Vox Populi: Public opinion and the democratic dilemma

Kay Lehman Schlozman
Kay Lehman Schlozman J. Joseph Moakley Endowed Professor of Political Science - Boston College

June 1, 2003

“Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted. . . . The governor again said to them, ‘Which of the two do you want me to release for you?’ And they said, ‘Barabbas.’ Pilate said to them, ‘Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?’ They all said, ‘Let him be crucified.’ And he said, ‘Why what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Let him be crucified.’ So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd . . . Then he released for them Barabbas and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.”

Thus, Matthew’s dramatic rendering of Pilate’s accession to the demand of the crowd for the crucifixion of Jesus raises the fundamental dilemma of democratic governance: the relative claims of the wishes of the public and the wisdom of public officials in making policy. That is, what is the appropriate balance between the preferences of citizens and the considered judgment of policymakers?

Some four centuries earlier the same issue had arisen in a society with a more democratic tradition, ancient Athens, and the people had ruled, if less passionately, similarly unwisely. With Athens recovering from a protracted war and experiencing some political turmoil, Socrates stood accused of introducing novel religious practices and corrupting the young. He chose trial rather than voluntary self-exile. As reported by Plato, Socrates was, despite an eloquent self-defense, found guilty by a jury of 500 citizens and sentenced to die. Although his friends contrived for him to escape from prison, he opted to remain in chains, arguing that while he believed himself innocent, he did not wish to violate a lawful process. Eventually Socrates drank the hemlock.

That we can attribute the condemnation of two men who influenced so profoundly the course of Western civilization to the myopia and suggestibility of ordinary citizens acting collectively might lead us to be skeptical of the capacity of the people for self-government and to infer that we should trust instead in the wisdom of their leaders.

Before writing off the public, however, we should recall that the history of the ancients does not always cast such doubt on the decisions of ordinary people. As related by Thucydides in “The Debate on Mytilene,” the Athenians demonstrated superior judgment in their deliberation about the fate of Mytilene, a city on the island of Lesbos that had broken ranks with Athens to join forces with Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. The angry Athenians first made a hasty and unprecedented decision to put to death not only the captured Mytilenian rebels who had incited the revolt but the city’s entire adult male population. After dispatching a trireme with the news, however, the Athenians had second thoughts and, following a debate of considerable elevation, rejected a demagogic appeal by Cleon and reversed their original cruel decision. Furthermore, the trials of Jesus and Socrates contain their own ambiguities. Pilate, as the Roman procurator of Judea, did not owe his tenure in office to the potentially unruly crowd to which he deferred and presumably enjoyed considerable autonomy. And the prosecution of Socrates was instigated not by the citizens of Athens but by Anytus, one of the leaders of the restored Athenian democracy, who persuaded the young Meletus to bring the charges.

It All Depends

Given the wealth of examples—ranging from scandalous disregard for democratic process by the Nixon administration during Watergate to the something-for-nothing tax aversion of the public—of venality, shortsightedness, opportunism, and ignorance on the part of both the American people and their democratic leaders, it is not surprising that our political rhetoric displays considerable ambivalence about the dilemma of public opinion and democratic governance. When political leaders alter their stated positions to correspond to the expressed preferences of constituents, are they being responsive or pandering? Is finding the middle ground compromise or selling out? Are public officials who stake out a position at variance with the popular will and then seek to bring the public behind them demonstrating leadership or a stubborn refusal to listen to the people? Are they educating or propagandizing the citizenry?

Our answers inevitably depend on whose ox is being gored. How we evaluate the politician who sails against the wind of public opinion depends on whether he is Winston Churchill delivering Cassandra—like warnings against the German threat on the eve of World War II or Slobodan Milosevic fomenting ethnic hostility and leading the Serbs into war. Similarly, how we respond to the politician who heeds public reactions depends on whether he is Franklin Roosevelt dropping his unpopular Supreme Court-packing plan or George Wallace attributing his loss in Alabama’s 1958 runoff gubernatorial primary to having been “out-segged” by his Klan-backed opponent and vowing never to let it happen again. Churchill was a leader; Milosevic, a demagogue. Roosevelt was responsive; Wallace pandered.

What Do the People Say?

As might be expected, this ambivalence is reflected in what the public says about how the democratic process ought to work. The July-August 2002 issue of Public Perspective reports the results of a survey conducted early in 2001 in collaboration with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation that might suggest that the public comes down overwhelmingly on the side of an “instructed-delegate” version of democracy. Asked “[H]ow much influence do you think the views of the majority of Americans should have on the decisions of elected and government officials in Washington?” fully 68 percent of respondents replied “a great deal,” and another 26 percent said “a fair amount.” When the question was rephrased and an alternative suggested, however, the consensus evaporated. Forty-two percent believed that elected and government officials should “use their knowledge and judgment to make decisions about what is the best policy to pursue even if this goes against what the majority of the public wants.” Fifty-four percent believed that officials should “follow what the majority of the public wants, even if it goes against the officials’ knowledge and judgment.” When the question was further qualified, the commitment to majoritarian democracy eroded yet again. Reminded that “at times in the past, the majority of Americans have held positions later judged to be wrong, such as their support of racial segregation of blacks and whites,” 40 percent opined that “officials in Washington should do what the majority wants because the majority is usually right,” while 51 percent replied that “officials [should] rely on their knowledge and judgment when they think the majority is wrong.” Just to muddy the waters further, 23 percent of respondents agreed strongly that “elected officials consult polls because they believe the public should have a say in what government does,” and 58 percent agreed strongly that “the main reason officials consult polls is because they want to stay popular and get re-elected.” Although these two findings were presented under the heading “Cynicism,” it could be easily argued that both represent forms of democratic responsiveness.

The emergence and refinement of the public opinion poll would seem to give the contemporary political leader who wishes to be responsive an important edge over such historical counterparts as the Ottoman Sultans, said to have disguised themselves to go out among their people, or George Washington, who would occasionally get on his horse to make soundings among the citizenry. Nevertheless, the Public Perspective survey suggests that the public has, at best, mixed views about opinion polls. On one hand, 76 percent of respondents indicated that polls are very or somewhat useful “for elected and government officials to understand how the public feels about important issues.” And 83 percent agreed strongly or somewhat that “public opinion polling is far from perfect, but it is one of the best means for communicating what the public is thinking.” On the other hand, 53 percent believed that opinion polls “accurately reflect what the public thinks” only some of the time and another 11 percent, that they hardly ever do. Moreover, 80 percent agreed strongly or somewhat that “the questions asked in polls don’t give people the opportunity to say what they really think about an issue.” Asked to choose among a variety of alternatives, only 25 percent selected public opinion polls as “the best way for officials to learn what the majority of people think about important issues,” compared with 43 percent who chose town hall meetings.

The public’s lukewarm view of polls also emerges from the answers to a battery of eight items in the Public Perspective survey about the information sources to which public officials should pay attention when making decisions about important issues. Thirty-eight percent of respondents thought officials should pay a great deal of attention to public opinion polls. Coming in first—ahead not only of public opinion polls but also of journalists, lobbyists, campaign contributors, and officials’ own conscience or judgment—were “members of the public who contact them about the issue.” Of those surveyed, 58 percent said that public officials should pay a great deal of attention (and 32 percent, a fair amount of attention) to people who get in touch with them, a finding that raises another aspect of the democratic dilemma. It is well known that those who contact a public official are unlikely to represent a random sample of public opinion about the matter. They are, among other things, more likely to care intensely and to have relatively extreme views. To pay them special heed would be, in many cases, to oppose the preferences of the majority.

The relative weight to be given to the views of a rather indifferent majority—as opposed to the views of a minority deeply concerned about a policy controversy—is a puzzle of long standing in democratic theory. The Framers of the Constitution showed considerable solicitude for minority viewpoints, and concern about the dangers of a majority faction informs Madison’s Federalist No. 10. Once again, however, it matters whose ox is being gored. Many people will urge deference to the wishes of either the intense minority that opposes handgun control or the intense minority that opposes school prayer, but not to both. In environmental conflicts, I have differing amounts of sympathy for various intensely concerned interests: the Midwestern utilities whose pollutants result in the acid rain that is killing my favorite New England ponds; the snowmobilers whose recreational tastes I do not share; and the commercial fishermen whose plight has been explained by the congressman we share and who provide savory fare for my table.

Whether democratic leaders do respond to public opinion elicits no more agreement than whether they should. Various academic studies can be adduced to demonstrate strong links between public opinion and the actions of policymakers. These analyses proceed from the implicit assumption that policymakers, especially elected officials, feel constrained to pursue policy objectives congruent with—or, at least, seemingly congruent with—the preferences of their constituents. Some of these studies aggregate across a variety of issues. They show, for example, that, with a variety of factors taken into account, states where the public leans in a liberal (or conservative) direction tend to enact policies that reflect the overall tilt in public preferences. In addition, studies demonstrate that abrupt ideological shifts in public mood tend to produce subsequent policy changes in the corresponding direction. Furthermore, inquiries into the politics of particular policies, from Medicare to welfare to civil rights, find evidence for responsiveness to public opinion by public officials. But other analysts reach the opposite conclusion. Their studies stress a variety of themes: that the general public lacks the time and political concern to have informed and detailed opinions about multiple policy issues; that policymakers are more responsive to the attentive publics—campaign funders, lobbyists, and other policy activists—whose support is critical than to the public at large; and that policymakers can shape public opinion by using the media as well as polls and focus groups to craft messages that placate public opinion while maximizing autonomy.

No Simple Answers

The way to reconcile what might seem to be discrepant findings is to argue not that the truth lies in the middle, but that it all depends. Policymaking in America is so diverse and complex that no single pattern obtains for the relationship between public opinion and policy, and the appropriate goal is to specify the circumstances under which public opinion places broad or narrow limits on a public official’s actions. For example, we might inquire as to the nature of the constituency that matters for democratic responsiveness: the public of the whole nation, state, or municipality; the electoral district; or the partisan majority that elected the official. Moreover, issues differ—in their complexity, their visibility, and their salience to the public at large and to various groups within the public. Presumably, policymakers are more likely to be constrained by opinion when issues are highly visible and widely salient. When complexity is added to the equation, however, public officials may gain freedom to act—so long as they do something. As exemplified by recent federal legislation on both education and homeland security, the public wanted action and was impatient with congressional stalemate. Whether the resulting policies reflect public preferences—and whether they will address complex problems successfully—is not fully clear. Ironically, although we would expect policymakers to be more likely to be obliged to follow public opinion when issues are visible and salient, on certain visible issues, such as abortion, they may be compelled not to put a finger to the wind, but rather to remain steadfast to the dictates of conscience.

Just as issues differ, so do political actions and policy arenas. Once again, visibility would seem to be a key factor. Legislators who feel constrained to follow their constituencies when a roll call vote is taken in the House may have more maneuvering room when a bill is marked up in subcommittee or when a narrow provision is slipped into an omnibus piece of legislation. A decision by an obscure administrative unit of the executive branch would seem less likely to receive public scrutiny than would an executive order. Moreover, policymakers in different offices are accountable to the public in different ways. Judges, especially those who serve for life, surely have more autonomy from public opinion than do legislators, though even judges are limited in the extent to which they can fly in the face of deeply held public preferences.

These conjectures suggest the many dimensions that must be taken into account when specifying the circumstances under which policymakers are likely to pay attention to public preferences; to heed the pleadings of attentive special publics, their fellow partisans, or other political allies; and to exercise independent judgment.

More years ago than I care to remember, when I studied the writing of the Constitution in 11th-grade U.S. history, I naively asked my teacher, “Are the people we send to Congress supposed to do what we want them to do or are they supposed to do what they think is best?” I do not remember exactly what my teacher replied. I know that I did not get a satisfactory answer. I still do not have one.