This paper analyzes the book on public opinion by Benjamin Page and Robert Shapiro.
In their book The Rational Public, Ben Page and Robert Shapiro establish two theses: 1) the public is rational; and 2) it is possible to describe how Americans’ preference for government policies has changed over the years. Page and Shapiro base their book on a close examination of fifty years of public opinion polls, and have concluded that the American people are not as easily swayed, misled and unthinking as many have claimed. They wrote the book to show that “the collective policy preferences of the American public are predominately rational in the sense that they are real – not meaningless, random ‘non-attitudes’; that they are generally stable … they are coherent … [they] make sense … and when they change … they … do so in understandable and predictable ways…” (P. xi).
The authors devote the book to the proving these assertions, using, as I mentioned, public opinion polls from the past.
The authors first discuss politics, and point out that many Americans have little solid knowledge of their administration, how their tax money is spent; who their senators and representatives are, and other similar lacunae in their knowledge of the American government. (P. 13-14).
However, they also argue that Americans generally have an idea of the broad outline of major current events, even if they are hazy on specifics.
But, they argue, when the statistical data of a number of opinion polls is put together, the aggregate result is not only sound, but is rational and intelligent, not merely foolish.
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They suggest that numerous factors affect the answers a person gives to an opinion survey, and that the answers may change as the influencing factors change. (P. 16).
If an individual’s responses are measured over time, the picture that emerges is likely to reflect the person’s true opinion. They continue:
“If this picture of individuals’ opinions is correct, then at any given moment the public as a whole also has real collective policy preferences … Moreover – and this is the key point – at any given moment the random deviation of individuals from their long-term opinions may well cancel out over a large sample…” (P. 16).
Thus, Page and Shapiro opine that by this mechanism, even frivolous opinions, when considered in the aggregate, do in fact become rational and plausible.
The authors then move on to explore the size and frequency of opinion changes, and to debunk the “myth” that “the American public’s policy preferences shift frequently, rapidly, and arbitrarily.” (P. 37).
The authors point out that “the seeming three of four percentage point shift” in polls taken a few days apart may be due to sampling error and not reflect any change at all. Errors also creep in when questions use pejorative wording, when bias is apparent on the part of the interviewer, or when different questions are asked about the same issue. “The only safe way to identify opinion change—is to compare answers to identical survey questions…” (P. 39).
With all this in mind, the authors explore various facets of American life, beginning with social issues (civil rights, women’s rights, crime and punishment, etc.).
It is in this area that public opinion has undergone the greatest change over the period of the study. Here as nowhere else there has been a significant shift in public opinion towards tolerance, equality and egalitarianism. (P. 67).
We can see this in the gains made by African-Americans, gays, women and other minorities. The authors suggest that these large swings in public opinion were the result of many factors, including a “powerful social movement”. (P. 76).
American Public Safety Which of these spheres should be granted more devotion, the public safety or our own individual selves? Individualism became an issue when we as people began increasingly to demand more individual freedom and started to place more value on self-chosen individual achievement over mandated national achievement. Ever since these ideas were formed into governmental ideology, as ...
This movement included such events as Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech; the Freedom Rides; and President Lyndon Johnson’s historic passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Public opinion here may simply have been caught up in something larger: an ideal of equality and freedom whose time had finally come. But the fact also remains that (to take one example) over time the southern opinion polls, which at first favored continued segregation, swung to more nearly match those of the north, which favored integration. (Pp. 76-79).
Because civil rights is such an important concept for Americans to understand, the authors place it in a broad historical context, going back to before the Civil War. The “Social Issues” chapter is perhaps the richest in the book.
The authors treat the remaining chapters the same way, considering each subject in the light of the opinion polls that have been conducted about it. In their final conclusion, they say they believe that Americans tended to become steadily more “liberal”—to view Social Security, education, the environment, consumer safety, worker safety and similar concerns as projects and programs that mattered and should be supported and funded.
They also discuss foreign policy, and for the first time, bring in the idea of government manipulation of information and events in support of its agenda. (P. 283).
But they feel that Americans often see through these charades and refuse to support them.
In the penultimate chapter, the authors deal with some of the causes of change in public opinion, which may be internal (change in education or income) or external (war, crises); and in the last chapter they speak to the ways in which the public may be deliberately misled, such as when information is presented that is “…overwhelmingly false, misleading or biased … And – no dissenting voices are heard…” (P. 382).
(This last should have a very familiar ring for contemporary Americans.)
The authors conclude the book with a recap of the material, and then say that if American democracy is in trouble, “… the American public should not be blamed. The fault is more likely to lie with officials and elites who fail to respond to the citizenry…” (P. 397).
Page, Benjamin I. and Robert Y. Shapiro. The Rational Public: 50 Years of Trends in Americans’ Policy Preferences. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1992.
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