Some observers claim that officials are relatively insensitive to public opinion and so entrenched in their positions that they pay little attention to what ordinary citizens think. While this assessment undoubtedly applies to some officials and some issues, a comprehensive study conducted on the relationship between public opinion and policy concluded that public opinion does in fact sway government. Page and Shapiro's (1983) study examined 50 years of polls and policy decisions and found that when public opinion on an issue changed, policy usually changed in the direction of the change in public opinion. This pattern was particularly evident in the case of major issues. Based on this evidence, the study's authors concluded: "When Americans' policy preferences shift, it is likely that congruent changes in policy will follow."
Jim Stimson on Public Opinion (16:26)
Measuring Public Opinion
Some methods of measuring public opinion are election returns, letters to the editor in newspapers, email messages to elected officials, and the size of crowds at mass demonstrations. However, there are limitations. Elections offer only a yes no choice between candidates, and different voters choose the same candidate for different reasons. In addition, active groups can be unrepresentative of the population as a whole. Fewer than 1% of Americans participate each year in a mass demonstration, and fewer than 10% write to the president or a member of Congress. Studies have found that the opinions of letter writers and demonstrators are more extreme than those of most citizens.
Public Opinion Polls
Polls provide a more systematic method of estimating public sentiment. A sample of people are interviewed in order to estimate the opinions of a whole population. If a sufficient number of individuals are chosen at random, their views will tend to be representative of those held by the population.
Random selection is the key to scientific polling. The accuracy of a poll is expressed in terms of sampling error: the degree to which the sample estimates might differ from what the population actually thinks. The larger the sample, the smaller the sampling error, which is usually expressed as a plus or minus percentage. For example, a properly drawn sample of 1000 individuals has a sampling error of roughly plus or -3%.
Only rarely does a pollster have a list of all individuals in a population, so they sample based on telephone numbers. Pollsters are increasingly worried about the future of telephone polling because (1) some households do not have phones, (2) the percentage who refuse to participate has increased sharply, and (3) the use of cell phones, which are not included in most computer-based telephone sampling, has risen significantly.
The accuracy of polling is diminished when respondents are asked about an issue they have not considered. In such instances, interviewees usually offer a response in order not to appear uninformed or uninterested. On sensitive topics, some interviewees will give what they regard as the socially correct response rather than what they actually think. The way in which an issue is framed, whether it is accompanied by relevant facts, the ordering in which the alternatives are presented, and the precise alternatives offered can all affect people's responses.
Emphasizes how the values and preferences of governing elites, which differ from those of the public at large, affect public policy development. The primary assumption is that the values and preferences of the general public are less influential than those of a smaller, unrepresentative group of people (elites).
Who are the Elites?
Economic elites: Foundations, wealthy people, corporate executives, investment bankers, professionals such as physicians and attorneys
Cultural elites: Celebrated actors, filmmakers, recording artists, or other media stars
Government & policy elites: Elected officials as well as other influential policy actors, such as scientists, and policy analysts
Domhoff: Ruling Class Cohesiveness (2:08)
Application of Elite Theory
A single power elite or establishment is seldom at the center of all policy decisions; different elites tend to dominate in different policy areas. However, by emphasizing the power of these groups, elite theory demonstrates that the U.S. policy making process may not be as democratic as many believe it to be.
For example, critics of President George W. Bush's energy and environmental policies were convinced that they were shaped with the interests of a corporate elite in mind, particularly those representing large manufacturing interests; oil and natural gas producers; electric power companies; and mining, timber, and similar interests (Kraft and Kamieniecki 2007).
Sub-governments / Issue Networks
Much policy making occurs in less formal settings or venues and involves policy actors within particular issue areas; these informal arrangements are known as sub-governments or issue networks (Heclo 1978; Lowi 1979). Iron triangles is another common term, referring to the supposed power of their three components: congressional subcommittees, an executive agency, and an outside economic interest group. Sub-governments usually operate under the radar of most citizens and are less likely than the more formal institutions to be influenced by citizen values or policy preferences.
Decision making about many programs and policies tends to be highly specialized. Because of the complexity of public problems and policies, and the often detailed knowledge required to understand them, specialization will likely continue to be the norm. Each group develops its own, distinctive channels of communication and terminology to discuss policy issues.
Historically, sub-governments have been exceptionally powerful in setting U.S. policy, particularly so in areas of limited interest to the general public (such as agricultural subsidies, mining and forestry, weapons procurement, and highway and dam construction). Today these groups are less autonomous and generally operate with more visibility and outside participation. Nevertheless, they are still important.
Domhoff: U.S. Ruling Class Opinion Management & Reagan's Keynesianism (3:48)
Berman, Larry, and Bruce Allen Murphy. 2001. Approaching Democracy. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Heclo, Hugh. 1978. "Issue Networks and the Executive Establishment." In The New American Political System. Edited by Anthony King. Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute.
Kraft, Michael E. and Scott R. Furlong, 2010. Public Policy: Politics, Analysis, and Alternatives 3rd ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press.
Kraft, Michael E. and Sheldon Kamieniecki, eds. 2007. Business and Environmental Policy: Corporate Interests in the American Political System. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Lowi, Theodore J. 1979. The End of Federalism. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton.
Patterson, Thomas E. 2009. The American Democracy. 9th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.