University of Minnesota political scientist Lawrence Jacobs and James Druckman of Northwestern have published a powerful new book that, unfortunately, provides smart, documented fodder for even more cynicism about how our system works.
In “Who Governs?” they track the rise of private polling commissioned by three presidents during the early days of the modern polling era — Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
By studying polls, confidential internal White House memos that have become public and other documents, and fitting them into the policy history of those three presidencies, Jacobs and Druckman have assembled an argument that as polling became more pervasive, presidents used the data not to give the public the policies that had the widest support but to manipulate public opinion. By their mastery of that dark art, they were free to govern generally on behalf of their most powerful supporters and, they believed, still maintain their popularity.
Political scientist John Sides, a frequent contributor to the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog (which brings a lot of political science writing into the newspaper) on Monday published a q-and-a with the authors that summarizes the book’s argument. (The interview was conducted via email and, as far as I can tell, the answers represent a joint product of the two authors.) Here are some key excerpts from the answers:
Jacobs and Druckman:
“Reagan revolutionized polling and produced a striking political innovation that helps to explain a riddle: Why do Americans support politicians who adopt policies that they don’t really agree with? Even as he pushed policies favored by the wealthy and politically organized conservatives, Reagan used polls to figure out how to appeal to Americans on the basis of his winsome personality and to focus them on policies that they did support.
“Reagan’s innovation also helps shed light on how economic inequality has expanded in America since the 1980s. The mastery of polling and public promotion by Reagan and his successors equipped them with the skills and confidence to pursue policies favored by their supporters while working to fend off punishment at the voting booth. As we saw when Reagan and later George W. Bush supported tax cuts that primarily benefited the affluent, presidents no longer ran scared about pursuing policies that accepted or expanded economic inequality.”
LBJ attempted something similar on the issue of the Vietnam War, with less success.
Jacobs and Druckman:
“Our conclusion from the Johnson experience — and other research — is that presidents cannot manipulate public opinion as they’d like. But the conclusion is hardly uplifting: they are able to impact what issues the public considers worthy of attention and their over-confidence in moving Americans entices them into damaging blunders (like Vietnam) and squandering their resources on policies that exceed what is feasible…
“We have revealed a somber picture of American democracy as having been contorted to favor the already advantaged and political insiders. But this is not the only story we discovered. We discovered again and again that presidents failed to manufacture public opinion as they planned. Take Reagan, for example, who had to do an about-face when polls revealed the public backlash against his proposal to make Social Security voluntary.”
The book focuses on three presidents, the most recent of whom, Reagan, left office in 1989, because these were the presidents for whom they had access to the documents. Sides asked them if they believed that the pattern they detected would generally describe the use of polling by more recent presidents.
Jacobs and Druckman:
“We think that they do generalize. Obviously, we don’t have access to the inside operations of the Obama White House but we would expect that it devoted polls to identifying the most effective words, arguments, and symbols to sell its policies and win over public support. The president’s advantage is being able to test and refine his public arguments before he gives them publicly.”
The book is titled “Who Governs?” but subtitled “Presidents, Public Opinion and Manipulation.” It’s very clear from their conclusions that the authors believe that object of “manipulation” was the general public. And that the answer to “Who Governs” is that presidents often govern on behalf of their most powerful backers.