In a properly functioning democracy public opinion should not only be correlated with, but also a major determinant of, public policy. Is that the case in the United States? In this chapter we will address that question by covering the major lines of empirical research on the relationship between American public opinion and public policy. Our primary focus will be substantive in nature but we also need to address methodological issues about the measurement of both opinion and policy. Our general conclusion is cautiously optimistic: Policy generally does follow the contours of citizen preference, but elites also have ample opportunity to shape manifestations of public opinion.
Since the very beginnings of empirical research in the social sciences, scholars have recognized the critical importance of the opinion–policy linkage to the effective functioning of a democratic society. For example, V. O. Key stated that ‘Unless mass views have some place in the shaping of policy, all the talk about democracy is nonsense’ (1961, p 7). Similar statements can be found in the writings of such influential theorists as Lasswell (1941), Schumpeter (1950), and Easton (1965).
Indeed, the development and growth of public opinion polling was motivated in part by a desire to increase democratic responsiveness. Prior to the inception of mass surveys, the influential journalist and commentator Walter Lippmann charged that public opinion was a fiction created by political elites to justify their policy activities (1922, 1925). Hence public opinion was basically irrelevant and even detrimental to any realistic sense of governmental responsiveness. Early pollsters such as George Gallup strongly believed that survey research would enable governmental officials to learn what the public really wanted, and lead them to act accordingly (Gallup and Rae 1940).
Unfortunately, empirical social scientific research found that the world did not live up to such optimistic perspectives. For example, sociologists such as C. Wright Mills (1956) argued forcefully that public policy was generated by a ‘power elite’ that channeled governmental resources and benefits to their own ends. At the same time, other public opinion researchers were providing evidence that ordinary citizens did not seem to possess the kinds of orientations that were believed to be necessary for a properly functioning democratic political system (for example, Stouffer 1955; Prothro and Grigg 1960; McClosky 1964).