Public Opinion and Constitutional Controversy

Public Opinion and Constitutional Controversy

Public Opinion and Constitutional Controversy

Public Opinion and Constitutional Controversy


American politics is most notably characterized by the heated debates on constitutional interpretation at the core of its ever-raging culture wars, and the coverage of these lingering disputes are often inundated with public-opinion polls. Yet for all their prominence in contemporary society, there has never been an all-inclusive, systematic study of public opinion and how it impacts the courts and electoral politics.

Public Opinion and Constitutional Controversyis the first book to provide a comprehensive analysis of American public opinion on the key constitutional controversies of the twentieth century, including desegregation, school prayer, abortion, the death penalty, affirmative action, gay rights, assisted suicide, and national security, to name just a few. With essays focusing on each issue in-depth, Nathaniel Persily, Jack Citrin, Patrick Egan, and an established group of scholars utilize cutting edge public-opinion data to illustrate these contemporary debates, methodically examining each one and how public attitudes have shifted over time, especially in the wake of prominent Supreme Court decisions. More than just a compilation of available data, however, these essays join the "popular constitutionalism" debate between those who advocate a dominant role for courts in constitutional adjudication and those who prefer a more pluralized constitutional discourse. Each essay also vividly details the gap between the public and the Supreme Court on these hotly contested issues and analyzes how and why this divergence of opinion has grown or shrunk over the last fifty years.

Ultimately,Public Opinion and Constitutional Controversysheds light on a major yet understudied part of American politics, providing an incisive look at the crucial part played by the voice of the people on the issues that have become an indelible part of the modern-day political landscape.


More than a century and a half ago, Alexis de Tocqueville observed: “There is hardly a political question in the United States which does not sooner or later turn into a judicial one” (Tocqueville 1969). Were he writing today, de Tocqueville might be equally struck by issue evolution in the opposite direction, with judicial opinions serving as the progenitors of political conflict and constitutional controversies increasingly defining the political cleavages of the American public. Whether the conflict concerns racial integration or abortion, school prayer or gay rights, flag burning or the right to die, the most polarizing controversies of today’s politics often find a home in the courtroom as well as in the legislative chamber or candidate debate.

This book examines these and other constitutional controversies by focusing on the opinions the American public has expressed in the last half century of polling on these issues. Others have assessed the magnitude and importance of these debates by focusing on elite behavior and organized political action, but we were struck by the absence of a book that presents in one place the reservoir of relevant public opinion data (Rosenberg 1991; Klarman 2005). Indeed, for all the talk about the centrality of these highly emotional issues to modern political discourse, voting behavior, and public policy debates, systematic analysis of opinion on the collection of topics explored here presents itself only sporadically in journal articles, in the postmortem discussion of a particular election, or in individual chapters in larger works (Page & Shapiro 1992; Mayer 1993).

More than a compendium of interesting data on high-profile social conflicts, this book makes two chief contributions to contemporary debates . . .

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