A series of recent polls cited in a flood of articles on the horrific Parkland mass shooting and renewed calls for increased gun control have once again raised the question of why the apparent public support of some gun control policies doesn't translate into legislation. In a piece published by The Conversation, pollster and political scientist Harry L. Wilson presents some interesting points about why polls, particularly about gun control, don't mean quite as much politically as many assume.
Wilson presents "three major reasons that policy does not always follow public opinion":
- "citizens don't make policy"
- "the overlooked complexities of public opinion"
- "people vote, not polls"
Wilson's first point is straightforward enough and a point others have made repeatedly: The United States is a republic, in which its representatives are elected democratically. It is not a direct democracy where people vote directly on policy.
"The Founders, who were not all fans of democracy and feared mob rule, established our governmental structure over 200 years ago, and those foundations remain today," notes Wilson. "While about half the states have some form of initiative or referendum process to allow voters to directly enact policy, there is no such provision in the U.S. Constitution."
Wilson's second and third points present some less discussed arguments. Wilson underscores that public opinion polls are "not as straightforward as they seem," particularly on the issue of gun control, where surveys and reports focusing on only a few questions can present a "distort[ed]" picture of public opinion on the complex issue:
Polling numbers generally show strong support for gun control measures such as universal background checks and an assault weapons ban.
Wilson also notes that sometimes a policy idea that might be popular nonetheless has "legitimate legal constraints" that legislators can't simply sidestep, citing as examples the ACLU opposing the Obama-era order preventing Social Security recipients with "mental disabilities' from purchasing guns and insufficiently defined "assault-style rifles" bans.
While Wilson is himself a pollster, his third argument focuses on the limitations of the value of many polls. "People vote, not polls," he notes, and the people who make up interest groups, like gun rights and LGBT rights groups, can be extremely influential to the point of even "counteract[ing] the influence of the majority’s opinion in swaying policy."
Some people's opinions matter more than others when it comes to policy because they're simply more likely to be politically involved, like gun owners, who are more likely "to have contacted an elected official about gun rights, and to have contributed money to an organization that takes a position on gun control."
In his discussion of the National Rifle Association's influence on policy, Wilson underscores that the NRA, which is under increased fire from the Left after Parkland, ultimately derives its power not from money but from the millions of individual, politically active voters who are members, and the millions more who support its efforts:
Whatever power the NRA possesses is a result of its membership and their votes. Its approximately 5 million members pay attention to the group’s candidate ratings and generally vote accordingly. Many others who are not members also agree with the group as evidenced by its consistent “favorable” ratings, typically measured in the 50 percent-plus range. ... If a group can supply votes, then it has power. As such, the NRA is very powerful in some parts of the country and quite weak in others.
"Our elected officials care more about the opinions of those who vote for them than what the nation as a whole thinks," writes in conclusion. "On most issues they represent the interests of the majority of voters in their districts — or they get voted out of office."
H/T Bearing Arms