Policy advocates engaged in changing public opinion rarely pay much attention to what the academic literature says about how public opinion is formed and how and why it changes.  That’s too bad, because while political scientists disagree about a lot of things, this is not one of them.  Several decades of robust empirical tests offer a pretty good road map for those who want to effectively go about “waging and winning the war of ideas.”

Some libertarians have relied upon F.A. Hayek’s “The Intellectuals and Socialism” for guidance in these matters. Hayek argued that the intellectual class, which he defined as “professional secondhand dealers in ideas,” will dictate the beliefs of society given the latter’s deference to intellectuals and their corresponding lack of interest and knowledge in politics and public policy.

Whether by design or driven by the force of circumstances, they [the socialists] have always directed their main effort toward gaining the support of this ‘elite,’ while the more conservative groups have acted, as regularly but unsuccessfully, on a more naive view of mass democracy and have usually vainly tried directly to reach and to persuade the individual voter.

While Hayek believed that socialism was naturally attractive to modern intellectuals, he was hopeful that classical liberals could win back the intellectual class and regain public opinion by pursuing the same strategy once pursued by the socialists.

Alas, Hayek’s 1949 narrative was unaccompanied by empirical evidence, so while plausible, his argument is, at best, a compelling hypothesis. Today, we have empirics, and what we know can best be found in John Zaller’s The Nature & Origins of Mass Opinion. In brief, Zaller summarizes the academic literature on public opinion:

  • There is a high variance in political awareness around a very low mean.
  • Public opinion is extremely unstable on matters large and small. Wildly different findings can result from the same survey sample by simply ordering or framing questions differently.
  • There are numerous examples of dramatic shifts in public opinion over very short periods of time.
  • The vast majority of people have no discernable ideology and don’t even posses “true attitudes” about most political matters. Instead, they are ambivalent and have a myriad of partially independent and contradictory ideas and beliefs that co-exist comfortably with one another—which Zaller terms “considerations”—pertaining to most matters of political interest.
  • Elite discourse is the most important driver of public opinion. After a particularly powerful account of how this was the case in white America’s about-face on the matter of racial equality, Zaller writes “If elite cues can change racial opinions, which appear to be among the most deeply felt of mass opinions, they can probably affect most other types of opinions as well.”
  • Even so, individual political predispositions matter; they are “the critical intervening variable between the communications people encounter in the mass media, on one side, and their statements of political preferences, on the other.” Political predispositions are rooted in life experiences, childhood socialization, direct involvement in the raw ingredients of policy issues, social and economic status, inherited personality factors, and tastes.
  • Elite discourse does not play an important role in the formation of political predispositions in the short run, but over the long run, exposure to elite discourse makes one more susceptible to it and likely has some effect on underlying predispositions.

In an attempt to synthesize these and several other observations about public opinion, Zaller constructs what he calls the RAS (Receive-Accept-Sample) Model to explain the formation of public opinion. The mathematical model is built upon four axioms:

The Reception Axiom – The greater a person’s level of cognitive engagement with an issue, the more likely he or she is to be exposed to and comprehend political messages concerning that issue. Elite discourse—not interpersonal discourse or influence—is the dominant means of transmitting political messages.

The Resistance Axiom – People tend to resist arguments that are inconsistent with their political predispositions, but they do so only to the extent that they posses the contextual information necessary to perceive a relationship between the message and their predispositions. “If citizens are well informed, they react mechanically to political ideas based on political cues about their partisan implications, and if they are too poorly informed to be aware of these cues, they tend to uncritically accept whatever ideas they encounter.”

The Accessibility Axiom – The more recently a consideration has been called to mind or thought about, the less time it takes to retrieve that consideration or related considerations from memory and bring them to the top of the head for use. “A long unused set of considerations,” Zaller writes, “may be completely inaccessible, which is to say, forgotten.”

The Response Axiom – Individuals answer survey questions by averaging across the considerations that are immediately salient or accessible to them (literally, what’s at the top of the head at the moment of decision). Survey responses do not represent any deeper type of “true attitude.” This explains why surveys about political attitudes are so unstable and subject to manipulation via question orders, phraseology, etc.

The balance of the Zaller’s book is an application of the RAS model in those cases where sufficient data exist to test the model’s predictions. The model convincingly passes his empirical tests in a wide range of political and policy matters (among them racial and political tolerance, support for American involvement in overseas wars, voting in presidential and congressional elections, presidential primaries, presidential popularity, trust in government, and judgments about the economy) and many subsequent tests by political scientists confirm the basics of Zaller’s model:

Attitude change, understood as a change in people’s long-term response probabilities, result from change in the mix of ideas to which individuals are exposed. Changes in the flow of political communication causes attitude change not by producing a sudden conversion experience but by producing gradual changes in the balance of considerations that are present in people’s minds and available for answering survey questions.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that the flow of political communication is dictated by the arguments of elites. “The classic studies of personal influence provide no mechanism for explaining how interpersonal communications could bring about systematic changes in the distribution of mass opinion independently of elites.”

While some might argue that that emergence of social media has denuded the power of elites, there is no contemporary evidence of that. In fact, it’s likely that social media amplifies the power of elites. If it takes time for elite opinion to trickle down and influence the rest of us, then social media speeds up that process by more rapidly delivering information about what elites have to say. Social media may have reduced the barriers of entry for those who aspire to “elite” status, but increasing the number of elites is not the same thing as decreasing the power of elites as a class.

What does Zaller’s model imply for libertarians engaged in “waging and winning the war of ideas”?

(1) Our primary audience should be political and policy elites and arguments should be crafted to appeal to them first and foremost. That’s because winning the minds of the small number of public intellectuals and political elite is sufficient to change the minds of the public at large. Elite cues decisively move even deeply-rooted partisan policy beliefs in the public at large. As elites go, so go the most politically aware, and then, eventually, so goes the rest of society:

Public attitudes toward major issues are a response to the relative intensity of competing political communications on those issues. When elites unite on a mainstream issue, the public’s response is relatively nonideological, with the most aware members of the public reflecting the elite consensus most strongly. When elites come to disagree along partisan or ideological lines, the public’s response will become ideological as well, with the most politically aware members of the public responding most ideologically. The degree of mass ideological polarization on an issue reflects the relative intensity of the opposing information flows.

Zaller well demonstrates that the balance of the public will accept the beliefs of the most highly politically aware as soon as they become aware of those beliefs.

(2) Our policy arguments should be empirically-based with references to ideology and philosophy minimized to the greatest extent possible. People tend to disregard arguments that are perceived to be in conflict with their underlying values and partisan and ideological group-identities.  Hayek agrees:

It is perhaps the most characteristic feature of the intellectual that he judges new ideas not by their specific merits but by the readiness with which they fit into his general conceptions, into the picture of the world which he regards as modern or advanced.

In fact, it is entirely rational for individuals to resist embracing ideas that threaten to undermine their ideological beliefs—even if those ideology-challenging ideas are correct—because being “right” about a policy issue provides no personal utility. Maintaining beliefs that anchor one’s affiliations with identity-defining groups and commitments, however, does provide utility. A recent clinical study examining 1,600 individuals provides powerful evidence that this form of (subconscious) “motivated reasoning” is the rule, not the exception, and that the more logically a person thinks, the more likely that person is to allow ideology to significantly color his or her reasoning.

Given that libertarians are a distinct minority within our target audience (the political and policy elite), advertising the values that are associated with our policy work will almost certainly make it harder—not easier—to win converts. While it’s tempting to labor to change the underlying political predispositions in the public-at-large via ideological proselytization, there’s no evidence in the literature that elite policy or political discourse is capable of doing that in the short run and only spotty evidence that it has any significant effect in the long run.

(3) Winning policy converts on both sides of the Left-Right political spectrum is crucial. The only means of achieving stable public support for government policy is the creation and maintenance of elite consensus. This requires us to successfully sell our ideas to both liberal and conservative elites. Zaller demonstrates that elite consensus occurs more frequently than we might think, but it cannot occur during polarizing ideological conflict.

It is important for political crusaders to keep in mind, however, that public opinion is not everything. That’s because politicians are less constrained by public opinion than many think. Given that public opinion is terribly unstable and that it is built upon grains of ambivalence, intellectual incoherence, and contradictory ideas and beliefs, politicians have more scope to shape and lead public opinion than is commonly recognized:

Political leaders are seldom the passive instruments of majority opinion. Nor, as it seems to me, do they often attempt openly to challenge public opinion. But they do regularly attempt to play on the contradictory ideas that are always present in people’s minds, elevating the salience of some and harnessing them to new initiatives while downplaying or ignoring other ideas – all of which is just another way of talking about issue framing.

There’s a literature out there, people.  Use it.