Is "Popular Rule" Possible? Polls, Political Psychology, and Democracy

Article excerpt

The celebrated political philosopher H. L. Mencken once characterized democracy as "the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." Democratic theorists have mostly focused on the latter issue, without taking seriously the complexities lurking beneath the notion that "the common people know what they want." The ubiquity of opinion polls probing every conceivable aspect of modern politics and government both reflects and reinforces the notion that the primary problem of modern democracy is to translate definite public preferences into policy. Leaders may ignore the dictates of public opinion, but they are assumed to do so only with good reason--and at their electoral peril.

My aim here is to suggest that this conventional view of democracy is fundamentally unrealistic. Whether it would be desirable to have a democracy based on public opinion is beside the point, because public opinion of the sort necessary to make it possible simply does not exist. The very idea of "popular rule" is starkly inconsistent with the understanding of political psychology provided by the past half-century of research by psychologists and political scientists. That research offers no reason to doubt that citizens have meaningful values and beliefs, but ample reason to doubt that those values and beliefs are sufficiently complete and coherent to serve as a satisfactory starting point for democratic theory. In other words, citizens have attitudes but not preferences--a distinction directly inspired by the work of psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. My argument extends Kahneman and Tversky's research, which challenges the behavioral assumptions underlying conventional economic theory, to the realm of politics and emphasizes particularly the challenge it poses to the most fundamental assumptions of democratic theory.

"Framing Effects"

Kahneman and Tversky have called attention to "framing effects"--situations in which different ways of posing, or "framing," a policy issue produce distinctly different public responses. Framing effects are hard to accommodate within a theory built on the assumption that citizens have definite preferences to be elicited; but they are easy to reconcile with the view that any given question may tap a variety of more or less relevant attitudes. The problem for democratic theory is that the fluidity and contingency of attitudes make it impossible to discern meaningful public preferences on issues of public policy, because seemingly arbitrary variations in choice format or context may produce contradictory expressions of popular will.

Survey researchers have been generating examples of framing effects for several decades in experimental work on question wording and question ordering. But only recently have they begun to think of them as manifestations of more general psychological phenomena--especially of the fundamental context-dependency of attitudes. The normative implications of question-wording and question-ordering effects for our understanding of democracy remain virtually unexplored.

Framing effects can be demonstrated most simply by noting the impact on survey responses of prompting respondents to consider some particular aspect of an issue that might otherwise have been overlooked. In a classic 1950 study by Herbert Hyman and Paul Sheatsley, half of a national sample was asked, "Do you think the United States should let Communist newspaper reporters from other countries come in here and send back to their papers the news as they see it?" To that question, 36 percent said yes. The other half of the sample was asked the same question, but only after being asked whether "a Communist country like Russia should let American newspaper reporters come in and send back to America the news as they see it." In this second group, 90 percent agreed that American reporters should be allowed in Russia, and 73 percent--twice the share in the first half-sample--said that communist reporters should be allowed to work in the United States. …