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Coming to Public Judgment: Making Democracy Work in a Complex World.

Coming to Public Judgment: Making Democracy Work in a Complex World. Daniel Yankelovich. Syracuse University Press, $34.95. Along with negative TV spots, high-octane PACS, and shrinking voter turnout, the profusion of contradictory and confusing public opinion polls is often cited as a symptom of the unraveling of the American democracy. But in his new book, Coming to Public Judgment, public opinion analyst Daniel Yankelovich takes a rather refreshing perspective: Polls need not be part of the problem. They can even be part of the solution.

Rather than attacking the usual villains-poor leadership and shortsightedness-Yankelovich contends that our democracy faces a more fundamental threat from "the eroding ability of the American public to participate in the political decisions that affect their lives." The usually healthy balance between the expert and the public has shifted away from the people, and we are increasingly in the hands of what he terms "the culture of technical control." Drawing on his experience as one of the country's most thoughtful pollsters, he argues that we need the public to participate in making the hard choices that paralyze our elected leaders.

For a serious student of public opinion, Yankelovich's discussion of the inherent strengths and weaknesses of popular American thought is a judicious assessment. He concedes that "the public is pragmatic and poorly informed," but then asks: Are ignorance and the absence of a consistent political philosophy sufficient to dismiss the public as a potential contributor to the political process? The policy experts and much of the media would have us believe the answer is yes, but Yankelovich argues to the contrary.

He lambasts the media for being fascinated with opinion polls that show how ignorant the public is. Conduct a poll that reveals that the majority of Americans cannot name a single justice of the Supreme Court or locate Siberia on a map, and it is sure to get wide TV and newspaper coverage." But, as Yankelovich points out-and any pollster worth his salt would agree-current events knowledge is not the litmus test for being able to contribute usefully to the democratic process. You don't need to know what MIRV means to value arms control. The public brings something even more important to the table: evolving but enduring values that give it the means to evaluate difficult choices. The problem is that the public has (or will offer if questioned) an opinion on almost every issue, even long before a particular issue has taken shape. This makes it very hard for most people, including our elected leaders, to know whether the public is expressing a well thought-out sentiment or just shooting off its mouth.

These perceptual problems are only exacerbated by the media's obsession with "cheap, crude" polls. Yankelovich does not go far enough in excoriating the media for using quick and dirty polls that trivialize the public's potential contribution to the national dialogue. These media-sponsored surveys often lay waste to all the methodologies and questionnaire-construction techniques that can make public opinion polls (when used responsibly and in the right set of circumstances) an accurate barometer of public attitudes. Their main purpose, clearly, is to soothe an editor's conscience that he or she has touched the public pulse.

Even when polls are well constructed, all poll users face the dilemma of sorting out nascent public reactions from well-formed public judgments. Yarikelovich offers three simple criteria for assessing the quality of public opinion: the willingness of the public to take responsibility for the consequences of its views, the volatility of opinion, and the consistency of the opinion with the public's other views.

"The threefold definition of quality has some drawbacks," Yankelovich notes. "It does not encompass some of the most appealing features of public opinion-its bursts of generosity, its fierce sense of fairness and passion for justice, its love of country, its religious faith, and its fidelity to basic values." His claim that his three-part test serves as an accurate gauge of public opinion quality is nonetheless quite credible.

I would maintain that a fair amount of volatility can coexist with well-formed public judgment. Take abortion and euthanasia, both issues on which public attitudes continue to evolve despite the enormous energy the public has invested in examining the values that underlie them. But quibbling aside, Yankelovich is absolutely right on the need for poll users to understand the distinction between the various types and qualities of public opinion, which varies widely from issue to issue.

For example, a steady three-quarters of the population has felt for at least 15 years that the danger posed by handguns merits mandatory federal registration. Until recently, this consensus had not led to any meaningful legislation, thanks to the work of a determined and monied minority.

There can be no question that the public has carefully evaluated the liberty versus-communal-safety question and come down squarely for gun control.

However, on the critical question of economic competitiveness, the public has much to learn. There is a general sense that we are facing a crisis, as evinced by the fact that a sizable majority views the economic threat from Japan as more serious than the military threat from the Soviet Union. But public opinion on what to do ranges all over the map.

While Yankelovich hails the public's ability to decide many complex issues, his contempt for the experts is extreme. "The logic is this: They, the experts, are well informed; the public is poorly informed. Give the public more information, and it will agree with them." His faith in the public's ability to work its way through every problem is also overdrawn, but his appreciation of the continuing vitality of the values at the core of American public opinion is well founded. He reminds us that good judgment, not information, is the single most important ingredient for constructive opinion formation.

-Nicholas Wurf
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Author:Wurf, Nicholas
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1991
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