Monday, March 2, 2009

The Rational Public

The contention of the authors of The Rational Public: Fifty Years of Trends in Americans' Policy Preferences is that the collective policy preferences of Americans as expressed over time in opinion surveys are predominantly rational in the sense the authors' define: real (not meaningless, random "non-attitudes"), generally stable, are coherent and consistent, they make sense in terms of underlying values and available information, that changes are usually understandable and, indeed, predictable reacting in consistent ways to changes in circumstances and they are generally sensible adjustments to the same.

In doing so, they are at some odds with a long tradition of dismissing popular opinion by pointing to low levels of knowledge and instability between different polls. The most important counterpoint the authors make is to point out the importance of the collective nature of opinions – which is well in accordance with the burgeoning research on the wisdom of crowds.
There is a lot of good things in the book. I was struck by reference to evidence that American public policy accords with public preferences as expressed in opinion polls about two-thirds of the time. They adduce no comparative data at any stage from other democracies, but that strikes me as a high rate – particularly given the lower rate of dramatic protest votes in the US compared to, say, Europe (Le Pen, Fortuyn, Haider, etc), Australia (Hanson), NZ (Peters) and Canada (Parti Quebecois, Reform): Buchanan only got a derisory less-than-1% of the American national vote in 2000. Perot was arguably a rather more mainstream protest (about public debt).

The authors generally do not let their own preferences colour the work, with the exception that they are a bit one-sided in their choice of one-sided information examples. They adduce evidence that public opinion is more prone to manipulation on foreign policy than domestic policy issues – hardly surprising, given that the former involve narrower information sources. The tradition of misleading behaviour by Administrations on foreign policy issues seems depressingly established (President George W. Bush on Iraq being somewhat similar to FDR in the lead-up to American entry into WWII).

I was particularly struck by the strong evidence that public opinion moves in consistent directions (i.e. even if level of support for a proposition is varied between different groups, the trend in opinion is almost always in the same direction) and that sometimes the opinion of the less-educated converges with that of the more-educated but that the reverse also occurs.

The Rational Public is an impressive empirical study from which I learnt a great deal.

No comments:

Post a Comment