of Public Opinion
Q. What do you believe is the most important problem facing the country right now? [early 1960s] A. Cuba. Q. Why do you think Cuba is the most important problem…? A. We should blast Cuba off the map. I don't care why. Just do it. It should be obvious why. Q. What do you think the government should do about this situation? A. It's hard to say really. I am really not one to say like my husband was. We should stop sending all our money to the Commies. And we should make all the draft dodgers and those Commies at (state university) fight on the front lines some day. My ex-husband was a retired Army man, you know. —John H. Kessel (1965, pp. 378, 381). Q. What do the terms liberal and conservative mean to you? A. Not too much really. For some reason conservative gets identified with the South—identified with drabby looking clothes vs. more something I would wear, drabby clothes, too, but it is just a different type.—W. Russell Neuman (1986, p. 19).
These responses (which were actually given by two survey respondents) are not conspicuous for their informational content nor their logical consistency. Yet they were fairly typical of a substantial portion of respondents in these two studies, which were conducted in largely middle-class, metropolitan areas.
According to the theory of democratic government, an informed populace is the bulwark of freedom. It is the citizen's duty to form an opinion about public affairs and to express it at the ballot box. And democratic governments are expected to be responsive to public opinion on important issues.
But are the average citizen's attitudes on major public issues well-informed? Are they internally consistent? Are they responsive to new information and new situations? And do they have an effect on public policy? The answers to these questions bear on some of the most central assumptions underlying the democratic form of government.
Many authorities have concluded that the populace is ignorant rather than informed. As far back as 1947, Hyman and Sheatsley (p. 412) concluded that “There exists a hard core of chronic 'know-nothing's'” in the American population. Later, Converse (1964, p. 245) declared, “large portions of an electorate do not have meaningful beliefs” Yet there are arguments and evidence supporting the opposite viewpoint as well, so this issue