Publis Opinion and
Every year, countless polls report the latest findings on "public opinion" about various issues. Viewed through this flood of poll results, public opinion analysis may seem like an endless collection of ever-changing answers to ever-changing questions—and in some ways it is. However, most academic studies of American public opinion pertain to a handful of major debates. And most of these debates speak, directly or indirectly, to what we will call the question of democratic competence.
"Democracy" means "rule of the people." But can "the people" be trusted to rule themselves well? As we noted in Chapter 7, some accounts of representative democracy assume that people need only enough wisdom to vote for responsible political leaders; then it is up to the leaders to govern in the public interest. This line of thought is sometimes called "democratic elitism." Few people fully embrace it. In practice, most voters in most American elections decide only whether to vote for the Democratic or the Republican candidate. They have played little, if any, role in choosing these candidates. 1 If democracy means real popular control over what the government does, then picking a party may not be enough. Perhaps "the people" must have considered opinions on political issues and must be able to ensure that government carries out these wishes.
What are "considered opinions"? This takes us back to the question of whether the people can rule themselves well. What sort of public opinion is worthy of becoming public policy? At least three standards for considered public opinion come to mind: (1) People must have adequate knowledge of the political issues at stake, (2) people must deliberate on these