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Archive for the ‘Public Opinion’ Category

I always find polls to be interesting. In my mind, one of the more fascinating things is when there is a large disjunction between individuals’ assessment of X (e.g., the environment, crime, education, the economy) as they experience it and their assessment of X as the nation experiences it. I often attribute the differences to the simple fact that the latter question is strongly influenced by the way in which X is portrayed by the media and political elites. One might be satisfied with the environment as one experiences it at home, for example, but the media provides heavy coverage of environmental catastrophes, oil and chemical spills, etc.

In the latest NBC/WSJ Poll (results here), 61 percent report being very/somewhat satisfied when asked to assess their “own financial situation today.” At the same time, when asked “how satisfied are you with the state of the U.S. economy today?,” only 28 percent say they are very/somewhat satisfied. 71 percent claim to be dissatisfied (37 percent somewhat dissatisfied, 34 percent very dissatisfied).

Another question: how well is the economy working for different types of people? Fully 81 percent believe it is working very/fairly well for the wealthy whereas only 22 percent believe it is working very/fairly well for the middle class. There is an obvious tension here, given that “middle class” is the modal category and a majority (71 percent) is very/somewhat satisfied with the economy as they experience it. Similar to the earlier example of the environment, one might hypothesize that the disjunction is a product of the way in which the economy is portrayed in the media and by political elites. (more…)

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Thomas Carsey and Geoffrey Layman in The Monkey Cage:

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported on June 10, 2013 that the percentage of Democratic identifiers who found NSA surveillance programs acceptable increased from 37 percent in January 2006 to 64 percent in June 2013. In contrast, the percentage of Republican identifiers saying these programs were acceptable decreased from 75 percent to 52 percent over this same time period. We doubt these changes emerged from a large influx of anti-surveillance advocates into the GOP or of pro-surveillance supporters into Democratic ranks between 2006 and 2013. Rather, the shift likely occurred because we had a Republican president in 2006 and a Democratic president in 2013, and many people simply adjusted their views on NSA activities to fit with their prior partisan attachments.

It’s a good thing these people are deciding how my life will be run.

HT: Chris Andrew

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Ross Tilchin writes up the results of a Brookings study on libertarians in the Republican Party, citing some of the research I have done here on Pileus. The main point Tilchin argues is that libertarians are at a severe disadvantage nationally within the Republican Party, relative to competing constituencies like moderates and the religious right. However, see also David Kirby’s rejoinder at Cato@Liberty. He argues that the Brookings study seriously underestimates the proportion of libertarians in the general population and in the Republican Party. The debate seems to turn on how strictly one wants to operationalize the concept “libertarian.” If weak libertarians are included, there are many more of them. Regardless, I echo Kirby’s appreciation of growing scholarly attention to the political role of libertarians in the U.S. polity.

For more on figuring out where libertarians are, also check out an interesting paper on two-dimensional ideological preferences at the congressional district level by Warshaw and Rodden. (Americanideologyproject.com is an interesting site for data on one-dimensional preferences at the subnational level in the U.S.)

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Factor price equalization due to trade and investment flows across economies would substantially reduce economic reasons for immigration to rich countries. (Trade and investment flows will not eliminate economic reasons for migration because if polities differ in total factor productivity due to political institutions, there can still be an advantage to migrating to a more efficient economy in a fully globalized world.) Therefore, if you are an American who is deeply concerned about immigration to the U.S. for cultural or political reasons, one way to encourage less immigration is to press for full trade and investment liberalization in this country and around the world.

Now, does opposition to immigration correlate positively or negatively with support for free trade and “outsourcing” in voters’ attitudes? In my experience, negatively.

Chalk this up to one more way in which politics is about symbolism rather than substance, due to public ignorance.

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The long war is hemorrhaging support among the public. As the NYT reports, a new NYT/CBS poll provides some rather striking evidence:

The survey found that more than two-thirds of those polled — 69 percent — thought that the United States should not be at war in Afghanistan. Just four months ago, 53 percent said that Americans should no longer be fighting in the conflict, more than a decade old.

Even National Review seems to be souring on the war, if a post from today’s Corner is any indication. As Michael Walsh observes:

This is not a Good War….It’s time to wrap up this decade-long farce, time for both civilian leaders and military brass to take a long, hard look at the demoralizing mess we’ve made in Afghanistan, and to ask how America can avoid such mistakes in the future.

Walsh goes on to derive several lessons (all of which were apparent to many of us long ago and were reinforced by our time in Iraq) and concludes:

There was nothing wrong with going into Afghanistan in the first place. The Taliban was sheltering Osama bin Laden, and it was there that the 9/11 plot was hatched. The U.S. was right to mount a punitive expedition and remove the Islamic radicals from power — a mission that was quickly accomplished, thanks to a daring, special-ops-led military strategy that quickly routed the fundamentalists.

And that should have been that. We should have declared mission accomplished, pulled out, and left the Afghans to their own devices. It never should have morphed — under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama — into a fruitless exercise in tea-brewing. Some backwaters will always be backwaters, and deservedly so.

I almost feel as if I just read a quote from a decade-old issue of the American Conservative or, for that matter, a Ron Paul speech circa 2002.

Returning to the poll results above, one might dismiss them as a short-term reaction to the recent events in Afghanistan. Or one might, following Michael E. O’Hanlon, (the Brookings Institution) and attribute the low levels of support to the ignorance of citizens. In his words (from the above cited NYT article):

“I honestly believe if more people understood that there is a strategy and intended sequence of events with an end in sight, they would be tolerant…The overall image of this war is of U.S. troops mired in quicksand and getting blown up and arbitrarily waiting until 2014 to come home. Of course you’d be against it.”

Perhaps. But it may also be the case that after more than a decade of war and nation-building, citizens have finally had enough.

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David Corn’s soon-to-be released new book Showdown examines the pivot to address deficits in the summer of 2010-11. Many Democrats were bewildered that the administration would move on to the GOP’s turf and begin addressing the problem of deficits and debt (one might pause for a moment and ask whether there is any empirical evidence to suggest that the GOP—or either of the major parties—can make a claim to being the party of fiscal responsibility).  After all, there were many on the left that were making a powerful argument that the stimulus was insufficient and now was not the time to move to anything remotely resembling austerity (one might pause again and ask how reducing the pace of expansion can be cast as austerity, but again, I digress).

The answer, as revealed in some excerpts in Greg Sargent’s Plum Line (WaPo) was strictly poll driven:

Plouffe was concerned that voter unease about the deficit could become unease about the president. … voters needed to know — or feel — that the president could manage the nation’s finances. The budget was a test of government competence — that is, Obama’s competence.

And on a meeting of February 2011:

With Sperling sitting in on the presentation, Garin reinforced the White House view that Democrats had to up their game on deficit reduction. His firm had conducted extensive polling and focus groups. He told the senators that voters saw jobs as the most pressing priority. This might seem to support those Democrats who believed Obama had gone too far overboard on the deficit-reduction cruise. But when asked what the president and Congress should do to boost job creation, most voters said reduce the deficit and the debt. They had imbibed the GOP message; the problem with the economy was governmental red ink.

What I find particularly disturbing—even if unsurprising—is the following:

  1. We have an extraordinarily devastating problem: the slow pace of recovery and job creation.
  2. Those with a seat at the table understand the problem in Keynesian terms. They have a clear understanding of causality grounded in Keynesianism and a set of clear policy prescriptions that are drawn from theory.
  3. They nonetheless cast aside these policy prescriptions because—drum roll—voters embrace a faulty understanding of the economy and assume that deficits lead to unemployment.  They will not buy anything the Democrats have to say about the recovery if they do not believe that the administration is committed to deficit reduction.

Note: I am not concerned here with whether Keynesianism provides the best guidance to economic policymaking. Rather, it is the willingness of elected officials to embrace policies that they believe will be counterproductive simply because it sells before focus groups.

As Edmund Burke noted when arguing that representatives should be trustees rather than mere delegates: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” One would only wish that elected officials of both parties would spend less time with focus groups and more time with Burke, at least when thinking about representation.

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John Sides has a short but interesting post on 538 today looking at surprisingly strong public support for technocratic limitations on pure democracy. A few months ago I floated the idea of multiple voting as a way of overcoming, partially, the baleful effects of voter irrationality. Technocratic management would be another way to do it. These sorts of proposals seem to be unexpectedly popular. Voters generally don’t think highly of other voters’ intelligence.

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I recently ran a poll here to gauge support for the idea of giving voters with bachelor’s and/or doctoral degrees extra votes in elections. I ran the same poll on a non-political site to get an idea of support from the general public. Surprisingly, Pileus readers opposed the reform overwhelmingly, 82-18%, while respondents on the other site were slightly more supportive, with opposition running at 74-26% (31 respondents). In both polls I simply asked the question and did not offer any reasons for either side of the issue. The sample sizes are too small to draw terribly confident conclusions about the general public’s support for this proposal, but support does seem surprisingly high given that no Western democracy since the 1940s has given multiple votes to college graduates (Belgium and the United Kingdom formerly did so).

The impetus for the poll came from a discussion I had with Bryan Caplan, author of The Myth of the Rational Voter. Caplan finds that voters have strikingly different views from economists on many economic issues. The general public tends to suffer from anti-market, anti-foreign, and pessimistic biases. However, the more educated you are, the more likely you are to think like an economist (the smaller your biases on economic issues). In subsequent research, Caplan says that the effect is really one of IQ: smarter people are more likely to think like economists, and smarter people are also likely to get more education. Nevertheless, the logic implies that giving people with more education more votes will lead to better politicians and better economic policies. I argued that giving additional votes to more educated voters might actually be a popular change in the long run, if it were actually proposed and defended at length. Bryan thought that it would be overwhelmingly unpopular and essentially not worth proposing.

The precise implications of these poll results are up for debate, but it seems to me that support for some reform of this kind actually does have some base of support in the public, even when no logical or evidentiary support for the change is offered.

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With the war in Europe between France and England intensifying, Americans found their rights as neutral traders regularly violated by both French and British navies, and French and British port restrictions further limited American opportunities for commerce. To make matters worse, on numerous occasions, English vessels had boarded American ships and “impressed” many of their crews into service as if they were British subjects. Such disregard for American sovereignty and rights was taken hard by the public, but America’s naval capacities were far from adequate to enforce a due respect on the high seas. Yet doing nothing was not a popular option.

President Jefferson attempted to draw a lesson from our colonial past and impose an embargo of American trade. The hope was that such an embargo would inconvenience European commerce to such a degree as to bring the powers, especially Britain, to that level of respect which American arms were insufficient to obtain. In 1807, the Embargo Act was imposed, interdicting all vessels from entering or exiting American ports. Trade was the life blood of New England, however, and the Embargo hit them especially hard. As weeks moved to months and months to a year, the suffering in the port cities became nearly unbearable. Numerous calls for lifting the interdiction were heard, but none of the offending powers seemed even remotely ready to bargain. Unwilling to surrender the point of honor or to risk outright war, Jefferson’s administration remained steadfast in its policy.

At a certain point, the states began to question not only the efficacy of the measure, but its justice. Should not the risks of trade be borne by the traders themselves? Why a general restriction? If families and communities are ruined, is this not an indication of a policy gone too far? Indeed, so far that it might conflict with a vital principle of constitutional government? The national authority was to engage in defensive action in support of the states and their communities, not in their strangulation. If it could not live up to its military obligations, this was no excuse for an imposition of a total ban on trade, a power not contemplated in the original design.

In the earliest resolutions of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island the hue and cry was again heard. Massachusetts’ legislature, as Thomas Woods noted in his collection of sources, sought only formal political means, and counseled patience on the part of its citizenry as it pursued these avenues of redress. Rhode Island observed that it was “the duty of this general Assembly, while cautious not to infringe upon the constitution and delegated powers and rights of the General Government, to be vigilant in guarding from usurpation and violation, those powers and rights which the good people of this state have expressly reserved to themselves…” Here were the states as Sentinels calling out their warning.

But Connecticut, first through its governor and then its legislature went further still, openly and officially “declining to designate persons to carry into effect, by the aid of military power, the act of the United States, enforcing the Embargo.” And “that the persons holding executive offices under this state, are restrained by the duties which they owe this State, from affording any official aid or cooperation in the execution of the act aforesaid.”

This action went the further step of embracing the idea of non-cooperation, and its precedent went back to colonial legislatures that had refused to cooperate with the enforcement of the Imperial Stamp Act. No force would be applied directly to interdicting federal officials, but no cooperation would be accorded them either. They could do their work on their own, but in the absence of active assistance or support from state institutions, they would find that task far more difficult. No power of the federal government could compel action on the part of the states in this regard.

And here New England’s civil society operated in yet a further way to exert force against the centralized exercise of power, again, much like what had happened in earlier colonial protests. While not directly engaged in administering smuggling, the governments of New England gave tacit affirmation of private actions through their resolutions. New England’s merchants were long practiced in the arts of running goods around imperial restrictions. Now they would do the same with respect to national ones. And the general government found its resources stretched to the breaking point.

Remarkably, Jefferson himself later reflected on this opposition of local authorities. He recalled this episode as a powerful illustration of why local governance is so critically important to the maintenance of a free society! No longer president, he could reflect with some approval on the nature of the opposition he had then faced. (more…)

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In today’s NYT column, Paul Krugman asks a question that is interesting only because it leads me to a broader question. First Krugman.  He notes that the GOP budget proposal promotes reforms to “make government health care programs more responsive to consumer choice.” Krugman then asks: “How did it become normal, or for that matter even acceptable, to refer to medical patients as ‘consumers’?”

This question struck me not because it is in any way mystifying but because I was at the EPA’s website yesterday and ran across number references to “customers.” One charming document asks “Who Are EPA’s Customers?”The answer includes “the public.”

I could cite more examples (the EPA’s search engine reports 38,700 documents with “customer”). And the EPA is not alone. Even the CIA reports: “The Intelligence Community’s number one priority is to provide its customers with the best possible custom-tailored intelligence whenever and wherever they need it. Our ability to do so depends, in large part, on how well we understand and respond to customers’ needs and on how much our products help them do their jobs.” I didn’t bother to see if water boarding was available at the drive through window.

The shift to a “customer” orientation came in 1993, as the Clinton Administration embarked on its “Reinventing Government” initiatives. As you will recall, President Clinton and Vice President Gore initiated the National Performance Review and sought to bring the best lessons from the private sector to the public sector. As part of this effort, President Clinton issued Executive Order 12862, “Setting Customer Service Standards.”  The EO had some charming directives, including:

Section 1. Customer Service Standards.  In order to carry out the principles of the National Performance Review, the Federal Government must be customer-driven.  The standard of quality for services provided to the public shall be: Customer service equal to the best in business.  For the purposes of this order,”customer” shall mean an individual or entity who is directly served by a department or agency.  “Best in business” shall mean the highest quality of service delivered to customers by private organizations providing a comparable or analogous service.

Are citizens really best understood as customers? If so, what are the ramifications?

This may seem like a trivial point, but there is a significant difference between being a citizen and being a customer. Citizenship, in its classical sense, involves obligations to the community and the need to engage in deliberation. It is infused with honor and virtue and is part of what it means to be truly human (in Aristotle’s words: “To take no part in the running of the community’s affairs is to be either a beast or a god!”). Customers, in contrast, are simply those who purchase a product or service.

When I see polls revealing that the vast majority of Americans do not want any entitlements cut nor do they want to pay higher taxes (of course, they always want the wealthy to pay their “fair share”), it troubles me. As citizens, they should reflect on the incompatibility between current levels of spending and taxation; they should choose honorably to make sacrifices to prevent fiscal imbalances from creating a dire situation for future generations.

But as customers, the logic is altogether different. Customers should demand the most they can get for their money and if services are being provided at a deep discount (e.g., subsidized by future generations of customers), all the better. And if customers seem unreasonable in their demand for products and services, the best one can do is mutter the age old dictum: “The customer is always right.”

Customers love a sale. Customers do not voluntarily request to pay retail. Customers also vote and one can expect that they will vote for those who are willing to extend the sale for two, four, or six more years.

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On May 5, Britain votes in a referendum on a new electoral system called “alternative vote,” also used in Australia (polls show it going down to defeat), but in Scotland and Wales, there are also elections to the devolved parliaments. The Scottish National Party (SNP), which advocates independence for Scotland within the E.U., is heading up a minority administration with about 36% of the seats in the Scottish Parliament.

Now, a new poll shows the SNP opening up a big lead in the upcoming election, with 45% in the constituency vote and 42% on the party-list regional ballot. Since Scotland has a compensatory mixed-member system like Germany’s, the latter percentage is the better guide to the ultimate seat breakdown. If the SNP indeed wins north of 40% of the seats, they may have enough votes to authorize a secession referendum with the support of minor secessionist parties like the Scottish Greens and Scottish Socialists. Whether such a referendum could obtain the requisite 55% of the vote is doubtful, but such a step would be historic nonetheless.

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Popular support for gay marriage has been rapidly increasing in the last two years, and several polls now show that support for gay marriage is a plurality or majority position in the American public, according to research by Nate Silver. This shift in public opinion is happening far too rapidly to be due to generational replacement, so it must be the case that many people have changed their minds. What could be the reason for the sudden shift in many Americans’ views? Silver points out that parties and candidates are placing less stress on opposition to gay marriage than they once did, creating a feedback loop in which public opposition to gay marriage further softens. It may also be that once public opinion reaches a tipping point at 50%, opposition rapidly declines because Americans don’t wish to see themselves as being on the losing side of history.

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Public opposes all proposals for cutting the deficit, except raising taxes on those making over $250,000 a year.

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In my Introduction to Political Philosophy class semester, I gave an essay final examination in which students had the option to answer this question: “Using one of the moral or political philosophies we have studied, defend a moral position on one of the following contemporary political issues: school vouchers, immigration restrictions, interrogational torture, or affirmative action.” As it turns out, 12 students chose to write an essay on school vouchers. All 12 of them came out in support of school vouchers. I thought this was striking, as even interrogational torture did not achieve perfect unanimity in students’ views of the topic.

Are we witnessing a generational shift in opinion on school choice, much as we have seen on same-sex marriage and to a lesser extent marijuana legalization? Much has been made of Millennials as a “progressive” or even “statist generation.” Certainly, today’s under-30′s are far more likely to identify as Democrats, to support “socialism” and oppose “capitalism,” and to come out in favor of government activism on a wide range of issues than any other age group, even those just a couple of years older. (My pet theory is that this has something to do with their coming of age after the fall of Communism.) However, on same-sex partnerships and marijuana policy, under-30′s are relatively libertarian, and school choice may be another such issue. After all, like marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage, school choice is an issue that may have been debated by academics decades ago but only entered the policy conversation in the 1990′s. As Millennials age and start voting more, while today’s elderly die and leave the electorate, we should expect the political spectrum to shift somewhat toward their views, assuming that these opinion trends are true birth cohort effects and not life cycle effects.

So what do the data say about school vouchers? (more…)

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