Public Opinion And Elite Signalling

Kevin Drum alludes to the fact that when we had dinner together a couple of years ago in California, he took the view that progressive bloggers understate the importance of public opinion and I said I thought he was wrong and if anything we overstate it. I’ve since improved my view to a more nuanced one that I’m still having some trouble articulating in an ideal manner. But the sense in which I think public opinion is overrated is that people focus too much on polls about what “the people” think about “the issues.” What a lot of analysis misses is that (a) many voters aren’t paying attention at all and (b) most voters have stronger opinions about famous politicians than they do about issues.

So consider that among self-identified Republicans, getting more education makes you less informed about global warming. But that’s not because Republicans with BAs are ignorant compared to Republicans without them. On the contrary. Republicans with BAs are better informed about what the Republican view is and therefore worse informed about the underlying issue because the Republican position is mistaken.

You can see the significance of elite signaling quite clearly in the international data:

In countries like the US and Australia where right-wing political elites are skeptical about global warming, you see the right-left split on climate science grow bigger as people pay more attention to politics. It looks very different in Germany. Well-informed voters are well informed about their ideological camp’s position, not well-informed about the issues. And in the United States, a conservative voter who takes the climate issue seriously probably isn’t a well-informed person who sees through Tom Coburn’s cant, he’s someone who’s so ill-informed that he’s not familiar with Coburn’s cant.


This kind of thing is why I’m often skeptical of claims that “the White House needs to lead” on such and such. Americans have much firmer views of Barack Obama than they do of specific public policy issues. Obama can perhaps sell Obama’s core supporters (working class minorities, not the hyper-ideological activist bloggers who often stand in for “the base” in media discussions) on things, but not the Obama-haters of the right. In the particular case of climate, the problem isn’t that progressive need to do this or that to educate the voters about the science or the policy issues, is that conservative elites need to be convinced to care. John McCain, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Sarah Palin all used to have a roughly accurate view of climate science. Were they to stick to that view, opinion would move. But they’ve all decided to be complicit in an unethical political strategy.