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Things a pollster can count on

WHAT are the most important things we have learned over the last 10 years about American public opinion? Looking back on all the surveys reviewed for this magazine [Public Opinion], we are most struck by how they have enlarged and sharpened our understanding of the properties of public opinion. Ambivalence is one of those essential properties. We have come to see that the public's being pulled this way and that by conflicting or competing values isn't simply an occasional occurrence but instead a fundamental, recurring characteristic of opinion.

``We American have always been ambivalent about government,'' Paul Volcker remarked last year. Surveys repeatedly attest to the scope of this ambivalence today. We maintain that individuals should try to help themselves - and that government should help individuals in need. In other areas, we assert the importance of preventing the spread of communism in Central America - and the importance of not rushing off into armed conflicts in that region. On abortion, we insist on the sanctity of life and upon the value of individual choice.

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The pervasiveness of the public's ambivalence speaks volumes to the complex role of public opinion in democratic governance. It also raises basic challenges and standards for opinion research - especially the need to look at all dimensions of the values brought to a policy question.

Stability or continuity is a second key feature of American public opinion. Many people are disturbingly inattentive to even the large details of governmental programs and policies - but this does not result in flighty public opinion.

Alexis de Tocqueville glimpsed this a century and a half ago. ``I hear it said that it is in the nature and habit of democracies to be constantly changing their opinions. ... What struck me in the United States, however, was the difficulty of shaking the majority in an opinion once conceived of.... The public is engaged in infinitely varying the consequences of known principles ... rather than in seeking new principles.''

Survey research enlarges upon de Tocqueville's brilliant insight. Again and again, we see the public staying with a few basic commitments rather than rushing in new directions. For example, despite all the talk in recent decades of impending religious shifts in the face of vast social changes and new currents in theology, surveys demonstrate a fundamental continuity in American religious belief and practice. Where changes have occurred - in the rate of church attendance by younger Roman Catholics, to cite one case - they represent responses to specific institutional experience rather than far-reaching shifts in outlook.

Attitudes toward communism and the Soviet Union are another instance of bedrock stability. When their presidents pursue d'etente or sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or when Soviet leaders embark on perestroika, Americans naturally respond. But through all of the changes that have taken place since World War II, some enduring public assessments can readily be seen - from the public's caution on Soviet behavior to its yearning for greater cooperation and a more peaceful world.

The third feature of public opinion is that it symbolically articulates general values, rather than responding literally to specific issues. In a basic sense, opinion is more poetry than prose. ``Do you favor a nuclear freeze?'' polls asked in the early 1980s, and the answers come back a seemingly resounding yes. We learned, however, that most Americans did not intend to convey a judgment on the specifics of a nuclear weapons freeze as a technical issue in US defense policy. Instead, they were using the freeze questions to express symbolically a mood and an aspiration: ``Do what is possible to draw the world back from the possibility of nuclear war.'' This judgment, though real and powerful, is very different from what the question literally asked.

``Do you think we are spending too much, too little, or about the right amount on...?'' Foreign aid has usually occupied last place here, when set against other claimants for governmental expenditures. But we have learned that it is simply not true that Americans are ``against foreign aid''; in fact, they see lots of need for it. They are saying something symbolically - essentially that they believe their country has since World War II shouldered its share of international responsibilities.

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A final example of public opinion's expressing itself as poetry rather than prose can be seen in questions that try to measure public confidence. If all of the specific complaints that surveys have uncovered over the last decade or so were intended literally, the US would have had, or now be ripe for, a revolution much like France's two centuries ago. The public has been saying something, all right, but it is more like: ``Shape up. We can do better than this.''

When the poetry of American public opinion - its symbolic articulation of basic values - is read as prose - as literal responses to specific issues to be tallied with ``scientific'' precision - the result is usually a vast misinterpretation of the public's message.

This article is reprinted from Public Opinion magazine, of which Everett Carll Ladd is senior editor.