Something I like to ask people who are disgruntled with the performance of the political system is what have you, personally, done about it? When was the last time you wrote or called your member of Congress? Can you even name the people who represent you in the state legislature and have you written or called them? Howard Schuman with a detailed study of whether or not people should be required to get a police permit before they can buy a gun (via Jon Sides) illustrates the importance of such things. In 1978, such a permit requirement was favored 65 percent to 42 percent. By 2011, support had dropped somewhat but it was still popular, 57 percent to 43 percent. So why don’t gun controllers win? Surprisingly, it’s not preference intensity as measured by asking people if they feel strongly about the issue. Nor is it preference intensity as measured by asking people, “How important is a candidate’s position on permits for guns when you decide how to vote in a Congressional election?”
Instead, where the gap shows up is in people’s observed behavior:
A lot of people I know are skeptical of the value of calling or writing your member of Congress. After all, why would members of Congress care about such things when scientifically valid opinion surveys are available and few members face competitive elections anyway? Surely, congressional action is determined by some combination of public opinion as measured in polls and corruption via lobbyists. So if members don’t do the popular thing, it must be because the system is corrupt.
I doubt it. For one thing, it’s unquestionably the case that members of Congress dedicate a lot of staff time to fielding phone calls and reading and coding pieces of mail. And anecdotally, things like the huge “letter gap” over the Waxman-Markey energy reform bill had a huge psychological impact on the Hill. Then you have research like this. So I do wish everyone would say to themselves, “If I care enough about this issue to complain about it in conversation, then I’d better care enough about it to get in touch with the elected officials who represent me.”