Does Public Opinion Matter?

Does Public Opinion Matter?

“We the People” at the Reins

Throughout 2014, we have seen some surprising electoral upsets – most notably the loss of the Virginia GOP nomination from former House majority leader Eric Cantor to Tea Party-backed Dave Brat. More recently, House member Jack Kingston lost his bid for the Georgia GOP Senate nod to businessman David Perdue.

However, there are other states where former Members of Congress are still in the running for Congressional seats. In fact, the Senate has had an influx of former House members since last year. These examples tell us that experience is still a priority for voters, yet voices for change are ringing out to be heard.

In an America where highly-paid D.C. politicians can seem so out of touch with their home districts, are “we the people” still in control? Does public opinion still matter?

Listen up!

There are two ways public opinion can shift politics: by lobbying politicians, and by voting out politicians who don’t adhere to their constituents’ needs and requests. In other words, when a Congressman fails to live up to his promises, voters can vote him out. This is likely why we saw Cantor’s upset in Virginia.

But the tide rolls both ways. Politicians can also use public opinion to get what they want. For example, they may “go public” with a favored bill, using media and public approval to increase its priority and push the bill through. Or they can use public opinion to create a specific timetable for a certain policy. They may try to set it up so that the policy is implemented according to the public’s desired schedule for change.

So, then, do politicians respond to public opinion, or do they create it?

Let the leaders lead

One study of presidential behavior shows that unpopular presidents, like George W. Bush, are less likely to pander to public opinion. Presidents in their second term – who are therefore not campaigning – similarly lack incentive to be swayed by public demands.

Others believe that while public opinion should certainly be important, there are times when politicians should ignore voters. For example, few Americans understand the ins and outs of economic policy. Some would argue that this is a prime instance of when politicians should listen to experts over their constituents. After all, any shift in policy greatly affects the course of the American economy for decades to come.

Changing our tone

Voters still hold the reins over politicians in many instances – as we have seen during this election cycle. Yet the day-to-day processes of policy-making are largely in the hands of Washington. Public opinion is not only something to appease, but also something to harness and manipulate.

What does this mean for voters going forward? Is public opinion still important for policy-making? Should it be?


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