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April 03, 2013 10:19 AM How Much Do Politicians Really Care About Public Opinion?

By Jonathan Bernstein

I’m not gong to get full-on cranky at Robert Reich’s column today…only somewhat cranky.

Reich’s complaint is that politicians are happy to follow public opinion when it comes to marriage equality, guns, and immigration…but on raising taxes for rich people politicians ignore public opinion. To his credit, he cites real research, from Page and Bartels, on the question of politicians ignoring the poor and even the middle-class. So I won’t get too cranky.

But really…well, I’ll give you some context before I complain:

Who says American politics is gridlocked? A tidal wave of politicians from both sides of the aisle who just a few years ago opposed same-sex marriage are now coming around to support it. Even if the Supreme Court were decide to do nothing about California’s Proposition 8 or DOMA, it would seem only matter of time before both were repealed…

It’s nice to think logic and reason are finally catching up with our elected representatives, but the real explanation for these changes of heart is more prosaic: public opinion…

The exception is in the economic sphere, where public opinion seems beside the point…

Before January’s fiscal cliff deal, for example, at least 60 percent of Americans, in poll after poll, expressed strong support for raising taxes on incomes over $250,000. As you recall, though, the deal locked in the Bush tax cut for everyone earning up to $400,000.

Yes, legislative deals require compromise. But why is it that deals over economic policy almost always compromise away what a majority of Americans want?

Yes, well. It is absolutely true that Senate Democrats have gone stampeding on marriage…enough that there are almost a majority for it. Which is still far short of what they would need to actually do anything.

Also: they haven’t actually done anything on guns.

Also: they haven’t actually done anything on immigration.

And that’s the Senate. The easy side, for these policies!

In other words, Congress did, after all, raise taxes, albeit after compromise. They haven’t done these other things that Reich compares them to at all.  And yet Reich somehow managers to believe that it’s raising taxes and other “big money” items, in particular, that politicians refuse to do despite public opinion.

The problem is that when you talk about things this way, ignoring what actual politicians are actually doing on actual issues, you lose the ability to effectively criticize — and the opportunity to potentially do something about it. Anyone reading Reich’s column would have no idea that the parties differ on all of these issues; that 51 Democrats in the Senate just voted for a budget which raises revenues; that Republicans not only oppose revenues, but that low taxes for rich people may be their highest priority, while (once again) most Democrats support Reich’s position on this, and have voted for it in the House and the Senate; and that not all Democrats are the same on this or any issue.

All of which is a terrible message to send to activists and potential activists. People who read Reich and believe him wouldn’t realize that there’s any point to getting active in primary elections or even in general elections; his story is one of “politicians” in general who don’t care about what anyone thinks on any of these issues. Even worse, he’s portraying a world in which there are only two things: politicians moved by public opinion on most things, and by the rich on others. Nothing about parties, interest groups (outside of those representing the rich), or activists. It’s a world in which individual political action doesn’t make a difference.

That’s not true. It’s not true on marriage, it’s not true on guns, it’s not true on immigration…and it’s not true on “big money” issues.

[Cross-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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