Public Policy & The Public Mood

Public Policy & The Public Mood


By Francie Grace

Is the American public in the midst of a fundamental change of attitude, in which we are becoming so partisan that it is less and less likely that we can come together in dialogue on public policy problems and work together on solutions?

Daniel Yankelovich, co-founder and chairman of Public Agenda and a pioneering social scientist whose work laid the foundation for much of the public opinion research that is done today, doesn't think so.

Speaking at the Maxwell School/Public Agenda Policy Breakfast lecture series in New York, Yankelovich (click here to find out more about his latest theory, The Learning Curve™, on how the public thinks and learns about difficult issues on its way to becoming ready to embrace solutions), says the public is currently in the midst of a huge wave of mistrust, frustration and anger.

How divided are we, as a nation? Daniel Yankelovich, answering that question from NPR's Robert Siegel (right), says he does not envision the current public mood of "partisanship and mistrust as inherent, going forward."   (Photo: Samantha DuPont)

This frustration on the part of the public, noted Yankelovich in an interview conducted by Robert Siegel of National Public Radio, is most likely a passing mood. Yankelovich said he's seen similar periods of unease twice before, during the McCarthy era and the anti-Communist hearings of the 1950s, and during the so-called "public malaise" of the late 1970s after Watergate, when the nation was struggling with stagflation and the energy and Iranian hostage crises.

This time, the economy is the primary reason, he said. "The economic stress is really extreme, at Depression levels for some," Yankelovich said.

When the economy improves, that stress and frustration will recede, although it may take several years, he said. In the meantime, these attitudes can have a powerful impact.

The most recent example was the battle over health care reform, a debate complicated by the fact that the public felt it didn't know too much about what was in the legislation at hand, he said. If people didn't know what was in the bill but felt trust in their party leaders, they might feel inclined to support Congress' decision-making. In an atmosphere of mistrust, which is what we have right now, the public's instinct is to oppose change.

An understanding of the way that the public thinks and learns about problems is at the core of The Learning CurveTM, Daniel Yankelovich's theory on how to help the public and policymakers move forward in discussing and crafting solutions to public policy issues. Click here to find out more about this process and its implications for public engagement and policymaking.

Adding to the difficulty of that particular policy battle, he noted, was a political miscalculation by Democrats in Congress, who he believes misinterpreted the Obama victory as a fundamental shift to the left. What it was, said Yankelovich, was a vote against George W. Bush – with many voters attracted to the image of Barack Obama as a president who would be a pragmatic problem-solver.

"We have a history of being pragmatic problem-solvers as a nation, and I think part of the frustration people feel is that we've lost that gift," Yankelovich said.

That, said Yankelovich, wasn't the only misreading of the public by strategists trying to move health care reform forward. They failed to see the urgency the public felt about the economy, and on the specifics of the proposed health care reforms, Congress put the emphasis on how many more people would be covered, instead of on controlling costs – an issue closer to the public.

A return of public attitudes about the economy to normal levels is not, Yankelovich believes, likely to happen for another year or two, prolonging the time period in which polarized conditions inhibit the policymaking process. Taxes, he added, are another example of an issue in which there is deep systemic mistrust. When people don't trust the government to spend its money wisely, he explained, there will be strong resistance to taxes.

How about immigration, asked Siegel: how do we achieve a national dialogue on an issue that provokes such strong dissent?

"I don't think it's possible" at this time, said Yankelovich. "Timing is everything, and I don't think it's propitious."

The nature of public opinion itself, and perceptions surrounding public opinion, can be another obstacle toward constructive dialogue. The legacy of the baby boom generation has a powerful influence here, he said. On the positive side, the baby boomers have made America a more pluralistic society. "I grew up in a much more bigoted, narrow country than it is today," he said.

But the baby boomers' focus on self-actualization has had negative consequences, too, Yankelovich said, and one of them is the a trend towards the view that objective truth is almost irrelevant: that just because one's belief is passionately held, it must be the correct view – what William Butler Yeats referred to as a "passionate intensity."

Another stumbling block, he said, that key institutions in our society have an outmoded view of what the public needs to make decisions. The practice by the media of presenting both sides of an argument with equal weight - for example, in the case of global warming, when scientific fact shows the arguments do not have equal weight – isn't helping. That doesn't help the public make up its mind, says Yankelovich. In fact, rather than helping people sort through a problem, coverage like this can leave people thinking: Well, if the scientists can't agree, how can I have an opinion?

"It's a dialogue of the deaf," said Yankelovich.

Scientists also fall short, he said, in their strategy for communicating with the public. Scientists, as a group, are frustrated at surveys that show concern about global warming is declining. "They more they jump up and down, the less responsive the public is," said Yankelovich.

The answer scientists usually favor is raising the public's scientific literacy, believing that if the public just had a better understanding of science, and the ability to interpret the facts, a consensus on public policy solutions would soon emerge. But you can know a little about science and still not be ready to consider other points of view or act on the results.

"That's not scientific literacy: that's an attitude of reasonableness," he said.

All that leaves us with a frustrated public and a situation where polarizing tactics are smart politics, at least in the short run, Yankelovich said. You can see that in the statements by politicians who are leaving office, saying things they wouldn't have said had they been running again. "You always know something is wrong when people are doing less than they're capable of doing," he said.

Those tactics, however, will work less well as economic fears recede, and as the debate moves from health care to topics like financial reform that the public wants to see addressed.

"Once the polarization (tactic) is rejected, it will disappear," Yankelovich said.



For more of the discussion with Yankelovich on this subject, check out the video of the event.