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What If Government Really Listened To The People?

What If Government Really Listened To The People?

Senior Scientist

PRINCETON, NJ -- The basic tenet of democracy is that the people rule. Public opinion polls measure what the public thinks and what the public wants done. It would therefore make sense that the leaders in a democracy would pay close attention to polls. They often don't, however, and we end up with policy decisions and governmental directions that are considerably out of sync with the public will.

What would happen if government officials - including elected office-holders and bureaucrats - really did pay close attention to the public will as measured by polls?

Here are a few examples based on what the public has been saying in recent Gallup polls:

  • The U.S. would pull its troops out of Bosnia. Polling has consistently shown over the past two and a half years that a majority of Americans disapprove of the American troop presence in Bosnia. To date, the American involvement in Bosnia has been relatively low-key, without major crisis or incident, which probably explains why there hasn't been more public protest over our involvement there. Some observers would note that the average American surveyed in a Gallup poll cannot possibly be aware of or understand all of the complexities involved in U.S. policy in the Balkans. This is of course true to a degree (how many Ph.D.s and experts themselves truly understand the Bosnian situation?), but this line of thinking underestimates the American public. The public has instincts and reactions which time and time again have been proven to be extraordinarily prescient, and the data suggest that to date no one has made the case adequately well that the U.S. belongs in the Bosnian region. If the administration, state and defense departments are convinced that there are legitimate reasons to have U.S. troops in Bosnia, then let those reasons be convincingly explained to the American public. Right now, Americans are skeptical.
  • President Clinton's race advisory panel would take as its first task the challenge of dealing with the fact that the majority of citizens of this country - whites - don't perceive that there are major problems facing black Americans in terms of discrimination or lack of opportunities, and are therefore opposed to government intervention and affirmative action programs. Gallup's recent study of Black and White attitudes in this country showed a significant gap between how whites and how blacks see the world. Until these fundamental perceptions are addressed and/or changed, the recommendations of the advisory panel are likely to have as little impact on race in this country today as have many of the other programs which have had little impact over years past.
  • The American astronaut David Wolf would be brought back from the Russian Mir spacecraft. The public, by a 56% to 33% margin, says that the Russian space station is not safe enough for the U.S. to continue to send American astronauts to live there. NASA bureaucrats, of course, might respond that the American public couldn't possibly have the scientific knowledge necessary to make a decision on the spacecraft's safety. But, it is the public's money which is being used to send the astronauts to Mir, and ill-equipped though Americans may be on a one-by-one basis to make engineering decisions on spacecraft safety, the experts who do have that knowledge have apparently done a poor job of explaining to those footing the bill why the trip is safe and necessary.
  • Dramatic steps would be taken to do something about the overwhelming lack of trust the American public has in the institution of Congress. For a number of years now it has been apparent that the public has essentially lost faith in the institution designed by the Founding Fathers to be closest to the people and to function as the people's representative in Washington. Almost two-thirds of Americans say that they can trust the government in Washington only some of the time (as opposed to all of the time or most of the time), only 22% have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in Congress (putting it next to last in a list of 15 institutions tested) and only 14% to 15% of Americans give a very high or high rating of the honesty and ethics of Congressmen and Senators (putting them just barely ahead of car salesmen). It is dramatically less than optimal to operate in a system in which the people's own representatives are the least trusted of almost all institutions in society, and in which the public puts the ethics of these people at the bottom of a list of professions. Congress can laugh these kinds of data off, but they suggest that the very highest priority should well be to take dramatic steps to improve the faith the public has in what Congress does. Which leads to the next issue...
  • Congress would quickly pass Campaign Finance Reform measures which would bring about sweeping changes. Gallup polling consistently suggests that Americans want campaign finance reform, and when asked specifically in a recent Gallup poll, the public says that they want the reform passed by the end of the year. If Congress fails to move on finance reform legislation, however, it won't be a great surprise to the American public. A strong majority feel that neither Republican Congressional leaders nor President Clinton has a genuine interest in reforming the system which - after all - worked well enough to get them elected to office.
  • The government would proceed warily on a sweeping agreement with the tobacco industry. The public has decidedly mixed emotions about the agreement as it now stands. Less than 50% say they favor it, with about a quarter of Americans saying that they haven't heard about the agreement of have no opinion on it. Furthermore, there is apparently no great consensus among the public that such a comprehensive, sweeping agreement is necessary. When asked directly, Americans are split almost directly down the middle, 42% to 41%, in terms of their preference for one overall settlement versus dealing with claims against tobacco companies on a case-by-case basis.
  • The government would come clean with all it knows about mysterious phenomena. The public appears absolutely convinced that the U.S. government knows more about UFO's than it is letting on. Seventy-one percent of Americans in a Gallup poll conducted last year said that the government is hiding something it knows about UFO's (45% think that UFO's have actually visited earth, and 12% say that they have actually seen a UFO.) In a similar vein, after the U.S. military made an elaborate rational explanation of what really happened some 50 years ago in Roswell, New Mexico (when citizens spotted what they thought were UFO's), the public was distinctly unimpressed. Only 25% of Americans believed what the government said, despite the fact that a majority also don't believe that UFO's actually visited Roswell.


The playoff season is now underway, and if the American public has its say, the Atlanta Braves will ultimately win the World Series. Baseball fans were asked to say which team in each conference they wanted to win each league's pennants, and then which team they wanted to win the Series.

In the American League the public's favorites are:

1. New York Yankees - 29%
2. Seattle Mariners - 24%
3. Baltimore Orioles - 22%
4. Cleveland Indians - 16%

In the National League:

1. Atlanta Braves - 41%
2. San Francisco Giants - 20%
3. Florida Marlins - 17%
4. Houston Astros - 13%

And baseball fans' preferences to win the World Series are:

1. Atlanta Braves - 23%
2. New York Yankees - 16%
3. Baltimore Orioles - 12%
4. Seattle Mariners - 11%
5. San Francisco Giants - 9%
6. Florida Marlins - 9%
7. Cleveland Indians - 7%
8. Houston Astros - 6%.

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