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What motivates us to change our opinions during times of political protest and social unrest? To investigate this question, Taeku Lee's smartly argued book looks to the critical struggle over the moral principles, group interests, and racial animosities that defined public support for racial policies during the civil rights movement, from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. Challenging the conventional view that public opinion is shaped by elites, Lee crafts an alternate account of the geographic, institutional, historical, and issue-specific contexts that form our political views. He finds that grassroots organizations and local protests of ordinary people pushed demands for social change into the consciousness of the general public. From there, Lee argues, these demands entered the policy agendas of political elites. Evidence from multiple sources including survey data, media coverage, historical accounts, and presidential archives animate his argument.

Ultimately, Mobilizing Public Opinion is a timely, cautionary tale about how we view public opinion and a compelling testament to the potential power of ordinary citizens.

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Meet the Author

Taeku Lee is an assistant professor of public policy in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
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Mobilizing Public Opinion: Black Insurgency and Racial Attitudes in the Civil Rights Era

By Taeku Lee

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2002 Taeku Lee
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226470253


It is not the kings or generals that make history but the masses of the people.
--Nelson Mandela
We have the record of kings and gentlemen ad nauseam and in stupid detail; but of the common run of human beings . . . the world has saved all too little of authentic record and tried to forget or ignore even the little saved.
--W. E. B. Du Bois
Every fight consists of two parts: (1) the few individuals who are actively engaged at the center and (2) the audience that is irresistibly attracted to the scene. The spectators are as much a part of the overall situation as are the overt combatants. The spectators are an integral part of the situation, for, as likely as not, the audience determines the outcome of the fight.. . . To understand any conflict it is necessary therefore to keep constantly in mind the relations between the combatants and the audience.. . . This is the basic pattern of all politics.
--E. E. Schattschneider
According to E. E. Schattschneider, politics is performative, with a centralcast of characters onstage playing to audiences before them. The observation is trenchant because we all too often gaze solely on the key actors onstage. Schattschneider reminds us that the relations between actors and au-diences--how the spectators are engaged and whether they can be drawn into the fray--are critical to understanding the outcome of events. This is what distinguishes a performance from a rehearsal. When the central actors can engage an audience successfully, they can control its response like puppetmasters do a marionette, evoking comedy, tragedy, or a sober mo-ment's pause with the faintest of gestures. When the central actors fail to engage an audience--when the performers bungle their lines or otherwise hoodwink, patronize, and misjudge the crowd before them--the spectators may upstage the act in shower of boos, hisses, catcalls, and rotten fruit, or worse yet, throw the rascals unceremoniously off the stage. Ultimately, it is this intimate liaison between actors and their audiences that gives meaning to a performance, political or otherwise.

Political scientists have not ignored this fact. The study of political behavior and public opinion comprises a substantial portion of academic research on politics. As we shall see in this chapter, however, political scientists are prone to take a particular, peculiar view of political audiences. Specifically, the actor-audience liaison is most often characterized by a one-way, top-down flow of political communication from elites on center stage to spectators in the audience. How this communication is received and processed and how it motivates or deters political action is then examined primarily in terms of individual-level, cognitively based, short-term influences using survey data. This is a needlessly restrictive approach. It neglects instances in which political communication flows laterally between audience members or bottom-up from the audience to center stage. It reduces citizens to passive repositories of elite messages, incapable of forming autonomous political beliefs and powerless to alter their political destinies. And, as noted in the introduction, it renders a peculiar interpretation of how public opinion is voiced during episodes of social movement insurgency such as the civil rights era in the United States.

In this chapter, I examine the limits of this approach to public opinion and consider how we might enhance such an approach. I begin by situating the elite approach in the central question of whether democratic citizens are fit to govern. The research on this question suggests that they are not. The American electorate appears inattentive, ill-informed, inconsistent, and inchoate in their political reasoning and judgments. Elite opinion theory is one means of consoling this finding with the normative democratic ambition of popular rule. I thus look more closely and critically at a paradigmatic example of elite opinion theory, John Zaller's "Receive-Accept-Sample" (RAS) model. In the RAS model, the elite origins of mass opinion turn out to reflect theoretical priors more than they do inferences sanctioned by empirical analysis. What's more, the model places some strong restrictions on how mass opinion is conceived and measured, in a way that biases any empirical analysis to favor an elite account. The consequence of these restrictions and simplifications is an account of mass opinion shorn from the political, social, and historical contexts in which our political opinions are nurtured and voiced.

I propose a more group-based, historically grounded, issue-specific account of "activated mass opinion" that complements the general framework of a model like Zaller's. This more contextual account foregrounds how issues are defined, which groups are mobilized, and what roles elites and non-elites play in these matters. According to this view, there are multiple mass publics whose political opinions are formed, sustained, and activated in a matrix of intersecting interests, identities, institutions, and ideologies. In a stratified society such as the United States, these sometimes confluent, sometimes contradictory forces are characterized by a dominant public at the center of political affairs and multiple oppositional publics at its margins. Oppositional counterpublics are critical sites for the emergence of non-elite influences on mass opinion. In the case of the civil rights movement, a black counterpublic sphere and black counterelites are critical to the formation and activation of public views on race that challenge the prevailing racial attitudes of the day. When black insurgency successfully mobilizes a groundswell of protest, a sequence and process are set in motion that move racial attitudes out of relative quiescence into activated mass opinion. I conclude the chapter with some empirical expectations about how this proposed account improves our understanding of black insurgency and racial attitudes during the civil rights era.


Everyday politics, to borrow William James's apt phrase, is a "great, blooming, buzzing confusion." Little surprise, then, that one of the most frequently lamented and thoroughly documented facts about democracy in America is that its citizens hold dismally ill-formed and ill-informed political views.1 There is a deafening chorus of public opinion research showing, for instance, that Americans are more likely to correctly identify celebrity judges who dole out matinee justice on television than they are to identify the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. In a classic panel study fielded in 1956, 1958, and 1960 by the University of Michi-gan's Survey Research Center, Philip Converse found that only about 10 percent of the public could meaningfully define the terms "liberal" and "conservative" (1964). Worse yet, asked about government's role in public utilities and housing, only one in four Americans gave a consistent answer to an identically worded question across the three years of the panel study. The consistency of public opinion rises only modestly to 37 percent when people are asked about government's role in desegregating schools. No wonder then, that Converse concludes that non-elites responded to survey questions "as though flipping a coin" (1964, 243).

This empirical finding about the American public is often interpreted as a realist's antidote to Pollyanna-ish hopes for more participatory and deliberative forms of democracy. Perhaps deservedly so, for an inept electorate would be a treacherous foundation for a democracy. If the public pays little heed, keeps barely informed, and capriciously switches positions on political matters, then it is hard to interpret public opinion as an authoritative and meaningful expression of what citizens want government to do. As Walter Lippmann makes the case, "[t]he notion that public opinion can and will decide all issues is in appearance very democratic. In practice it undermines and destroys democratic government. For when everyone is supposed to have a judgment about everything, nobody in fact is going to know much about anything" (Rossiter and Lare 1963, 98-99). There is little reason, moreover, not to expect better-informed, instrumentally motivated, institutionally rooted, and ideologically disposed political elites not to exploit this situation to their private advantage.

Political scientists generally marshal two lines of empirical defense to salvage a more sanguine view of democratic decision-making.2 The first recourse lies in the magical properties of statistical aggregation. By this reasoning, although individual citizens may be disquietingly ignorant, inattentive, and incompetent, an electorate can exhibit a remarkably stable and secure level of wisdom about political matters. The basic intuition here harks back to the Marquis de Condorcet's "jury theorem" (1785). Con-dorcet's basic insight was that the likelihood of a collection of individuals, under majority rule, arriving at a socially "correct" judgment rises exponentially as the number of decision-makers increases. When groups are sufficiently large, the likelihood of a socially just or optimal decision by an evenly modestly competent collectivity is greater than the likelihood of such a decision by any member of that collectivity, no matter how Solomonic that individual.3

This defense, however, does not take us very far. For one thing, aggregation is not always so magical. As Kenneth Arrow proved in 1951, in some cases aggregation is an impossibility because majority preferences among competing proposals may cycle incoherently. Under Condorcet's parsimonious framework, the ability of aggregation to result in collective wisdom is more a feat of statistical legerdemain than it is a deep fact about democratic decision-making. Optimism about collective wisdom under majority rule teeters on a knife's edge around the basic parameters of the model, like the ability of citizens to form competent political judgments.4 As we have just noted, empirical studies of public opinion are quite clear that we should be wary of what we assume about the judgmental competence of the mass public.

Furthermore, the evidence that is harnessed to bolster this aggregative defense is somewhat shaky. The best such evidence of the "collective rationality" of the democratic public is based in statistically significant correlations between (changes in) mass policy preferences and (changes in) elite policy responsiveness.5 The first problem with this evidentiary basis is that the strength of this relation changed between the 1960s and the 1980s, leaving us to puzzle about why collective rationality or the power of aggregation should vary over time.6 Worse yet, simple statistical associations are notoriously suspect because they can sustain multiple, even mutually contradictory causal stories. Importantly, it is entirely plausible that public opinion correlates with policy outputs because elites have the foresight and influence to craft and coax public opinion toward a particular aggregative outcome that suits the policy preferences of elites, not their constituents. Rather than mass opinion guiding elite policies, elites may instead be guiding mass opinion.

Another perhaps more promising defense of the democratic public is rooted in cognitive psychology. Elite actors and their mass audiences, according to this view, simply allocate the work of politics in a sensible, efficient manner. Individuals appear capricious and ill-informed not because they are incompetent but because their complex lives are filled with competing demands on their time and attention. Far from the ideal of Athenian democracy, politics in present-day America is professionalized and specialized. Ordinary citizens are not the "political animals" Aristotle describes but rather fragmented individuals whose political obligations are often trumped by countervailing demands at work, at home, and within embedded social ties. Walter Lippmann once again minces no words as he observes that "I cannot find time to do what is expected of me in the theory of democracy; that is, to know what is going on and to have an opinion worth expressing in every question which confronts a self-governing community. And I have not happened to meet anybody, from a President of the United States to a professor of political science, who came anywhere near to embodying the accepted ideal of the sovereign and omnicompetent citizen" (1925, 20-21).

Thus, by this line of reasoning neither completeness of information nor constancy of attention nor consistency of revealed preferences is a fair criterion by which to judge the competence of democratic citizens. Rather, the proper criterion ought to be whether individuals, in a given situation, can draw reasonable inferences and make fair judgments about political affairs given the level of information and attention they have.7 Thus, a competent citizen does not need a doctorate in environmental sciences or decision theory to bear reasoned judgments about global warming and automobile emissions policy. She may simply need to know where elites whose judgments she trusts (or distrusts), such as Albert Gore Jr. or the Natural Resources Defense Council or the National Association of Manufacturers, stand on these issues. As this example suggests, an ample body of research shows that ordinary individuals are able to develop reasonable political views by making judicious use of cognitive shortcuts and interpretive simplifiers available to them through political communications.8

This cognitive defense of the democratic public, however, is also not without its limitations. The use of heuristics in itself is no guarantee of judgmental competence. The cognitive shortcuts and interpretive filters on which we rely may be difficult to comprehend, misleading, or otherwise ill-suited to our needs. As a consequence, we are unlikely to benefit from heuristics without some quality control. As disinterested and preoccupied as we are in our daily lives, we are unlikely to look to simpletons, sophists, or scoundrels for our political information. As our example in the previous paragraph suggests, the idea that ordinary citizens rely on cognitive shortcuts is intimately tied to the idea that political elites are the source of such information and influence. Edward Carmines and James Kuklinski, for example, argue that

[c]ontrary to populist conceptions of political representation, American politics is elite-driven. The division of labor between those whose primary business is governing the nation and those for whom politics is secondary dictates that the former will, under most circumstances, set the agenda, define the parameters of major debates, and bring deliberations to their conclusion ... "insiders," be they in politics or business, occupy the driver's seat. (1990, 266)
This view of the "rational ignorance" of ordinary citizens and the efficient allocation of democratic work dates back to Anthony Downs (1957) and Paul Lazarsfeld and his colleagues (Berelson et al. 1954). Today, the elite foundation of mass opinion is virtually orthodoxy. One aim of this book, of course, is to challenge this orthodoxy. But even granting it for the moment, the power of political elites over public opinion is no assurance that citizens' judgments will be reasonable or faithful to their personal preferences. Note that the cognitive defense of the democratic public succeeds in large part because it demands so little of citizens. The effect of this defense is to shift the burdens of knowledge and competence from ordinary individuals to political elites. Presumably, such cognitive burdens can be confidently delegated to professional politicians because we trust them to do their jobs ably and with the public's best interest in mind.

Hence, as with the aggregative defense, the cognitive case for the democratic public hinges vitally on the biases and incentives of political elites, how they influence and inform the public, and whether ordinary citizens have any autonomy over their political judgments. If elites are selective in the information they share, disingenuous about the policies they favor, or otherwise manipulative, then we are no better off for leaving the cognitive work of politics to professionals. The question of elites' biases and incentives is not mere idle conjecture. It is almost routine for political scientists to describe political elites as strategic (rather than sincere) actors with incentives to maximize private profit and exploit private information to move the electorate's preferences to their advantage.9

In addition to elites themselves, the fate of the cognitive defense also rests on the relation between elites and the public. Put bluntly, if the public has no autonomous (from elites, that is) means of forming political judgments, then elites can manipulate and craft the public's views on political matters (even the choice of whom to vote for) with impunity. Ultimately, this question hinges on an underlying account of how we receive and interpret information about the political world, whether and when that information animates or deters political action, and the role that elites play in that process. This is chiefly an empirical question, but it is one with decisive normative consequences.

To this end, I turn next to the main focus of this chapter: a close, critical look at elite opinion theory. I do so by focusing the analytic scrutiny sharply on an exemplary rendition of elite opinion theory. The strategy is to unearth some deep assumptions and tensions in this (elite) paradigmatic approach to mass opinion by poring over the details of a single account with a fine-toothed comb. We shall see that the elite approach sets needlessly exorbitant and theoretically motivated criteria by which to judge the democratic public. I propose instead to reconsider the democratic public on more empirically driven grounds. To wit, I specify amendments to the elite approach that permit us to better understand a particular episode of recent U.S. political history in which the public's views on an issue are powerfully engaged, informed, and activated.


Excerpted from Mobilizing Public Opinion: Black Insurgency and Racial Attitudes in the Civil Rights Era by Taeku Lee Copyright © 2002 by Taeku Lee. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Tables and Figures
1. Elite Opinion Theory and Activated Mass Opinion
2. Black Insurgency and the Dynamics of Mass Opinion
3. The Sovereign Status of Survey Data
4. Constituency Mail as Public Opinion
5. The Racial, Regional, and Organizational Bases of Mass Activation
6. Contested Meanings and Movement Agency
7. Two Nations, Separate Grooves
Appendix One: Question Wording, Scales, and Coding of Variables in Survey Analysis
Appendix Two: Bibliographic Sources for Racial Attitude Items, 1937-1965
Appendix Three: Sampling and Coding of Constituency Mail
Appendix Four: Typology of Interpretive Frames
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