The advent of the Republican Congress and its "contract with America" has provided rich new sources of argument for politicians and pontificators. And to this observer, it's brought a whole new life to one of the more annoying habits of those who occupy the Sunday op-ed pages and talk shows--making unwarranted claims about public opinion.
When sparring over balanced budget amendments, changes in the school lunch program or term limits legislation, it's not enough for many talking heads to give their own views on the issue. They seem compelled to include the American people in their outrage. Notice how often an official or commentator will garnish his or her personal views with a statement such as "Americans won't stand for this" or "this is critical in the public's mind" or "if this loses, there'll be hell to pay at the ballot box."
On issue after issue, Americans are portrayed as informed, attentive and ready to act. More often than not, however, they have rather muddy views about the things under discussion. Or they really don't care.
Frequently, these expert attempts to represent the public's view are based on a few phone calls, stray conversations or office faxes. Commonly, though, they're drawn from surveys or focus groups, as well. So if there's injustice here, we pollsters surely share in the blame. Our business produces a lot of public opinion. But it does a far from adequate job reporting the \o7 limits \f7 of public knowledge.
Not that we're unaware of the problem.
Fifty years ago, pioneering poll taker Elmo Roper commented that the American public's knowledge was frequently overstated while its common sense was underrated. Surveyor Daniel Yankelovich once proposed a "Mushiness Index"--a set of poll questions designed to gauge strength of commitment to any opinion.
Still, questionnaires abound today that query the public about high-sounding policy issues, elevating average people to the status of experts. Somewhere in the reporting, the fuzziness of their answers gets lost.
Support for an issue, moreover, is often mistaken for enthusiasm. Most of the public may like something in a poll question, but that doesn't mean they give a hoot about whether the proposal is actually enacted. It takes more than just an up/down question to find out if one has measured real passion or simply the shrug of a shoulder.
Approval itself can be a shaky thing. For example, the oft-quoted 80% backing in polls for a balanced budget amendment vanishes if the specter of entitlement cuts is raised. But one seldom hears that caveat with the original statistic.
Some polls do take the time to measure issues on a four-way scale, asking supporters or opponents of a viewpoint if they hold that view strongly or not strongly. Others include measures of attentiveness or news interest in their surveys.
But frankly, many journalists don't like stories in which people are shown as divided or unsure. And politicians want rabid supporters for their views, not head scratchers. In a way, it seems downright undemocratic to portray the public as deficient in knowledge or, God forbid, ignorant. Far more attractive and compelling to show them as hawkishly attentive.
Yet ignorance is often the reality. Take the much vaunted "contract with America." Surveys asking if Americans favor or oppose its varied planks are plentiful. Yet, a Times Poll conducted before last year's election found that most voters--including many who were planning to vote Republican--had never even heard of the program, a finding echoed in more recent surveys.
As late as this March, a Times survey asked the public to name the areas where they felt the new GOP Congress was making progress getting its program through. A 57% majority of those polled could not name even one. Ironically, the single biggest area cited--and then only by 7% of respondents--was that the Congress was moving ahead on passing a balanced budget amendment. That "contract" item already had been turned down.
Should we therefore discount all reports of public opinion? Of course not. Our democracy does not mandate that people's sentiments be informed. And uninformed viewpoints are not all weakly held. People have important opinions; it's just that they are typically less specific and more equivocal than most commentary would suggest.
Right now, it seems clear from the polls that Americans want a smaller federal government. How small they want it to be, what cuts they'll tolerate and how long they'll feel this way are murkier questions that are still playing themselves out. So beware of those predicting revolution if this or that isn't done in the next few weeks.