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March 29, 2013 11:30 AM The Real Reason Public Opinion Doesn’t Work

By Jonathan Bernstein

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.

[Originally posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.
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Comments

  • Dana on March 30, 2013 2:27 PM:

    "For the most part, we only take action when we canít do other things" - which is why "freedom of speech" is the most effective and insidious tool ever invented for suppression of dissent.