Public Has Conflicting Views About Policy Issues

One thing that’s incredibly bizarre about admonishments to pay attention to public opinion polling when crafting policy is that even a cursory overview of various prominent polling outlets makes it clear that the public at large has many views about policy that are in conflict with each other, sometimes downright mutually exclusive. Sometimes this even shows up in the same poll, as with this polling report on public views of the budget deficit from Democracy Corps:

Despite these concerns, voters are reluctant to attack the deficit through tax increases or spending cuts on entitlements. In this economy, voters are wary of raising taxes, even if the revenue raised goes to something they deem important, like paying down the deficit. A majority (51 percent) say that even though the deficit is a big problem, we should not raise taxes to bring it down, while only 43 percent say that we might have to raise taxes to reduce the deficit. This rejection is even more acute among the least educated and lowest income voters, who are being disproportionately hurt by the recession and as such are even more strident in their rejection of a new tax to pay down the deficit.

And by an even wider 2:1 margin, voters reject cuts in Social Security, Medicare or defense spending to bring the deficit down (61 to 30 percent).

Of course, it’s simply not possible to significantly reduce the deficit without cutting spending on Medicare, Social Security, and defense or without raising taxes. So if you listen to the public, you’d seek out to eliminate the deficit, but you’d find yourself simply unable to do so. Part of this is because marginal voters can tip the balance, so that even if a lot of people are willng to take necessary measures to reduce the deficit, a relatively small handful of people who want more services but don’t want to be taxed to pay for them can tip the balance of public opinion. But another, more relevant, explanation is that the public simply doesn’t know that much about relevant facts. I suspect that the people who want the deficit reduced but don’t want to take any meaningful steps to do so are under the impression that the government spends much more than it does, and that the deficit can be reduced without touching any of the major spending programs or levels of taxation.  But it can’t. The fact that a majority of people, or even a dispositive plurality of people, thinks that it can doesn’t change the basic fact of the numbers, and this is why we’re organized into a representative democracy, where we elect people to handle these matters for us.