Public opinion polls in themselves don’t mean much. But they can provide insight into the way the government relates to the public.
Professor Justin Lewis made an interesting argument for this in the filmConstructing Public Opinion: How Politicians and the Media Misrepresent the Public (clip below), which is based on his book by the same title.
The premise of his argument was that the polls are designed as a way for politicians to respond to the needs of the public, which they clearly don’t do. One reason for this is that the way polls are worded. Lewis suggests that people tend to support vague conservative themes, but shift to a liberal perspective in terms of specific policies. For example, people will support a business’s right to control its use of land. However, when government regulation is framed as part of environmental protection, people will generally favor this policy.
Another argument is that most people are more liberal than the supposedly liberal politicians. Issues of education, health care, the environment, and poverty are generally considered important to the public. However, even the Democratic politicians tend to favor more conservative policies (note Clinton’s passage of NAFTA.)
And when these issues are addressed by the media, they are addressed in ways that favor conservative solutions. For example, when traffic becomes a problem, the solution isn’t to improve public transportation, but rather to build more roads or improve technology that makes traffic updates readily available.
The way that tax dollars are spent is one area where this becomes most evident. The funding devoted to the military is exponentially higher than that devoted to these social issues. At the time the film was made (2001), the amount of spending was equivalent to that during the Cold War. That number is more than likely higher today. The next leading spender was Russia (a U.S. ally,) and even when potential enemies’ spending was combined, it was outnumbered by the U.S. and its allies by 33:1.
These were definitely valid points. The way that tax dollars are spent is essential to understanding whether public interest is being addressed. And clearly the way polls are worded is going to affect their outcome.
Of course, Lewis did not address the fact that polls themselves are inaccurate and do not address the degree to which a person holds any given belief. Or that the selection of people being polled might have favored a certain group. Also, he naturally, like anyone else, selected information that supported his claim (who knows what media coverage was omitted.)
However, the perspective is at least worth considering as a study of propaganda and the increasing rift between the public and the elite.