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Public Opinion: Crash Course Government and Politics #33


Hello, I’m Craig, and this is Crash Course Government and Politics, and today we’re going to begin our discussion of politics, rather than government. Aren’t they the same thing, Stan? Aren’t they the… They’re not the same? Oh… I know some of you are saying that we’ve been talking about politics all along, and in a sense, that’s true. But for the rest of the series we’ll be looking more closely at policies and the factors that influence how they’re made, rather than the institutions and structures that make them. One way to think about this is that “government” describes the what, the who, and the how of policies. And “politics” describes the why. Don’t ask me about the where or the when journalism students. Actually, just don’t ask me anything. Because I won’t hear you. This is a YouTube video. Another way that I like to think about politics is that following it is like following sports. With any political event, whether an election, or a congressional vote, or a Supreme Court decision, you can spend time analyzing and predicting what might happen and then, after the fact, you can analyze why your prediction was correct, or way off base. Just like what happens before and after a big game, or race, or whatever you choose to follow. This is getting very conceptual, and today we’re going to focus on one particular aspect of politics that looms large in America: Godzilla. No! Public opinion. [Theme Music] Public opinion can refer to a lot of things, but one useful definition is that it refers to “How a nation’s population collectively views vital policy issues and evaluates political leaders.” Public opinion matters in America, especially because it’s a democracy, which classicists out there will know comes from the Greek word “Demokratia”, which means ruled by the people. It’s not a drug for balding men? No, that’s something else. And anyone who’s been forced to learn the Gettysburg Address knows, like Abraham Lincoln, America’s is a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” So what the people think, especially about how the government should govern, matters. But it also raises some important questions. Namely: “How do the people express what they want?” “How does or should the government respond to the people?” And, the one we’ll start with: “What if the people don’t know what they want or are just plain ignorant?” The framers of the Constitution were somewhat skeptical of the ability of the average American to understand and influence public policy, so they gave Americans direct influence over only one part of the government: the House of Representatives. This view that the ignorant masses were not to be fully trusted with the hard work of governing won out over the Anti-Federalist view that more popular participation was better, but is it justified? Many people, including a lot of political scientists, say it’s justified. Public issues are complicated, and many people, most of the time, are either uninterested or confused by them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially for those who see disengagement from politics as an example of “rational ignorance.” Given the high cost of being informed, it makes good sense to stay less informed. And there have been a number of books that show us just how uniformed Americans can be. The most notable was “The American Voter” in 1960, which showed us how little most Americans knew, or cared, about politics, and suggested that people’s opinions were so changeable and random, that the authors concluded that “most people don’t have real opinions at all.” Wow. I have no opinion about that. Oh, and if you’re thinking: “Well that’s fine, but in 1960 Americans had so much less information available to them.” “They didn’t even have color then. And everyone wore hats. Everyone wore hats then!” Today we have the Internet and 24 hour TV news, but here’s a statistic: In 1960, 47% of people were unable to name the member of the House who represented them. In 2010, it was 59%. On the other hand, there are political scientists who argue that looking at individual voters and their responses to questionnaires is the wrong way to go. For writers like Benjamin Page and Robert Shapiro, authors of “The Rational Public,” the key is to look at collective opinion. If you take large numbers of Americans and aggregate their opinions you find that they are much more coherent and stable, and reflect reasonable judgements about politics and government. Next time you disagree with me and call me crazy, Stan, just aggregate my opinion. You will find it doesn’t vary so much. Closely related to this idea of large groups of people basically getting things right about politics is Condorcet’s Jury Theorem, which demonstrated that while one juror had only a slightly better chance of determining a defendant’s guilt or innocence than a coin flip, a larger group of jurrors would produce a majority that would be more likely than not to get the case right. James Surowiecki summed it up well in his book “The Wisdom of Crowds”, arguing that “Even if one voter does not have clear political views, a larger group, taken together, adds up to a rational public.” So assuming, that like Lincoln, we actually want public opinion to influence government, we need to take into account a few things. First, we should have a reasonably good idea that the people know what they want. Second, the people should be able to communicate what they want to government officials. And third, the government should pay attention to the public’s desires and respond accordingly. All three of these conditions can provide interesting problems of their own. Even if you agree with the rational public idea, and assume that the population as a whole does have coherent political views, the chances are good that what the public wants consists mostly of generalities, and are difficult to turn into actual policies. For example: after the 2008 financial crisis, there was a general anger with Wall Street banks, but different polls on the issue revealed no consensus about what to do about things like executive compensation, or regulating complex financial transactions. It’s difficult to say that the resulting Dodd-Frank Bill represented an expression of the popular will. The public communicates what it wants in a number of ways. Most obviously: voting. But let’s just say that people have other ways than election results of letting their voices be heard. Or their punches. But don’t do that. That was just…
that’s a fake eagle. Don’t worry about it. Even though politicians often claim that winning an election gives them a “mandate to govern,” a quick look at the unpopularity of Obamacare suggests that an election win doesn’t often translate into solid support for a candidate’s policies. Sometimes its lack of support is due to the fact that politicians don’t exactly respond to public opinion. National campaigns spend around 1 billion a year on polling, but it doesn’t mean that politicians do exactly what the polling suggests, and they often deny that polls influence their decisions. Even as poll conscious a politician as President Clinton didn’t always do exactly what the American people said they wanted. For example: in 1994 the public was solidly against a plan to bail out Mexico with a multi-billion dollar loan. But Clinton pushed through an executive order making the loan anyway, because his advisers said this was good economic policy. More often politicians use public opinion polling to shape their responses to issues, rather than defining the issue for the politicians, the polls are used to help them craft a message that will be more acceptable to the public. And public opinion polling certainly has a role in setting the policy agenda by informing politicians of the issues that seem to matter to Americans in the first place. So, in addition to voting and election results, polling is also a way Americans can let politicians know what they want. For instance: whether or not they approve of the President’s performance, or of specific policies, like whether the government should allow an oil pipeline to be built. Politicians, and especially journalists, rely on these polls, but before you go jumping on that bandwagon there are a few things you should know about public opinion polling. And don’t just go jumping on strange bandwagons. Let’s go to the Thought Bubble. The first thing you remember when you hear or read some polling data is that there are lots of ways that polls can be wrong. So there are some questions you should ask before you accept the data. There are a lot of things that can skew the results of polls, some of which are obvious, and others which are more obscure. The biggest questions to ask about a poll is “How many respondents were there and how were they chosen?” It’s impossible to get responses to any questions from all 320 million Americans, so pollsters rely on statistical sampling. In order to get a reliable sample, the magic number for pollsters is somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500. The smaller the number, the less reliable the results are likely to be. A poll that’s based on a sample that’s too small may suffer from a “sampling error”. You can sometimes deduce the size of a poll sample from its margin of error. A poll with a small sample will have a large margin of error. In general, for national public opinion polls the margin of error will be plus or minus three points. This means that if the poll says that 53% of people support “Policy X,” it’s better to say that between 50 and 56% of respondents supported it. But that’s just a little math. For fun! Polling organizations like Harris, Pew, and Gallup also strive to make sure that the respondents are a representative sample, free from “selection bias.” Selection bias occurs when the people polled are not a representative sample of the population. Say if they’re disproportionately white, or rich, or Bronies. The classic example of a selection bias error was the 1936 Literary Digest poll that predicted Alf Landon would defeat F.D.R. It turns out that Literary Digest’s readership were disproportionately wealthy and Republican. Another more recent source of selection bias is that polls which rely on random digit dialing of land line phones tend to under count younger people, many of whom have only cell phones. Selection bias is a particular problem with online polls. Anyone who takes an online poll has by definition logged into a website and is therefore not randomly selected. Although news organizations like to report their own polling, CNN, I’m looking at you… you should take these poll numbers with a boulder of salt. Thanks, Thought Bubble. In addition to demographic factors like age, ethnicity, race, and income level, all of which can influence polls, when the questions are asked matters a lot. Sometimes these two factors interact. A poll taken on a Friday evening is likely to include a lot fewer young people responding to it. Especially me, because every Friday night I like to go out and get my swerve on. Which implies that I don’t go out, and I haven’t gone out since 2003. More significant in terms of election polling is how close the poll was to the actual election. The closer the poll, the more accurate. Polls taken immediately after the election, called “exit polls,” can be very unreliable. And polls taken a few days after the election have limited predictive value. In fact, just get over it. The elections over. Just stop polling. One of the most important ways that polls can skewed is through the questions themselves. Ambiguous or poorly worded questions can result in a failure to identify the true distribution of opinion in a target population. Quick poll: do you not, not, not, not unlike Crash Course? Or me as a host? Let me know in the comments. The way questions are framed can change the results of polls. For instance, respondents are much more favorable to policies that “promote free trade” than those which “destroy American jobs”. So I want to leave you with the question we started with: In an American democracy, how much should public opinion matter in terms of the way the country is actually governed? Has your answer changed now that you have more of a sense of how informed, or uninformed, Americans are about politics? Did you even have an answer before?
Are you even listening? And if you think that politicians are right to respond to the public’s desires, are you convinced that our public leaders have a good sense of what Americans really want? I’d be interested to know if your own opinions on these questions change over time. But polling’s expensive, so just let us know in the comments. Thanks for watching. See you next time. Crash Course Government and Politics is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. Support for Crash Course US Government comes from Voqal. Voqal supports nonprofits that use technology and media to advance social equity. Learn more about their mission and initiatives at voqal.org. Crash Course was made with the help of all these pollsters. Thanks for watching.

Stephen Childs

100 Comments

  1. hi guys. I am a pol sci student, and I hope this channel can help me in my study.🙊

  2. no, I do not not not not not unlike Crash course. At least I think I have it right. I like Crash course

  3. Wait, I know the answer (my opinion)to this one,,, yes? Haha haha. Can anyone tell me what dftba stands for?

  4. These videos saved my semester since I'm an international student and I hadn't learned about America's government or history, so I needed this kind of explanations. In love with this channel.

  5. Polls are too easily biased to be at all reliable. But what other alternative is there? Never polling?! Scary thought. Just take as many polls as humanly possible, all the time and throw them into a giant pile with a handful of salt! Then walk away feeling (but not really) like you learned something. Thanks Wheezey.

  6. I think CC is great. I have benefited tremendously learning from all the hosts but I really think Craig needs to speak just a tad bit slower. 😉

  7. EDIT: "A poll taken on a Friday evening is likely to include a lot fewer young people responding to it, because most young people either work in retail or food and beverage positions nowadays [and it's a miracle for them to get any Friday off, let alone party the night away]."

    All in good fun. Craig, you're awesome! (Side note: I appreciate the fact that you don't move your arms around like crazy while you speak. I guess it's maybe because my body language is typically more reserved? Idk. But anyways, thank you!)

  8. No, I don't not not not not unlike you as a host. From brain controlling parasite.

  9. I imagine hell as being in an endless white void, and only Craig to keep me company. I, of course can't handle his incessant talking that he is convinced is entertaining, I proceed to strangle Craig and as I feel the life drain from his body, I feel relief, I did what needed to be done. And besides I'm already in hell, what else…

    Wait, there's another Craig. But I just… No there is another one. Suddenly, I realize that in an ocean of Craigs, all of them make stale clone jokes and doing annoying voices. My ears begin to bleed. I pray to any god that will listen to please release me from this eternal punishment, only to fall on deaf ears.

  10. I do not not not not not like crash course or you! hahahahahahahahahahahaha best poll ever

  11. These days I don't think the public or gov't officials have the best interest of the general population in mind. Agendas rule the day.

  12. Why not just have a direct-democracy like Switzerland. And while your at it, universal basic income for all citizens, please!

  13. Thanks Craig, These video help me a little sometimes. I'm horrible with government and politics. Your humor helps a lot.

  14. And the Motion graphic team and Editors killed it. i dig it!

  15. I don't not not not not unlike CrashCourse and you as a host.

  16. can you guys pretty please do crash course on government and politics international?like if u agree

  17. Did you circle the wrong person when you were pointing out President Lincoln? …Or was the person wearing a top hat not him? lol

  18. Craig: "Are you even listening"
    Me: "Wait what.. Yes I support eagle punching!"

  19. I guess we're technically a constitutional federal representative democracy … "the worst form of government … except for all the others"

  20. OH, I LOVE CRASH COURSE !! CRASH COURSE MAKE LEARNING FUN!!!!! AND YOU'RE DOING AN AWESOME JOB!!

  21. DONALD TRUMP! Okay, flame away. Preferably all sides. This comment section isn't fun enough yet.

  22. Do you like my little pony? You referenced it twice by saying "brony"

  23. I do not unlike Crash Course. (he basically said do you unlike Crash Course.)

  24. It's inexcusable that polling hasn't been brought into the internet age. Information exchange is essentially free these days, yet politicians must spend money to learn what the people think? That's astonishingly inefficient.

  25. Statistically, public opinion doesn't matter in the US. Interest groups hold all the power in policy-making.

  26. people actually watch this stuff for fun… im just watching to pass my mid-term exam.. fml

  27. What absolute irresponsibility these courses, never say who said what, do not cite the sources, that is more than an oversight; it's a crime.

  28. It is a pity that these courses are made by recalcitrant republicans and that the bad examples are only of the democrats. The truth is ignored and a lot of analytical capacity is lost. For example, the Iraq war was not popular either, so why is not it quoted?

  29. 2 or 3 votes from a district (435 districts) are not a big enough sampling size! So a political poll can only claim 'Americans want.. if they have votes from at least 10 people per district. That is the (very) minimal number of voters in order to have a proper sampling size..

  30. Economic, social, demographic, age, gender, educational and ethnic factors are important.

  31. I use the Zodiac sign as a base line. I find common denominators, traits, characters in each.

  32. I am watching this for my American History class. Craig is good at entertaining and makes it not as boring but I wish he would speak a little slower. English is my second language and I have to watch this about 5 times so that I can do make my discussion post. lol Just saying but all his videos are great.

  33. Elected officials and policies should reflected public opinion. At the same time, I think people who don't know much about a particular subject shouldn't feel pressured to give an opinion or take a stand on it one way or the other. The "I don't know / unsure" response should be more common than it already is on most questions. That way when there's a majority or plurality opinion on that issue, we know it's more likely based on knowledge on the subject.

  34. What I find interesting about this whole argument is that the majority voted Clinton, but the Electoral College elected Trump. As the electoral college was established to prevent charasmatic leaders who were unqualified and/or unamerican (not supporting Constitutional values, for example), this outcome causes me to question whether the electoral college is actually effective. I don't mean this as an argument about "politics," because I remember Kerry getting more votes than Bush, but the same thing happened, and I don't think that is the same. Bush held very different views than me, but he was both qualified for the job and upheld basic constitutional values. So, I'm saying this particular instance is different and should impact how we assess whether the electoral college is effective in it's originally intended goal. I would argue that it is not.

  35. Where do you get their sources from? So I can quote the stats lol

  36. im watching this on 2 times speed mode. I have 5 days left to finish the series and the questions.

  37. why you talk to fast? GZZZ! I could not understand you. :/ anyone who can recommend me a site to learn about Government and Politics?

  38. Together the people can agree on rational decisions, though they struggle to come up with the solutions for lack of resource/ or whatever… but at the end of the day, someone like the president is going to want an "expert opinion" on solutions to harder decisions. Could not those same experts find solutions to the things that are most important to the people? Freedom of speech is important here because the media is not giving people enough information to make truly informed decisions, interest groups do not always have the funding they need, polling is not that effective either maybe we need to go back to traditional methods of democracy. The first presidents traveled to different states, talked and listened to any one that showed up. This eliminates the chance for bias.

  39. America is not a democracy It is a republic. The framers of the constitution saw democracy as an inferior type of government that historically had failed without exception. They often pointed out that democracies tend to devolve into mob rule and eventually collapse into violent civil war.

  40. My AP US Government class uses this as actual course material sometimes, but he has to pause it every 10 seconds lol

  41. Wellllllll it's a Republic not a Democracy, I've turned into all of those who came before and corrected me 😅😩☺️

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