Issue Publics and the Distribution
of Political Motivation
AMERICANS ARE NOTORIOUSLY IGNORANT about politics. A 2007 Pew Research Center study found that almost one-third of Americans could not name the vice president. Two-thirds of Americans did not know that the chief justice of the Supreme Court was politically conservative, and half of Americans could not identify Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Despite extensive media coverage of his trial and eventual conviction on four counts of obstruction of justice and perjury, 71 percent of Americans did not know who Scooter Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, was.1
Statistics and stories like these reinforce the idea that only a small group of Americans are motivated to care about politics. These are the most politically sophisticated citizens, who are actually interested in what goes on in Washington, D.C., and take time in their lives to become informed about politics. Because they enjoy politics, they are likely to be well informed about a wide range of policy issues—from foreign policy to health care policy. This appetite for politics puts them in stark contrast to the majority of Americans who do not know the political leaning of the chief justice or cannot identify the Speaker of the House. This view of the American public, often called the attentive public model, assumes that people are political generalists: either they care about politics or they do not.
The issue public model, in contrast, assumes that people are not political generalists. Instead, people specialize and concern themselves with the issues they care most about. The concept of issue publics begins with the simple notion that in politics, different people care about different things. Some people are passionately concerned about the environment, while others may care nothing about the environment but are intensely concerned about tax policy. Still others care mostly about the state of the economy, civil rights issues, or one of a myriad of other policy issues. Many people