Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Real Reason Public Opinion Doesn't Work

Jonathan Chait gets it half-right:

At his remarks today touting support for background checks on guns, President Obama said, "Nothing is more powerful than millions of voices calling for change." Actually, since background checks command 90 percent in the polls but lack support from Republicans in Congress, pretty clearly millions of voices calling for change are less powerful than holding a House majority. They're also less powerful than a Senate majority. Or even 41 Senators, who can stop anything they want. A well-funded lobby probably beats millions of voices calling for change, too.

Basically, everything is more powerful than millions of voices calling for change.
See, the problem here is equating "90 percent in the polls" with "calling for change." Sure, 90 percent of citizens, or registered voters, or whoever it is will answer in the affirmative if they're asked by a pollster about this policy. But that's not at all the same as "calling for change." It's more like...well, it is receiving a call. Not calling.

Those people who have been pushing for marriage equality? They were calling for change. And marching for it, demanding it, donating money to get it, running for office to achieve it and supporting candidates who would vote for it, filing lawsuits to make it legal. In many cases, they based their entire political identity around it.

Action works. "Public opinion" is barely real; most of the time, on most issues, change the wording of the question and you'll get entirely different answers. At best, "public opinion" as such is passive. And in politics, passive doesn't get results.

Action works. Oh, not all the time: sometimes action on one side is met by action on the other side, and on some things there's just going to be a winner and a loser. Sometimes, too, action by some is not enough, or it takes too much time, especially in a political system that is even more biased towards the status quo than most.

What's more, it's perfectly understandable why most of us, on most issues, barely have opinions, let alone take action. Action is hard! Action can be painful. Action is risky. Action is unpredictable. We all have plenty of other things to do, after all. For the most part, we only take action when we can't do other things -- when something is so wrong that we just have to do something about it. It's almost impossible to manufacture that artificially...that's why presidential attempts to go over the heads of Congress to the people rarely work. Not because Congress will ignore their constituents. But because a president, no matter how eloquent or popular, isn't going to stir people to action on something just because they happen to agree with him. Meaningful action is too big a commitment for the tiny signal of a presidential exhortation to get it to happen. It usually take something with a much more direct effect on our day to day lives. But if it does happen, look out.

So, yeah, Chait is right about the strategy of going over the heads of Congress, and that's the key point to make about all of this from the perspective of what a president should spend time on. But from the point of view of citizens: yes, action can make a difference. And it may not even take millions.


  1. What an inspiring post! I mean that unironically.

    There's probably a pretty good "Plain Book about Politics" up your sleeve, if you tried to put your posts into a coherent, general-interest framework. Maybe in 2014?

  2. Long time reader, first time poster (do people still say that?).

    This is a great post. The contrast between the ongoing success of the equality movement with the yet-again fizzle of the gun control is ... stark.

    Sorry if this is a point you've made before, but one obvious explanation for the difference: it's a lot easier to stir to action *against* a limitation (ie, being blocked from marriage) than *for* a limitation (ie, stricter checks on guns).

    Does that mean our political system is naturally biased towards a long-term relaxation of rules and limitations? Should libertarians be quietly biding their time and rejoicing?

  3. I am in wholehearted agreement with this, with one caveat:

    "'Public opinion' is barely real; most of the time, on most issues, change the wording of the question and you'll get entirely different answers."

    There are issues where this is true, and there are times when people claim it's true without noticing that the two wordings are actually asking different things. It's not true of most things. But it doesn't matter. There are plenty of things where polling is consistent, yet has no impact, for precisely the reason you say - answering something in a poll is not demanding action.

  4. A couple of points:

    (1) Yes, wording does very often make a difference as to how people respond to polling questions. (My favorite example has to be the poll on DADT repeal in which 17% more respondents favored allowing "gay men & lesbians" to serve than those who favored allowing "homosexuals" to serve.) That said, it is pretty undeniable that there has been a dramatic recent shift in public opinion toward favoring same-sex marriage.

    (2) What I would say in partial support to your point is that public opinion polls usually don't tell us much about intensity of opinion. As I've explained before, I suspect that the vast majority of Americans aren't particularly passionate about SSM one way or the other. That's one reason I think public opinion has shifted so quickly: there are a lot of people who found the idea of SSM weird at first, but as they got used to the idea they became more open to accepting it. I doubt there were very many rabid homophobes who transformed overnight into ardent defenders of SSM. Of course this is all speculation on my part, based on my experiences discussing the issue with other people for the past several years, but the point is that the current polls are too general to refute or confirm my theory.

  5. And George Wallace said "segregation forever." Many promises from politicians are for show. I suspect you know this.

  6. Also, lots of Americans have changed their minds. Without that, maybe Reid et al would be mouthing what you want to hear.

    When you want to stop time, stomp on a wrist watch. That's the closest you're going to get.

  7. Psychologists--Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, in particular--have found that people's responses to a question, regardless of topic, can shift depending on whether the question is framed as a gain or a loss. A loss is more motivating than a gain of equivalent value.

  8. I've noticed that readers of this blog (and even the author) tend to actually believe that Democrats are markedly more steadfast and principled than Republicans, so it's good to point to clear counter-examples. I don't care about gay marriage; the whole point of marriage was to set a standard for raising children and that standard has already been destroyed by liberalism. So why care what happens to what's left of the institution?

  9. Same sex marriage will enhance marriage. It is also among the most conservative issues in the LGBT rights platform. This post merely shows your utter confusion.

  10. The majority of the American people does not support universal background checks which basically open the door for gun registration and confiscation.
    Universal background checks shall be used for dual citizenship politicians infiltrated in our power structures and see for who they are really working.
    All traitors to the US Constitution (the law of the land) shall be tried for treason!

  11. Gun Control. Gun - object. Control - Action. Where in this so called debate is the presumption of responsibility? I was born in 1960 and traveled around the world as an army brat. I've been around 'firearms,NOT guns most of my life, own several, and not once fired on or harmed anyone with a firearm. The real debate here is about fear. You fear what you don't know. You fear responsibility for your actions and those of the ones you may know or even love. You fear firearms, but would willingly allow someone with a tool (yes, a not firearm) that has the potential energy to cause you insufferable pain and even death all the time. I mean by that a hammer, a pipe wrench, even a pen. So, let's be real about this. It's NOT the tool you want to rail against, it's the rush of power over others you want. It's just not going to happen, unless you are already gone from here. Focus your energy on helping the sick, the downtrodden, bring relief to their angste as well as your own, and then you will be freed. Demanding that someone do something to relieve you of your suffering only allows someone else to exact some form of punishment upon you in return. Take responsibility for yourself, set the example. Don't punish others over your own fears.

  12. This blog post turned out to be correct. Ask the senators and members of congress of both parties who were bombarded with far more emails and calls from the pro gun side than the gun banning side of things, despite whatever poll was claimed.

    The wording of the question in the poll is also very important. I am not especially a fan of Breitbart, but I do like how it captures the wording of multiple polls on banning so called "assault weapons"

    CNN mentions a fully automatic rifle (the AK47) in their poll when discussing banning semi-automatic rifles, yet the Rupe and Gallup polls do not and there is a net swing of 32 points! From being 25% in favor, to 7% opposed by both Rupe and Gallup poll results all based upon just a few different words in the question.


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