Public opinion in crisis

A stable democracy depends on a sound public opinion. It is the essential basis of agreement about what is legitimate behaviour on the part of both public institutions and many of the relations of citizens to each other. It is the central common good or communities of most sorts.

The traditional notion of public opinion

Until the advent of continuous polling what was invoked by the phrase “public opinion” was a set of beliefs and attitudes that were assumed to be shared by nearly everybody in the nation concerning the grounds on which choices of public policies were to be judged and the performances of public activities to be assessed. As contexts change, depending on the degree to which different groups approve of those changes, differences emerge in many fringe situations. As long as there is a sense of community people deal with these differences mainly by agreeing to small verbal changes that accommodate certain important new demands without abandoning traditional formulae “I’m not a feminist, but…”

Public opinion in this sense was traditionally invoked by prominent public figures, politicians, journalists and intellectuals often with such phrases as “will not tolerate” or “demands” that a government do this or that. Such public protagonists assumed that their attempts to articulate the tacit understandings on which the society operated would be endorsed by the “general public” if they thought seriously about the matter. So churchmen would assume that as Christians their followers were committed to certain views, labour leaders that justice required a certain treatment of workers and business leaders that the rights of investors be respected. They would each attempt to represent such claims as reflecting a more fundamental agreement on the way the community needed to work of it was to flourish and command loyalty.
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Foa and Mounk: The democratic disconnect

A paper in the Journal of Democracy by Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk explores trends in the tremendously valuable World Values Survey database.

Drawing on data from Waves 3 through 6 of the World Values Surveys (1995–2014), we look at four important types of measures that are clear indicators of regime legitimacy as opposed to government legitimacy: citizens’ express support for the system as a whole; the degree to which they support key institutions of liberal democracy, such as civil rights; their willingness to advance their political causes within the existing political system; and their openness to authoritarian alternatives such as military rule.

What we find is deeply concerning. Citizens in a number of supposedly consolidated democracies in North America and Western Europe have not only grown more critical of their political leaders. Rather, they have also become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives. The crisis of democratic legitimacy extends across a much wider set of indicators than previously appreciated.

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Democracy talk – Episode 4

Patrick and I discuss the upcoming U.S. elections, diminishing candidate favorability, electoral crisis, the principle of distinction and other matters.

Against elections, the video

A surprisingly militant video from David Van Reybrouck.

6 decades of decreasing favorability

Gallup has been tracking U.S. presidential candidate favorability ratings for 60 years. It turns out that this year’s candidates have the lowest net favorability (i.e., % favorable minus % unfavorable) ratings observed over those six decades, with, for the first time, both candidates having negative net ratings. Even more interesting, there is a steady trend of decline in favorability over the years.

Achen and Bartels: Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government

Via Garreth McDaid.

Political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels have a new book, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government.

I have not read the book. Chapter 1 is available online, and it certainly makes for some interesting reading. Some comments following reading that first chapter:

(1) It seems that despite their critique of electoralism the authors are not ready to abandon it. At some point they seem to indicate that they cannot imagine something better when they opine that “[n]o existing government comes close to meeting all of Dahl’s criteria [for democracy]; in our view, no possible government could.” The book’s objective seems purely analytical: to produce “a democratic theory worthy of serious social influence [which] must engage with the findings of modern social science.”

(2) The book appears to adopt the conventional electoralist terminology which makes no clear distinction between electoralism and democracy. The authors should have known better.

(3) “Democracy for realists” seems to largely retrace the elitist democratic theories which rose to prominence in political science in the third quarter of the 20th century. Indeed Joseph Schumpeter and Walter Lippmann – leading propounders of those ideas – make a prominent appearance in the first chapter. Those theories fell out of fashion when, after the civil rights struggles, dominant ideology changed and became incompatible with their conclusions. It may be that the main innovation of the book is not in “engaging with the findings of modern social science”, but in being willing to (re)acknowledge the (now-)inconvenient truths that were buried over the last 40 years or so. In that, the book seems to be very much a product of current politics.

Excerpt:

In the conventional view, democracy begins with the voters. Ordinary people have preferences about what their government should do. They choose leaders who will do those things, or they enact their preferences directly in referendums. In either case, what the majority wants becomes government policy — a highly attractive prospect in light of most human experience with governments. Democracy makes the people the rulers, and legitimacy derives from their consent. In Abraham Lincoln’s stirring words from the Gettysburg Address, democratic government is “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” That way of thinking about democracy has passed into everyday wisdom, not just in the United States but in a great many other countries around the globe. It constitutes a kind of “folk theory” of democracy, a set of accessible, appealing ideas assuring people that they live under an ethically defensible form of government that has their interests at heart.
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The representativity of a random sample: the need for mandatory participation

The unexpected Conservative majority in the 2015 UK general election has led to considerable agonising in the polling industry. Why were the polls — which consistently predicted a hung parliament, or even a Labour victory — so wrong? A polling industry enquiry has come to some interim conclusions, here paraphrased by the BBC political editor, Laura Kuennsberg:

Pollsters didn’t ask enough of the right people how they planned to vote. Proportionately they asked too many likely Labour voters, and not enough likely Conservatives.

Nobody is suggesting that this bias was intentional — it was the accidental by-product of the polling methodology which, rather than drawing a random sample and then knocking on doors (the gold standard, but very expensive), relied heavily on telephone and online surveys. The problem with phone surveys, according to Martin Boon from ICM, is that out of 30,000 random numbers only around generally 2,000 agree to participate. This sample is anything but representative:

Adam Drummond, from Opinium, suggested that the people who agreed to be interviewed were so politically enthusiastic that the would even vote in elections for the European Parliament. . . This seems like a Groucho Marx problem — people answering the phone and agreeing to answer questions about their political opinions automatically means that they are too politically engaged to be representative.

Online polling is even worse:

Online polls are answered by a database of volunteers who have signed up to be on a panel and who the company knows a lot about. When the company is commissioned to do a poll it can be sure that the people it is asking have the same features as the whole population in — for example, the proportion of men and women, or the age profile or income distribution.

However what stratified sampling does not do is to control for the level of political engagement, so

The online polls came out with much the same inaccuracies as the phone ones. Does people’s willingness to be on a panel automatically make them unrepresentative?

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