Public Opinion Doesn’t Exist

Ever have that book that stays with you and gnaws at you well after you finish reading it?  One of my recent reads has been How Not to Be Wrong:  The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg.  It is a highly recommended read, but Chapter 17 is causing me heartburn.  It is entitled “There is No Such Thing as Public Opinion.”

Why heartburn?  I wrote a paper in graduate school taking issue with that old adage that “Americans are ideologically conservative but operationally liberal.”  I did a poor job expressing and supporting my view and my paper’s grade reflected it.  However, Ellenberg says what I was attempting to say, just much more eloquently.

“Each voter has a perfect rational coherent political stance, but in the aggregate, their position is nonsensical” (p 367).

For example, we did some polling on the medical marijuana issue.  I will simplify, but the results were as such:

  • 1/3 of respondents opposed any legalization of marijuana.
  • 1/3 of respondents supported legalization of marijuana for only medical use.
  • 1/3 of respondents supported full legalization of marijuana.

After the completion of the polling, the following statements were made about the polling:


Both statements tell different stories about public opinion, and both statements are true.   When you aggregate the three choices, they no longer make sense.

When Americans and democracy are offered more than one choice, it gets messy because “majority rules” systems work best with two choices, not three.   (which returns to a theory of why political parties exist – to offer clear choices.)

Returning to the inconsistency of aggregate judgments. “The majority isn’t a unified entity that follows logic” (p 374).    This is why public opinion tells us repeatedly that Americans want a smaller government with less spending.  However, when offered choices of 13 categories of government spending, more people want to increase rather than cut in 11 of the categories.

Ellenberg makes the following conclusion – and this is what gives me heartburn:

“I think the right answer is that there are no answers.  Public opinion doesn’t exist.  If there is no such thing as public opinion, what’s an elected official to do?  The simplest answer:  when there’s no coherent message from the people, do whatever you want” (p 369).

Frankly, I am still noodling this through, but my heartburn continues but now for different reasons.    Enjoy your weekend.



Photo by Rob Schreckhise on Unsplash


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