On government by public opinion 📊 July 12, 2020

Though imperfect barometers of opinion, polls serve an invaluable role in democracies

Welcome! I’m G. Elliott Morris, a data journalist and political analyst who mostly covers polls, elections, and political science. Happy Sunday! This is my weekly email where I write about news and politics using data and share links to what I’ve been reading and writing. 

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Dear reader,

Donald Trump giving clemency to Roger Stone raises a lot of hard questions about American democracy. Above all, it proves that our democracy relies more on elected officials acting in good faith than we’re taught in our civics classes; if individuals can weaken our government the way Donald Trump has, how strong is that government really?

But the commuting of Stone’s sentence is also significant as a betrayal of popular sovereignty in America. A majority of respondents to a YouGov poll earlier this year said that they didn’t want him to get off the hook, and only a fourth of citizens supported pardoning him. Yet the government granted him clemency. To be sure, this is not a surprising betrayal given the last 3 years, but it is a notable one.

So I want to focus on a related question today: How should we think about a popular government; a government by public opinion? And what good are the polls at furthering this goal? These are questions I’m pondering while I write about the history of polling for my book — and as I promised to share some nuggets of knowledge with y’all while I write it, this week’s email seemed an appropriate avenue for this very important topic.


On government by public opinion

Though imperfect barometers of opinion, polls serve an invaluable role in democracies

The original genius of American democracy was that it should be of, for, and by the people. The institutions were to be organized, or so James Madison fashioned them, to maximize the influence that the people had over their government while also preventing the chance that “fits of passion” or “democratic whims” could supplant reason on the road to good governance. Thomas Jefferson too, in his ultimate trust of (white, land-owning, male) citizens, proclaimed when discussing a major overhaul of the military that “great innovations should not be forced on slender majorities” — the government should do things that people soundly support. After all, if it’s not, what’s the point of popular sovereignty?

These same ideas have reverberated in American political thought since the founding. James Bryce, the British ambassador to the United States between 1907 and 1913, wrote plentifully and with high-minded idealism about a “Government by Public Opinion” in his book The American Commonwealth, which was a study of American democratic institutions in the vein of de Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Bryce writes:

[Public] opinion has really been the chief and ultimate power in nearly all nations at nearly all times. I do not mean merely the opinions of the class to which the rulers belong. I mean the opinion, unspoken, unconscious, but not the less real and potent, of the masses of the people. Governments have always rested and, special cases apart, must rest, if not on the affection, then on the reverence or awe, if not on the active approval, then on the silent acquiescence, of the numerical majority.

(My emphasis there at the end. He continues below:)

It is only by rare exception that a monarch or an oligarchy has maintained authority against the will of the people. [….] That even the Roman Empire, that eldest child of war and conquest, did not rest on force but on the consent and goodwill of its subjects is shown by the smallness of its standing armies, nearly the whole of which were employed against frontier enemies, because there was rarely any internal revolt or disturbance to be feared.

[….] The difference, therefore, between despotically governed and free countries does not consist in the fact that the latter are ruled by opinion and the former by force, for both are generally ruled by opinion. It consists rather in this, that in the former the people instinctively obey a power which they do not know to be really of heir own creation, and to stand by their own permission; whereas in the latter the people feel their supremacy, and consciously treat their rulers as their agents, while the rulers obey a power which they admit to have made and to be able to unmake them—the popular will.

Bryce says that the American tendency to hand matters over to the public is a uniquely democratic one; one that legitimizes the rule of our leaders and assures them that if they stray from public opinion, they shall be deposed. He writes in grandiose language about the value of town hall meetings in Massachusetts: “The town meeting was a simple and effective way of articulating public opinion, and the decisions made by the meeting kept close to the public will.” People living in modern and democratic societies may take for granted the power that agreeing to govern and be governed gives us over our leaders.

George Gallup was one of the earlier fans of Bryce’s writing on public opinion, and he worked tirelessly to elevate polling to a status revered and respected enough to impact the government in the way Bryce described. Gallup believed, as Bryce did, nobly but perhaps naively, that the opinions of common men and women would reflect in aggregate the wisdom required to improve the positions of both the country and its inhabitants. And, crucially, both Gallup and Bryce contest that the opinions of the common citizen do not need to be informed and educated to be meaningful. In fact, that could even be detrimental. Of the lower classes who do not think of political matters all day, Bryce writes:

It is therefore rather sentiment than thought that the mass can contribute, a sentiment grounded on a few broad principles and simple trains of reasoning; and the soundness and elevation of their sentiment will have more to do with their taking their stand on the side of justice, honor and peace, than any reasoning they can apply to the shifting of the multifarious facts thrown before them, and to the drawing of the legitimate inferences therefrom.

Thus the necessity of measuring opinion. Such theory was Gallup’s main motivation for popularizing political polling, and the ideas which his many successors and students have iterated upon. By measuring and conveying the public’s opinions we can assert that the government ought to be listening. For if they have the information on public advice which shows a great majority to be in favor of an action and ignores them, especially across a range of actions, the people then are assured that their leaders are not listening to them — which is better than to be left wondering. Polls empowered voters to hold their leaders accountable in this way, especially between elections when they otherwise have no strict way of doing so.

It follows then that if public opinion is good, and if polls are good, then the state of the public polling industry is of massive import. The occasional breakdown in pollsters’ ability to measure the public will — measured most often as their success or failure to anticipate election outcomes — can lead to a direct breakdown in how the public is communicating with its government. Lower response rates in live-caller phone polls increase costs of surveys and disrupt the ability for many firms to take Gallup’s “pulse of democracy.” A shift to online polls further raises questions about the attitudes of Americans without broadband internet access. The steps the industry takes in bringing polling into the 21st century have enormous consequences for democracy, and indeed for preserving a government by public opinion.

The reputation of the polls is important, too; if you believe that the government should listen to the people, then you must embrace polling as the most effective tool of conveying their opinions to our leaders. Yet many of us denounce polls—they missed the election in 2016, after all; how could they be valuable? Once we accept that polls are inexact tools when predicting elections (particularly because pre-election polling requires performing the very hard task of figuring out who will actually turn out to vote), then I think we can better appreciate their value (especially outside of the electoral context).


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What I'm Reading and Working On

As the excerpts above suggest, I’m reading and really enjoying James Bryce’s The American Commonwealth — specifically the chapters on public opinion. Here’s a review of the volumes from the 1889 volume of “Political Science Quarterly,” though I have misgivings about the author…


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