An aide of President Harry S. Truman once wrote that Truman “didn’t believe in polls. He would do what he thought was right and what the facts warranted. He figured the polls would have to catch up with him.” Contrast this with what Bill Clinton’s master strategist Dick Morris told a national television audience a few years ago: “President Clinton uses polls as often as he breathes. I don’t think there’s a single area of American life he hasn’t polled on.”
In Politicians Don’t Pander, University of Minnesota political scientist Lawrence Jacobs and Columbia University political scientist Robert Shapiro argue that politicians don’t use polls to determine policies. But whereas others argue that politicians do not and should not pander to public opinion, Jacobs and Shapiro insist that they don’t but should. “Pander” is a derogatory term used by critics “to belittle government responsiveness to public opinion.” But “it is surely odd in a democracy,” they write, “to consider responsiveness to public opinion as disreputable.”
The paradox as they see it is that as American politicians and professional pollsters have formed an ever tighter union, American government has become less and less responsive to public preferences.
What explains this paradox? Politicians, Jacobs and Shapiro argue, have two primary goals: to enact their policy preferences and to be reelected. While the latter heightens sensitivity to centrist opinion as elections approach, their policy goals, often reflecting the desires of narrow interests and ideological partisans, are largely independent of public opinion. So the pursuit of policy goals carries some reelection risk. Hence politicians need experts who can teach them how to craft reassuring rhetoric to make their policies acceptable to the public.
Too often, however, this takes the form of sophistical manipulation of opinion, not genuine persuasion on the merits of policy proposals. Politicians use opinion experts not to engage, much less to enlighten voters, but to identify “the words, arguments, and symbols about specific policies that the centrist public finds most appealing.” Jacobs and Shapiro call this process “simulated responsiveness,” which is something quite different from the genuine responsiveness to public opinion that they think ought to govern politicians in a democracy.
Most of Politicians Don’t Pander is a close examination of the defeat of President Clinton’s national health care plan in 1993-94. Public opinion backed Clinton’s proposal in the early months but eventually turned decisively against it. Consistent with the authors’ view that the defeat of Clintoncare had little to do with its substantive deficiencies, there is almost nothing here on the congressional deliberations that led to the demise of Clinton’s far-reaching proposal in the summer of 1994. It was the rhetorical campaign that was decisive, they argue, and especially the ways in which media coverage exacerbated political conflict and contributed to a general unease about change among voters who were, on the whole, quite satisfied with their own health coverage.
In a later chapter, the authors show that Clinton learned from the Democrats’ rout in the 1994 election the necessity of compromising his “own policy goals as well as those of many Democratic legislators, activists, and allies.” Clinton “in effect pursued a median voter strategy” which led him to adopt policy positions “closest to the midpoint of public opinion,” especially on welfare reform and balancing the budget. This is a major qualification, to say the least, to the authors’ argument that opinion polls do not determine policy choices.
One lesson taught by the political debates of 1993-96 is that politicians tend to overestimate their ability to move public opinion. This was as true for congressional Republicans in 1995-96, as it was for White House officials in 1993-94. The authors nicely show how even the president’s voice, trumpeted from his much vaunted bully pulpit, “can be drowned out by the chorus of other establishment figures.” Clearly, then, the new rhetorical arts, available to parties on both sides, have not dramatically enhanced the ability of politicians to have their way.
So what, then, is the problem?
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Turns out there are two. First, political rhetoric designed to manipulate and deceive the American people has “corrupt[ed] public communications and public debate” by expanding politicians’ “capability to invade and attempt to dominate public discussion.” Second, insofar as the new rhetoric is successful at moving public opinion or at “obscur[ing] actual policy goals,” it undermines democratic responsiveness.
To remedy the first, Jacobs and Shapiro advocate the creation of an autonomous public sphere in which people deliberate about public policy free from manipulation by politicians. They go so far as to propose a “new corollary to the Bill of Rights: citizens have a right to debate and form critical views of government without facing poll-honed campaigns to manipulate their evaluations” (emphasis in the original). It is more than a bit mysterious how such a right would be enforced short of draconian restrictions on the political speech of our elected officials.
And what of political rhetoric that truly informs and educates the citizenry? How are we to protect the people from bad rhetoric without shutting them off from salutary public discourse? The authors approvingly cite Woodrow Wilson on the need for responsive government, but they fail to mention the Wilsonian prescription for rule by orators who would decisively shape the public mind.
As for the second problem, the book’s closing chapters are a plea for greater governmental responsiveness to public opinion. The health and perhaps even the survival of American democracy require “that politicians follow the popular will and allow citizens to engage in unfettered debate.” Opposition to this view is based not on “evidence and logic,” Jacobs and Shapiro claim, but more likely on a “deep-seated prejudice” against democracy.
Among those allegedly infected with this prejudice were the American Founders. But for all their insistence on democratic responsiveness, Jacobs and Shapiro themselves carve out a sphere within which representatives may exercise “some degree of independence, discretion, and judgment as they respond to public preferences.” These reservations against democratic responsiveness are not dissimilar from those that the framers sought to infuse into their fundamentally popular government. How, then, do Jacobs and Shapiro differ from James Madison and his colleagues?
The key difference seems to be this: although Jacobs and Shapiro concede that “representatives have a duty to do what they believe is in the best interests of their constituents,” they confine this principle to routine matters outside the public eye—or rare national emergencies. What standards of behavior, then, ought to guide the representative faced with decisions on such controversial matters as health care, welfare, social security, taxes, and defense? Should our leaders simply follow centrist opinion as revealed in polls or do what appears to be best for their constituents and the nation?
To ask these questions is virtually to answer them, and to remind us of the wisdom of the founders who rejected pandering to voters in favor of the far more difficult duty of representing them, responsibly.