influence. In a February 1997 Hart and Teeter poll, 66% said that a very (36%) or fairly (30%) major cause of reduced public confidence was "the government doing too much for the wealthy instead of average people."

In the current poll, a very strong majority expressed the view that the wealthy and corporations are gaining increasing influence. Asked "Over the last ten years, would you say that, overall, the wealthy have gained influence or lost influence on the US government?", 69% said that the wealthy have gained influence. Similarly, in a different half-sample, 67% felt that that corporations had gained influence. According to a February 1999 Louis Harris poll, 82% feel that "big companies ... have too much power and influence in Washington."

An even stronger majority perceived that wealth is concentrating in fewer hands — presumably due at least in part to the wealthy’s increasing influence. Three-quarters said the rich are getting an increasing share. (See box on next page.) Similarly, in a December 1998 Harris poll, 72% said they feel that "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer" (only 28% said they did not feel this way). Here again, in 1966 the view was quite different—only 45% believed the rich were getting richer.

Perhaps most significant, in the current poll a very strong majority expressed the belief that if the American public had more influence it would have a positive effect on their economic position—presumably countering the influence of the wealthy.

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.

Naturally, a key question arises: Why, if Americans are dissatisfied with how the government represents them, do they elect and then reelect their members of Congress? One possible explanation may be that, though they perceive a problem with the aggregate behavior of Congress, they are less apt to see this problem in the behavior of their own member.

Numerous polls have found that respondents give substantially higher approval ratings to their own members than to Congress as a whole. For example, the November 1998 NES asked about approval of Congress, and then asked about approval of the respondent’s representative in all districts where the incumbent was running for re-election. Forty-seven percent approved, and 45% disapproved, "of the way the US Congress has been handling its job." But 62% approved and only 14% disapproved of the way their own representative had been handling his or her job—a difference of 16 points between the approval of Congress and their own representative.

Americans tend to rate their own member as more responsive to the views of the majority. In the current poll, as mentioned above, when respondents were asked to rate on a 0-to-10 scale how much influence the majority’s views have on "the decisions of elected officials in Washington," the average response was 4.6. However, majority influence on "your own member" received an average response of 5.4. Fifty percent rated their own member as more responsive than elected officials in general, while only 22% rated their members as less responsive (same: 29%). Congress itself was given an average rating of 4.8, with 44% rating their representative as more responsive, and 18% as less (same 39%).

Americans tend to view their own member as less responsive to special interests than most members of Congress. When an October 1998 CBS/New York Times poll asked, "Do you think most members of Congress are more interested in helping the people they represent, or more interested in helping special interest groups?", a strong majority of 62% said that most members favor special interest groups, while 25% said the people they represent. Asked, "Do you think your own representative in Congress is more interested in helping the people he or she represents, or more interested in helping special interest groups?", a bare plurality of 42% said that he or she favored the people, while just 40% said he or she favored special interests—22% less than for Congress. When CNN/USA Today asked similar questions in 1994 it found a 16% difference.

Americans tend to view their own representative as less parochial than the prevailing norm in Congress. In the current poll, a very strong majority of 71% said that most members were more interested in doing what is best for their district, while only 19% thought they were more interested in doing what is best for the country. However, when asked about their own representative, a much lower percent saw such parochialism. A 48% plurality thought their member was more interested in doing what is best for the district—23% less than for most members—while 33% thought their member was more interested in what is best for the country. When ABC asked the same set of questions in September 1994, it also found a 20-point spread between Congress and one’s own representative.

Comments in the focus groups also suggest that Americans see the problem with the government as being a function of the system as a whole, rather than with individuals. A man elaborated this idea:

The underlying fact is, the people who control the government with all the money are still there—I don’t care who’s in office. And you may think you’re going in with all of these lofty ideas and, you know, hurrah, I’m going to be the leader. And when you get there, you know, the underlying factors quickly let you know this is the way it’s going to be, no matter who you are, no matter what changes you’re going to try to make or want to make, and you better settle into that idea quickly ... [because that’s] the political wheel, how it works.

Finally, it may also be that Americans do not hold their representative accountable because they have little knowledge of how their representative votes. When the November 1998 NES asked, "How often has Representative [name] supported President Clinton’s legislative proposals—more than half the time, half, less than half the time, or are you not sure?", only 21% could give any kind of answer, while 68% said they were not sure.


The findings of this study point to a fairly clear answer to the question of why the public continues to be so dissatisfied with the government, despite the good economy and the absence of any significant threats to the US. The answer Americans give is that they do not believe the decisions made by the US government are pareto-optimal—i.e. they are not prompted by what is best for the public as a whole. As E.J. Dionne wrote "Americans hate politics as it is now practiced because we have lost all sense of the public good."3

Americans perceive that government decisions are driven by the self-interests of elected officials and political parties which respond disproportionately to those parts of the public with the financial means to gain influence, primarily through making campaign contributions. Most Americans do not feel that they are part of those sectors of the public to which elected officials pay attention, and these feelings of marginalization are historically quite high. Even more dramatic, most Americans believe that most of the decisions the government makes are not the decisions that the majority would make.

To offset these influences, an overwhelming majority believes that the views of the majority should have much greater influence over government decisionmaking. A strong majority expresses more confidence in the public’s judgment than in the judgment of Congress, despite the fact that there is substantial evidence that the public underestimates itself. Notwithstanding widespread doubts about the reliability of polls, a strong majority feels that policymakers should pay close attention to polls.

Asked to choose between the model of elected officials as trustees who act on their own sense of what is best or delegates who follow the public’s views the public clearly favors the delegate model. This does not mean that the public wants policymakers to abdicate their role in the policymaking process. The majority does think that policymakers should consult their own sense of what is right, and the public recognizes that policymakers have essential information on some issues that the public does not have. But this does not mean that the public is ready to sign a blank check whenever policymakers can claim that there is specialized information involved in a policy issue. Policymakers are expected to try to determine what the majority would do if they had the information that policymakers have. Essentially the public would like to see policymakers internalize the public’s values in their decisionmaking process—to consult their own sense of what is right, but ultimately give precedence to the views of the majority.

So why do Americans favor a greater role for majority opinion? Clearly, Americans have been taught that the democratic process is more likely to produce outcomes that are fairer and more protective of the rights of the people. Their biggest complaint about the US government is that the disproportionate influence of special interests creates unfair outcomes at the expense of the majority.

But Americans’ support for majority influence is also derived from a more complex belief. They believe that such influence produces a fairer distribution of resources. There is also a belief that a decisionmaking process shaped by the majority produces greater resources. The disproportionate influence of special interests is seen as creating distortions in the collective decisionmaking process that leads to suboptimal outcomes. Americans have seen nondemocratic countries economically underperform democratic countries—the most notable case being the economic failure of the Soviet Union. Americans doubtless see a relationship between the widespread government corruption of developing countries and their poor economic performance. The uneasiness about the influence of special interests in the US is probably rooted in a fear that it too is a form of corruption that can grow like a cancer and potentially choke off the vitality of the US economy, as well as contribute to a maldistribution of resources.

American culture has also been significantly influenced by the belief that decentralized markets have a certain self-regulating wisdom. Again, seeing the failure of the centralized planning approach of the Soviet Union augmented an already-existing suspicion of the idea that the elite knows best. Support for the influence of the broader public is enhanced by the belief that markets tend to become most efficient when they are not centrally controlled, but are driven by the judgments of all participants, be they consumers or investors, be they large or small.

Confidence in the judgment of the public extends to other areas as well. For example, if charged with a crime most Americans would prefer to put their fate in the hands of twelve ordinary citizens than in the hands of a judge, despite the judge’s years of experience in jurisprudence.

The public’s higher confidence in the public than in the elite is reflected in the response to a quotation presented to respondents in an October 1992 poll for the National Cultural Alliance: "Democracy cannot be served by supermen, but only by the unwavering devotion and goodness of millions of little men." Eighty-three percent agreed with this statement.

In summary, the idea that Americans evaluate government purely in terms of how well it gratifies their needs is too narrow. Americans also think in terms of whether the government decisionmaking process is legitimate in the sense that all citizens have an equal capacity to influence the government, whether the decisions made are the decisions that the majority would make, and whether the decisions made serve the interests of the public as a whole. Despite the extent to which the US government arguably gratifies the public’s needs, an overwhelming majority believes that the government is falling short in these other, more subtle dimensions, and that the antidote to this shortfall is for the values and sensibilities of the public to have more influence.

Appendix A: The Case of the Impeachment Process

Appendix B: Demographic Variations

Appendix C: Questionnaire

Appendix D: How the Study Was Conducted