These results from the latest New York Times survey are supposed to be evidence that “the public continues to be ill-informed and hypocritical.”
People want lower taxes, no spending cuts, and a smaller deficit. It’s like the citizen who was quoted in a newspaper many years ago saying, “It’s the government’s deficit, not ours. Why can’t they pay it off?”
Others have already made the following technical point. Few individuals in this survey probably gave inconsistent responses. The overlap between those who wanted “no new taxes” and those who opposed spending cuts may have been fairly small. It was the aggregate result that was incoherent, and that was no individual’s fault.
Which brings me to a second, more substantial point. We must aggregate public opinion to get democratic outcomes. But we can aggregate in many different ways. One of the stupidest ways would be to call people on their home phones, out of the blue, and ask them a series of abstract questions. “Do you want lower taxes, yes or no?” “Do you want service cuts, yes or no?” If you tally up the answers and call it public opinion, that is a recipe for incoherence. You will get much better results if, for example, you ask a group of people to think, talk, and develop a consensus plan.
Nina Eliasoph’s comments from Avoiding Politics (p. 18) are relevant:
Research on inner beliefs, ideologies, and values is usually based on surveys, which ask people questions about which they may never have thought, and most likely have never discussed. … The researcher analyzing survey responses must then read political motives and understandings back into the responses, trying to reconstruct the private mental processes the interviewee ‘must have’ undergone to reach a response. That type of research would more aptly be called private opinion research, since it attempts to bypass the social nature of opinions, and tries to wrench the personally embodied, sociable display of opinions away from the opinions themselves. But in everyday life, opinions always come in a form: flippant, ironic, anxious, determined, abstractly distant, earnest, engaged, effortful. And they always come in a context–a bar, a charity group, a family, a picket–that implicitly invites or discourages debate.
In the case of the New York Times poll, the context is a very cerebral, information-rich, nonpartisan, published forum in which authors and readers are expected to think like ideal legislators and make all-things-considered judgments under realistic constraints. In that context, you look like an idiot if you call for lower taxes, more spending, and a reduced deficit. Into that august forum are dragged innocent citizens who were telephoned randomly without notice and asked to say yea or nay to a bunch of sentences. No wonder that, when their responses are tallied, they look “ill-informed and hypocritical.” I guarantee you that if the same people were told they needed to come up with a public position on the federal budget, their response would not only be better–it would have a human face and would be presented with some mix of seriousness, uncertainty, regret about difficult choices, and pride in their accomplishment.
To be sure, the poll gives meaningful information. It tells us what people want when they don’t reflect–and most of us do not reflect on national policy very often. So the opinions in the poll pose real problems for national leaders, who cannot deliver desirable outcomes that are practically incompatible. On the other hand, people rate their own understanding of national policy very poorly. They expect good leaders to make tough calls. They realize that the situation is difficult and there are no perfect answers. If you conclude from these survey results that the public is stupid and should be treated accordingly, you misread their mood and their expectations.