The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Politicians Aren’t Pandering to Voters on Immigration


In Politicians Don’t Pander, the left-of-center political scientists Lawrence Jacobs and Robert Shapiro argued that the democratic responsiveness of the American political system was in decline:

Politicians respond to public opinion, then, but in two quite different ways. In one, politicians assemble information on public opinion to design government policy. This is usually equated with “pandering,” and this is most evident during the relatively short period when presidential elections are imminent. The use of public opinion research here, however, raises a troubling question: why has the derogatory term “pander” been pinned on politicians who respond to public opinion? The answer is revealing: the term is deliberately deployed by politicians, pundits, and other elites to belittle government responsiveness to public opinion and reflects a long-standing fear, uneasiness, and hostility among elites toward popular consent and influence over the affairs of government. 

It is surely odd in a democracy to consider responsiveness to public opinion as disreputable. We challenge the stigmatizing use of the term “pandering” and adopt the neutral concept of “political responsiveness.” We suggest that the public’s preferences offer both broad directions to policymakers (e.g., establish universal health insurance) and some specific instructions (e.g., rely on an employer mandate for financing reform). In general, policymakers should follow these preferences.

Politicians respond to public opinion in a second manner—they use research on public opinion to pinpoint the most alluring words, symbols, and arguments in an attempt to move public opinion to support their desired policies. Public opinion research is used by politicians to manipulate public opinion, that is, to move Americans to “hold opinions that they would not hold if aware of the best available information and analysis” (Zaller 1992, 313). Their objective is to simulate responsiveness. Their words and presentations are crafted to change public opinion and create the appearance of responsiveness as they pursue their desired policy goals. Intent on lowering the potential electoral costs of subordinating voters’ preferences to their policy goals, politicians use polls and focus groups not to move their positions closer to the public’s but just the opposite: to find the most effective means to move public opinion closer to their own desired policies.

Essentially, Jacobs and Shapiro argue that this second manner had gained ground over the first. Though I don’t agree with Jacobs and Shapiro on many policy questions, their work has informed my thinking about the divergence between Republican and Democratic policymaking elites and their voting constituencies. It has motivated me to think harder about the stated goals and ambitions of voters, and how we might use this information to inform policymaking in a substantive way. 

And the recent immigration debate strikes me as an excellent illustration of this broader phenomenon of “crafted talk.” Consider the fact that, the coalition of technology leaders backing immigration reform, has sponsored two organizations — Americans for a Conservative Direction and the Council for American Job Growth — to appeal to conservatives and liberals respectively. The rather clever idea is that to build a real bipartisan coalition, it is necessary to advance separate, partisan messages emphasizing the core commitments of different ideological constituencies. And so Americans for a Conservative Direction insists that the Gang of Eight immigration reform bill is really, really tough, because conservatives like toughness. This is “crafted talk” at its best:

Politicians track public opinion not to make policy but rather to determine how to craft their public presentations and win public support for the policies they and their supporters favor. Politicians want the best of both worlds: to enact their preferred policies and to be reelected.

I was reminded of crafted talk as I read a new Pew survey on immigration reform, conducted earlier this month. Here are some of the findings:

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted May 1-5 among 1,504 adults, finds that 73% say there should be a way for illegal immigrants already in the United States who meet certain requirements to stay here. But fewer than half (44%) favor allowing those here illegally to apply for U.S. citizenship, while 25% think permanent legal status is more appropriate.

That is, the position articulated by Boston College political scientist Peter Skerry, that we ought to grant unauthorized immigrants a path to permanent non-citizen resident status — is in fact more popular than granting them a path to citizenship, the position that has become politically unassailable.

When it comes to legal immigration, relatively few (31%) see current levels as satisfactory, but there is no consensus as to whether the level of legal immigration should be decreased (36%) or increased (25%).

I take this to mean that 75 percent of Americans believe that legal immigration levels should remain at or below current levels, yet it seems very likely that the Gang of Eight proposal will increase the size of the immigrant influx.

And there appears to be a significant gap between the views of Hispanic survey respondents and the views of immigration advocacy organizations:

Hispanics are divided in views of legal immigration: Approximately equal percentages say it should be decreased (32%), kept at its present level (29%) and increased (28%). A plurality of whites (39%) favor decreasing the level of legal immigration, while just 22% say it should be increased and 32% say it should be kept at its current level.

We’re left with an interesting question. Does anyone believe that these survey results will have a significant impact on the immigration reform debate? Pew notes that views on its broad immigration questions “are virtually unchanged from March,” and widespread skepticism about increasing the legal immigration flow doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference.

Josh Barro writes that his jury duty experience in Queens led him to believe that New York city’s most cosmopolitan borough is an attractive model for America’s ethnocultural future. Having grown up in neighboring Brooklyn, and having chosen to live in a fairly diverse stretch of Downtown, I am inclined to agree that dense, diverse neighborhoods can be very pleasant places to live. But Queens is not the only imaginable future. Heather Mac Donald’s account of California’s demographic revolution in City Journal reminds us that in some regions, less-skilled immigration has led to hypersegregation, economic isolation, and entrenched poverty. Moreover, not all Americans believe that density and diversity are ideal. I’m inclined to think that while density and diversity ought to be an option, which they very much are in the form of our big, highly-productive metropolitan areas, there is also much to be said for diversity across regions. In a democratic polity, the fact that large majorities oppose increasing legal immigration ought to at least inform the policy debate. So far, I don’t think this pretty significant fact has played much of a role, which, when you think about it, is both weird and telling. 


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