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Founding Principles: American Governance in Theory and Action (Chapter 6--Public Opinion)

13 minutes

(Describer) Titles: Founding Principles - American Governance in Theory and Action. Chapter Six: Public Opinion.

Welcome back to beautiful Brunswick, Maine and to Massachusetts Hall at Bowdoin College. I'm Andy Rudalevige--Professor of Government here at Bowdoin-- and this is Founding Principles-- our series introducing you to American government and how it works in theory and practice. We were taking a close look at the three branches of government created in the U.S. Constitution. For the next episodes, we're gonna look at how we, the people, fit into that government. After all, as President William McKinley put it, "Here the people rule, and their will is the supreme law." Sounds great, but is it that simple? "Here the people rule," but we've already learned that the framers of the Constitution were nervous about turning unfiltered public opinion into public policy. "Here the people rule," but how do we know what the people want? How do we know what public opinion is? Can we trust it? Let's find out.

(Describer) Against a parchment background, title: Chapter Six - Public Opinion.

Let's start with the first question. There's one obvious answer... They're everywhere and not only during election years-- covering presidential approval ratings to assessments of every aspect of government performance. Maybe we have a good idea of what's on the public's mind. The science of polling has come a long way since 1927, say, when political columnist Walter Lippmann wrote... Or 1936, when the most famous poll of the day, run by the Literary Digest magazine, became even more famous-- though not on purpose. The Digest had predicted the winner of every presidential election since 1916. But 20 years later, it was sure that Kansas governor Alf Landon would beat incumbent President Franklin Roosevelt-- and by a wide margin to boot. Well the 1936 election was indeed won by a landslide, but by FDR. He got 61% of the popular vote. Sorry, President Landon. That poll got at least two things wrong. It wasn't based on a random sample. It used telephone directories as one key source of names. In 1936, only wealthy people had phones, and the wealthy, in turn, were the voters most likely to oppose Roosevelt. Plus the poll relied on voluntary responses, like Internet polls where you answer a question that pops up, but only if you feel like it. People who want to make a statement tend to answer. People who cared a lot in 1936 were the ones who wanted to get rid of FDR. Sadly for them and the Literary Digest, they were not in tune with the voting public. A poll has to be designed properly to do its job of measuring public attitudes. Sampling is crucial. Sampling error is not the only way you can get it wrong. The order you ask questions and way you word them can also matter. Did Americans support a public option in the Affordable Care Act in 2010? That depends who or how you ask the question. If you asked whether people supported a government-run health insurance plan, only four in ten said yes. But if you framed it as... ...it received 2/3 support. Or take general questions versus specifics-- perhaps from the annual platter of joy that is the federal budget. Ask whether that budget should be cut, most people say, "Heck yes." If you list various programs in the budget, most people say to each of them, "No, don't cut that!" Should entitlements be cut? Of course. If you list various things that make up government entitlement spending-- social security, farm subsidies, veteran's benefits-- well then support for cutting them goes way down. We have to be very careful with vocabulary. We can't assume people know what entitlement spending or other phrases really represent. Americans--except you, of course, now you've watched this series-- don't do very well on pop quizzes about government. Surveys show people don't know how many justices are on the Supreme Court, much less who they are. There are nine. A poll a few years back found only 38% of college graduates knew the length of House and Senate terms. Twenty years before that was a book entitled, What Americans Know About Politics. The answer... If people do know, problems still arise. There was a poll in the 90s tied to the opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. The results were shocking. More than 1/3 of Americans had doubts about whether the Holocaust actually occurred. The poll asked this... Twenty-two percent said it seemed possible. Another 12% weren't sure. Editorialists had a field day attacking the stupidity of the American public, the pathetic state of American public education. This poll was conducted by smart people. Rival pollsters thought they saw a key error. They took the chance to ask another way. This time they asked... Fewer than one in ten people said they had any doubts-- about the same percentage as believe Elvis Presley is still alive. The first version had a double negative embedded in the wording. You had to say it was impossible something never happened. That's easy to figure out looking at this on a screen. For someone at home-- on the phone, cooking dinner, TV on, kids screaming-- that's a lot harder. There's yet another problem-- getting hold of the people to answer the question to begin with. Fewer than one in ten called by pollsters agree to respond. Because a majority of the population uses cell phones and sometimes only cell phones, it's harder and more expensive to call in the first place. Even if you do this right, laws of probability tell us every once in a while-- 1 time in 20-- your poll result will still mislead you about the population's true feelings. No wonder people sometimes still think Lippmann must have been right-- that public opinion is vague and confusing. They might think it's clear enough but sort of crazy-- ruled by our emotions, not by thoughtful analysis. The framers of the Constitution were, after all, quite concerned about this possibility. James Madison wrote in Federalist 55. This worry is a reason the Constitution does not structure the American government as a pure democracy. It's not a system designed to let public opinion translate into public policy, but designed to be buffered from the passions of people through the checks and balances of a separated system. Remember that only House members have always been chosen directly by voters. The original Constitution had state legislators, not the public, choose senators. Presidents are still selected by electoral college votes, not a simple popular majority. And federal judges are appointed, not elected. Yet Lord Bryce--a 19th-century British chronicler of the American political system-- wrote that... He was right about that. The framers knew that legitimacy of the government ultimately rested on what they called... It is "my fellow citizens" and "my countrymen" that Hamilton addresses and knows he must convince in the very first Federalist paper. Madison's first appearance in the Federalist is as a friend of popular government. He notes later that... Even without democracy at the federal level, we find public opinion playing a huge role in decisions made not only by elected officials but unelected officers and judges. President Nixon had to resign from office, while President Clinton survived impeachment. One key reason was Clinton had the public on his side, while Nixon lost their confidence. Fortunately then, research generally shows there is something coherent we can call public opinion and that it is reasonable and even rational. We should all be smart consumers of survey research, looking out for the problems noted above. Looking at a poll of polls, compiling a number of polls, asking the same questions around the same time, is more reliable than looking at one survey. Because in a large diverse society, the role of aggregation, the law of large numbers, is very important. Those large numbers help filter random noise. The way you tell what an elementary orchestra is playing when there are wrong notes and a few violinists playing an entirely different tune. That is, while individual people might not be rational, the public as a collective group often is. Especially on higher profile issues, the public holds stable opinions over time, consistent with their underlying values. Despite the highly contentious arguments over issues like abortion, for example, the mass public holds similar views on the subject, as back in 1973 at the time of the Roe v. Wade decision. Change happens, to be sure. Witness the shift in public attitudes towards issues like same-sex marriage. It usually does so along predictable lines, as generations change or as external issues bring new information to bear on a situation. Because even a rational public-- maybe especially a rational public-- still needs a way to get good information. It needs good teachers, good cue givers, which brings us to a key point. As Madison put it... Which brings us back to the question of political leadership and Franklin Roosevelt-- the man who didn't lose in 1936. Roosevelt said this about governing in the American system-- "It includes the art of formulating a policy "and using the political technique "to attain so much of that policy "as will receive general support. "Persuading, leading, sacrificing, teaching always, because the greatest duty of a statesman is to educate."

(Describer) Back in the hall...

President Dwight Eisenhower argued that public opinion is the only force that has any validity in democracy. He added, since it is important, it must be an informed public opinion. How can we bring that about? Next, we turn to one of the key ways information flows between Americans and their government--the media. See you then. Accessibility provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

(Describer) Titles: Written and Preformed by Andrew Rudalevige, Thomas Brackett Reed Professor of Government, Bowdoin College. Editorial and Production Assistance by Abigail McBride and Scott Schaiberger. Special Thanks to Clayton Rose, President, Bowdoin College. Special Thanks to Barry Mills, President Emeritus, Bowdoin College. A logo depicts a lower-case letter E in a purple shield with 1880 just above it. Beside it, title: produced by Emerson Productions. Bowdoin. Accessibility provided by the US Department of Education.

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In this episode, Dr. Andrew Rudalevige addresses the importance of public opinion in shaping national politics. Through a study of foundational documents like the Federalist papers and the overlap between policy and popular beliefs, students learn about polling design and how random sampling, survey reliability, margins of error, and data analysis guide the understanding of public opinion. Part of the "Founding Principles: American Governance in Theory and Action" series.

Media Details

Runtime: 13 minutes

Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 1
13 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 2
13 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 3
12 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 4
13 minutes
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Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 5
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Episode 6
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Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 7
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Episode 8
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Episode 9
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Grade Level: 10 - 12
Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 10
13 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12