Does the Government Do What
the Public Wants?
Several academic studies show that,
consistent with public perceptions, the correspondence between government
decisions and public opinion as expressed in national polls has diminished
over the last decades and now stands at slightly more than chance. A
study by Benjamin Page and Robert Shapiro for the years 1935-79 found
a correspondence of 66%. Analyzing just the years 1960-1979, Alan Monroe
found a 63% correspondence. Finally, for the most recent period--1980-1993--Monroe
found only 55% correspondence. Since these were binary choices--either
for or against a government decision--55% is only slightly above chance.
Thus public attitudes appear to have very little influence.
Do Government Officials Understand
and Respect the Public?
Several recent studies that included
interviews with policymakers found substantial misperceptions of the
public, and also a low level of confidence in the public's competence
on public policy issues.
In a new book, Misreading the
Public: The Myth of a New Isolationism (Brookings, 1999) Steven
Kull and I.M. Destler report on an extensive study conducted jointly
by COPA and the Center for International and Security Studies at the
University of Maryland (CISSM). Interviews with members of Congress,
their staffers, and executive branch officials revealed a widespread
view that the public was going through a new phase of isolationism that
included disliking the United Nations and intrinsically opposing foreign
aid. A comprehensive review of existing polls, as well as new polls,
strongly contradicted this perception. Government officials who had
such beliefs were also given the opportunity to propose new poll questions
to elicit the assumed isolationist attitudes: even then the subsequent
poll results were contrary to their assumptions.
In a study released in April 1998,
Pew Research Center conducted interviews with members of Congress, presidential
appointees, and senior civil servants. Using parallel questions in the
elite interviews and in public polls, the study found that government
officials assumed the majority was opposed to an activist government,
while the poll results were to the contrary.
A low level of confidence in the public
has also been found among policymakers. In the above-mentioned Pew study,
when asked "Do you think the American public knows enough about
the issues you face to form wise opinions about what should be done
about these issues, or not?", only 31% of the members of Congress,
13% of the Presidential appointees and 14% of the senior civil servants
endorsed the public's ability. In a 1996 survey of 2,141 American opinion
leaders sponsored by Duke and George Washington Universities, 71% agreed
that "Public opinion is too short-sighted and emotional to provide
sound guidance on foreign policy." And in the above-mentioned study
by COPA and CISSM, numerous interviewees made comments such as the following
by a member of Congress:
Interviewer: Do you [think]...that
the actions that Congress takes are pretty much in line with where
the public is...?
Member:... No, they probably are
not, I'm not sure they should be in line. I mean, I think, hopefully
we have more information, and we move with a little less emotion and
a little more thought behind the actions we take.