In my NYT column on how to think about conflicting polls, I wrote:
A vast majority of Americans — including half of all self-identified Republicans — think there is “too much power in the hands of a few rich people and large corporations.” And a solid majority believes that “the country’s economic system unfairly favors the wealthy.” On the other hand, close to 60 percent of Americans do not see the country as “divided into haves and have-nots” and over 60 percent see “big government” as the biggest threat to the country in the future. What gives?
I think it’s fair to say that there’s enough here to support different political themes. A supporter of higher taxes for higher incomes can focus on the “too much power in the hands of the rich” angle, whereas a supporter of cuts in low-income and middle-income entitlement programs can focus on the lack of resonance of the haves and have-nots argument.
The ambiguity revealed in these polls actually makes sense: if there were a clear and unambiguous majority in favor of some policy and all its ramifications, we would expect it would have already passed and there would be no remaining political dispute. Democrats and Republicans are no longer arguing about laws against racial discrimination or child labor (with rare exceptions). The very fact that an issue is politically live suggests some flexibility on opinions and helps us understand what otherwise seems contradictory about these poll results. . . .
As the political scientists Lawrence Jacobs and Robert Shapiro have demonstrated, politicians don’t just see public opinion as a constraint; they also use it as a tool to achieve their policy goals. Conflicting majority attitudes — for example, a belief that the economic system unfairly favors the wealthy, juxtaposed with a relative lack of concern for income inequality — represent an opportunity for smart politicians to reshape public opinion their way.
I sent this to Jacobs and Shapiro and asked for their comments.
The one caveat here is that politicians can try to use public opinion but it’s an uphill fight in tryiing to produce policy change. What the opponents of change can do is, in a sense, create enough uncertainty for the public, so that the status quo prevails.
And Jacobs followed up with:
Bob is absolutely right about how polls are used to divide and block. Health care reform is a good case—support for core components but strident and unified GOP opposition combined with “death panel” frames activated pre-existing partisan and conservative attitudes.
There is a problem here and it is with Bill [Galston]’s simplistic understanding of public opinion—he succumbed to the allure of snatching the most recent poll result and running. Decades of research along with the targeted research that Ben Page and I did show that Americans are conservative pragmatists—in the abstract they are conservative (center right country that GOP sees and that Bill notes) but large majorities (including majorities of Republicans and Tea Partiers) also favor govt programs that reduce poverty like Social Security and Medicare b/c they target concrete problems with specific govt programs. What was striking about Obama’s Kansas speech is that he acknowledged America’s conservatism (bow to American Dream meritocracy) but focused on concrete barriers to pursuing it.