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Tides of Consent Paper

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  • Pages: 5
  • Word count: 1012
  • Category: Election

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In American politics, public opinion is mostly a latent force that typically has no important bearing on national decision making unless citizens become unusually attentive to politics. Many citizens are uninformed, which leads to inconsistent opinions. In Tides of Consent, there are many factors that shift public opinion. Some changes are fast and responsive, such as spikes in presidential approval, and some changes are slow, and occur in increments that may be overlooked. Public opinion in American politics is meaningless individually, but aggregately, public opinion is meaningful.

Gradual, tidal opinion change is the type of change that is most important. Over the long term, what the public wants from the government is relativistic. Public opinion depends on what the government is doing. Therefore, public opinion works like a thermostat (Stimson 32). When the house is too warm, we send a signal and turn off the furnace, and vice versa (32). Stimson argues politics resembles a thermostat because when the public wants more from government, we turn up the heat and place liberals in power. But after seeing some policy change in the undesired direction, we turn down the thermostat and place conservatives in power. This trend continues indefinitely, but quite slowly. Therefore, American public opinion consistently moves contrary to the direction of the party of the White House (39). The two party system of politics is well organized for such a model of the influence of public opinion and is shown that the model fits well across certain issue domains. When new issues arise that are not covered within the dominant party cleavage, they are eventually incorporated through the process of “issue evolution.” Over the long haul, aggregate public opinion reacts to government actions and changes course, which results in changes in government, and then policy change in the direction indicated by the shift in public opinion.

This makes movements in the aggregate highly significant. Short-term changes in public opinion that focuses on presidential elections are also important. Campaigns in politics are important in determining outcomes and inform the voters who remain undecided. Also, campaigns matter because although the candidates or media officials may know what the outcome will be, the voters themselves do not (107). Aside from campaigns, conventions are also important, if not more important. Party nominating conventions affect the apathetic, uninterested electorates who think conventions are interesting and exciting, often known as the Olympic games of politics (121). This experience for voters can carry influence, and is a time of “intense political learning” (129). Therefore, aggregately, conventions make public opinion meaningful because the citizens who watch make an informed decision about a candidate, and have facts about why they will vote for that candidate. The chief reason why individual public opinion is meaningless during presidential elections is the “nonattitudes.” Nonattitudes are survey responses made up on the spot during an interview by a respondent who has no attitude on politics (113). Therefore, these individuals diminish the value of public opinion because we hate inconsistency and this creates an abundance of views on issues. However, during election night, exit polls support why aggregate opinion is also important.

Exit polls are meaningful because one hundred percent of those leaving the polls have voted (102). Therefore, we can get real results from the electorates and this makes collective public opinion meaningful. Intermediate-term opinion change that occurs during public approval and trust in government actions is important in assessing public opinion. Usually approval and trust in the government would be portrayed as two separate matters, but often they are indicators of the same phenomenon. Important in the public’s approval and trust are its views about the economy (139). If the economy is in good position, then presidential approval, and government trust will increase. Another important aspect in approval is when the country is facing a national crisis. During the time of this, the aggregate rallies around the president and the approval of the president spikes up for a relatively short period of time (145). Another way of assessing public opinion through president approval is a process called equilibration. Equilibration is the idea that approval never gets too high, or too low, it always stays around equilibrium of 50 percent (144). The aggregate notices the good or bad change in approval, and eventually brings the approval back to equilibrium after a short period of time.

Public opinion is the central mover in American politics. However, it is not because of an idealized vision of politics. To most American individuals, majority of the time, politics matters very little. Sometimes, people pay a little bit of attention but those who don’t, will have their movements and actions cancel out in the aggregate because they lack a consistent pattern (159). Also, the highly informed- the “passionate”- affect public opinion minimally because their opinions are strong and rarely change (163). The group in the middle of the uninformed and the passionate are the “scorekeepers.”

These citizens pay some attention to politics but ignore ideology and partisanship (163). The scorekeepers are the only citizens that need to be influenced because they are the marginal agents of change that need to be mobilized. Therefore, they are the aggregate, and the other two-thirds of the public really does not matter. This shows what politics at the margin means, and that it only takes a few percent to affect political changes. Overall, aggregate public opinion is meaningful because we like consistency and the opinion in the aggregate only changes when the public discourse shifts either by an important event or the introduction of new facts. On the flip side, individual public opinion is meaningless because their political views appear so fragile they are seen as insignificant. Therefore, most individual opinions do not affect the aggregate, and cancel out with their random, individual movements. Although the aggregate is little, it only takes a small number of them to pay attention and move public opinion systematically.


Stimson, James A. Tides of Consent: How Public Opinion Shapes American Politics. New York: Cambridge UP, 2004. Print.

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