Basic Beliefs, Democratic
Theory, and Public Opinion
BRUCE WILLIAMS AND JILL A. EDY
Although understanding public opinion is important for many reasons, it is essential for the analysis of politics, especially democratic politics. Whatever else we may include in a definition of democracy, at root it must include the idea of a government responsive to the polity. Since public opinion is one way of understanding the political attitudes and beliefs of the polity, it is central to democratic politics. In this chapter, we begin to analyze the connection between public opinion and politics.
First, we will explore the position occupied by public opinion in various kinds of political systems, including democracies. Second, we will examine some of the debates about the role public opinion should play in democratic governance. Third, we will survey some of the more basic and enduring features of American public opinion that are relevant to understanding democratic politics. These basic beliefs about government, the economy, and the structure of opportunity in the United States are widely shared and underlie more diverse opinions about proximate political issues like candidates in elections or views on specific policy questions. In this way, they provide the basic structure within which public opinion and politics operate. Often ignored in both academic and popular discussions of public opinion, this basic structure constrains the boundaries of political disagreement and limits what individuals think and say about the political world. In spite of these crucial similarities, differences of opinion exist between key social groups, and we will next turn our attention to some of the more prominent and well-researched political divides. Finally, we will consider the potential for resolving conflicts of opinion about how our consensus values should be realized as public policy.