In the Boston Review, James Fishkin looks at the problems of transforming public opinion into policy and discusses a way of making better public opinion, “Deliberative Polling”, on which I posted earlier.
After seven decades of public-opinion research, we see both the power and the limitations of this vision. The power is that we can take the public’s pulse on almost every conceivable issue on a regular basis. The limitations come from what is being measured. Consider three basic limitations. First, while everyone may, in some sense, be “in one great room,” the room is so big that often no one is listening, and no one is motivated to think much about the issues. In the 1950s, the political economist Anthony Downs coined a term for this problem: “rational ignorance.” If I have but one vote or opinion out of millions, why should I spend a lot of time and effort becoming informed about complex policy questions? My individual vote or opinion will not make much difference. And most of us have more urgent demands on our time and attention. The public’s well-documented low levels of information might be regrettable to democratic theorists, but they are understandable given the incentives facing any individual citizen.
Second, sometimes the “opinions” reported in polls do not exist. Because respondents do not like to say “I don’t know,” they often pick an answer more or less at random. When George Bishop of the University of Cincinnati asked in surveys about the “Public Affairs Act of 1975,” the public offered opinions even though the act was fictional. (And when The Washington Post celebrated the fictional act’s 20th anniversary by proposing its repeal, the public offered opinions about that as well.) Of course, on some issues the public has well-formed opinions, but on many others their opinions may represent nothing more than spontaneous impressions.
A third limitation comes from the way people choose interlocutors and news sources. Even when people discuss politics or policy—and many Americans do—they tend to talk to people like themselves, from similar social spheres and often with similar views. When an intense issue divides the country and you know someone on the other side, you are more likely to discuss the weather than risk potentially unpleasant disagreements.