described in Chapter 7, may evoke clearer evidence about citizens' considered policy preferences. Others argue, more cautiously, that survey questions
on an issue should incorporate all the important frames that prevail in the
debate on that issue in order to give a rounded perspective on the public's
Third, we have seen data in this chapter and elsewhere in this book (see
also Chapter 10) that evince growing respect among the American public
for democratic norms such as minority rights and freedom of speech. To be
sure, some Americans reject these norms, and there is always debate about
how far these norms should be extended. Still, we find little support for the
notion that the American public is fundamentally undemocratic and therefore that its influence on policy should be minimized.
We are inclined to conclude on an optimistic note, but at the same time,
we want to honor our own warnings against trimming our facts to suit our
values. At the very least, we believe that democratic competence is possible
and that government policy can be reasonably guided by public preferences. However, we cannot guarantee that public opinion will always be
wise or good. Perhaps we can only insist that it is wiser and better than
many critics might lead you to believe.
Party primaries open to the public now play a large role in candidate selection
for most offices. Still, for many reasons, these do not guarantee that citizens will be
satisfied with the choice of candidates.
In Albert H. Cantril, ed., Polling on the Issues: Twenty-One Perspectives on
the Role of Opinion Polls in the Making of Public Policy (Cabin John, MD: Seven
Locks Press, 1980), p. 170.
Walter Lippmann, Essays in the Public Philosophy ( Boston: Little, Brown and
Co., 1955), p. 20.
To some extent, Lippmann and Gallup may be talking past each other. Most of
the polling data mentioned by Gallup did not exist when Lippmann wrote in 1955. Lippmann's "prevailing public opinion" may differ profoundly from what Gallup
found in the survey results. It is doubtful, however, that Lippmann would be much
impressed by Gallup's survey data.
A thorough survey of the evidence appears in Michael X. Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter, What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters ( New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), especially chaps. 2 and 3. Stephen Earl Bennett
and colleagues find similar results for public knowledge of foreign policy in several
nations, although Germans stand out as the most knowledgeable ( Earl Stephen Bennett
Richard S. Flickinger,
John R. Baker,
Staci L. Rhine, and
Linda L. M. Bennett, "Citizens' Knowledge of Foreign Affairs," Harvard International Journal of
Press/Politics 1 [ 1996]:10-29).
Some Americans surely confused Nicaragua with the neighboring country of El Salvador, where the United States backed the government against the Marxist