Who Cares What the Public Thinks?
You should care. What the public thinks matters the most in society, not matter what sector perspective you take.
“Unless mass views have someplace in the shaping of policy, all talk about democracy is nonsense.” said the greatest political scientist V.O. Key, Jr. Nonsense or democracy, that’s just how much public opinion matters.
There are essentially 2 ways to measure what the public thinks:
- Through science and technology of polling and the analysis of social media data
- Or the old-tradition method of just asking people to go to the polls in person and vote during elections
Note that the word poll appears both those ways of measuring public opinion. However, there are actually 3 ways polling is different that actually physically going to the polling station. Poll literally means conducting a poll and taking a headcount. It’s just the method of sampling, timing, and import that differs in all polling.
Sampling — In a public opinion poll, we usually try to ‘sample’ respondents to get a group as representative of the voting public as we can. In actual polling, it is the sample that’s chosen by pollsters to look like the pool of citizens, and in voting these samples are chosen by the voters themselves. So in shorter terms, remember that polling is the scientific estimated method of tangible voting.
Timing — The timing of polls and election is pivotal in the outcome of public opinion. Polls can be conducted whenever some academic institution, company, or media outlet decides to put a poll out. However, even that takes time, money, and the public inclination to be conducted. The election on the other hand is only conducted when the local, state, federal laws, and constitution or a countries rule of law says so.
Import — Lastly polls can tell us about exactly what the public wants, motivates to sway towards particular groups of people with certain wants, or what employers are need of. However, polls aren’t binding — that means they can be ignored to be given immediate attention.
In an ideal world, there is an ideal theory that follows these overall points that citizens qualify at all bases:
1) Well informed about government, rules, and political actors
2) Tolerant of ideas other than their own
3) Willing to compromise to further the collective interest
4) Happy to participate at a variety of levels and to engage in civic activities.
In reality, however, Americans don’t measure up well to that ideal. Most Americans are surprisingly not well informed despite the mass interconnections provided by revolutionary technologies. Americans are tolerant in theory but less so in practice. They uphold the right of hypothetical groups to speak their minds, but when actual unpopular groups speak out, the tolerance drops.
So, if citizen engagement is so far from the democratic ideal, is it really such a good idea to have public opinion reflected in public policy? However, to be sensible, being an ideal democratic citizen is a full-time job. Choosing not to be informed about politics may actually make sense, for those folks who may be reflecting on rational ignorance. This means the people are not engaging in politics only because they believe the payoff seems remote or insignificant directly to themselves. This is the sort of household I grew up in, not pure ignorance, but rational that both saved yet tore my beliefs in the political system.
Where does rational ignorance leave democracy?
American political scientists have cross-examined psychological cues and shortcuts to help offset this trend of ignorance. There are three main cues that average ‘rationally ignorant’ citizens can react to:
1) Online Processing
Nothing to do with the internet directly. In fact, this is a phenomenon that occurs in the end of a busy day where one’s head is full of opinions. These opinions are hard to trace back to where they were originally found, like the car radio, social media, a small-talk, etc. People process these opinions too quickly for the source to have sunk into their long term memory bank.
2) Two-Step flow
This is a psychological process by which opinion followers look to opinion leaders for cues on how to vote. This is because opinion followers tend to pick out leaders who share similar values, backgrounds, and interests. They often make the very the same decision they would have made if they had dedicated time to have conduct careful research on their own. This helps citizens who value their time and busy schedules.
3) Political Parties
Many people take the shortcut and follow the lead of a party or group such as a religious group. This entails sheep-like behavior and a barrier to action leading individuals.
Can the polls contribute, then, to this stimulating discussion of public affairs by focusing attention on current issues? If polls accurately reflected the public’s views, could it have stimulated further discussion of these topics and informed government officials of the trend of popular opinion?
(Originally published on May 28, 2020)