Reality Check

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.