professor’s book on public policy sure to create controversy

Peter Johnson

University professor Lawrence Jacobs’ new book might raise a few eyebrows with its thesis: that public opinion has little to no influence on public policy.
Jacobs’ book might strike a chord with voters who feel disaffected and removed from politics, complaining politicians don’t listen and don’t care.
“Polls are being used increasingly to craft talk in a way that sounds as if the politician is receptive and listening to the public,” Jacobs explained. “A lot of Americans are very frustrated with that because they feel as if politicians are saying what you want to hear even though they are not doing what you want them to do.”
Jacobs, an associate professor at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute, first became interested in public opinion while studying health care policy.
Jacobs’ new book, “Politicians Don’t Pander: Political Manipulation and the loss of Democratic Responsiveness,” challenges the commonly held perception that politicians listen to voters when making policy decisions.
He demonstrates this through the study of polls taken by politicians themselves. He then argues these polls are not considered when making decisions.
He spent years going through presidential archives to put together a solid base for his conclusions.
“There’s a long list of policies in which public opinion is on one side, and the proposals and actions are on the other,” Jacobs said.
It is his assertion that polls are instead being used to craft politicians’ speeches and literature in an effort to build support for their policies.
“Polls are being used by politicians and political activists to identify the words and arguments and symbols to try and change public attitudes,” Jacobs explained.
Politicians are often out of touch with citizens, making policies which go against the wishes of their constituents, he added.
“When you look at their policies, they’re not responsive to the kind of policies Americans overwhelmingly prefer,” Jacobs said.
He named recent political issues such as President Clinton’s impeachment, health care policy, the North American Free Trade Agreement and most-favored trade status for China as issues where politicians have gone against public opinion.
“Impeachment — you have two-thirds of Americans saying don’t go there,” Jacobs said. “Yet you see the Republican-controlled Congress moving ahead with it.”
He said he sees the increased power of party activists, campaign funds and interest groups as direct causes of a decrease in democratic responsiveness by politicians.
The impact is a vastly weakened democracy, which affects politicians, candidates and public attitude.
“It also creates an enlarged reservoir of disaffected voters who create an enlarged pool — potentially for extremist demagogues,” Jacobs said.
He said he sees presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore as typically unresponsive.
“Today we have both candidates mouthing phrases that are being carefully concocted in the laboratories of polling research,” he said.
Jacobs’ book describes the United States as less democratic than it was 20 years ago.
“Americans have less trust and confidence in government today than almost any time. That reflects in part that Americans see politicians as out of touch,” Jacobs said.

Peter Johnson welcomes comments at [email protected]