Invoking public opinion: Policy elites and social security

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53 Scopus citations


Do policy elites invoke public opinion? When they do, are their claims based on evidence from public opinion surveys? To learn about the claims that policy elites make, we examined statements the president and members of Congress, experts, and interest group leaders in congressional hearings made about Social Security. To learn about opinion data on Social Security, we conducted a Lexis-Nexis search of the archives of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. Our analyses show that policy elites discussing Social Security did invoke public opinion. Contrary to our expectations, however, few of the elite invocations of public opinion cited specific surveys or concrete facts about the distribution of opinion. Although claims directly contradicting survey evidence were relatively rare, only with the rather few specific claims by congressional elites did we find much clear-cut support in the available polling data. Relatively seldom could we find clear-cut support for the elites' general claims. Moreover, some of the most frequent claims about public opinion - including the UFO story and alleged public support for privatization - could have been contested but seldom were. The highly visible and well-polled case of Social Security suggests that specific, data-based elite invocations of public opinion may be even less common on other, lower-visibility and less-polled issues. It also suggests that survey research professionals might do well to intensify their scrutiny of public discourse about public opinion and to increase their efforts to bring scientific expertise to bear upon such discourse.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)235-264
Number of pages30
JournalPublic Opinion Quarterly
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2002

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Social Sciences(all)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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