Reading the Public: How Memebers of Congress Develop Their Impressions of Public Opinion on National Security

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Rosner, Jeremy David
Destler, I. M.
To "represent" literally means to present again. For members of Congress, that means presenting again the views their constituents have presented to them. But how do members of Congress determine what those views are? How does a member of Congress read the public, in particular, on questions of national security, where the stakes are particularly high, but where average citizens may be silent, inattentive, or deferential to policy makers? The current study examines this question - how members of Congress develop their impressions of public opinion on national security issues - through a process of inter-views and participant observation with members of Congress and their staff. It exam-ines the information-gathering methods of eight members - six representatives and two senators - as well as their chiefs of staff, focusing in particular on three case studies: the Iraq war, especially congressional votes during 2005-2007; the sale of six American port operations to the Dubai Ports World company in early 2006; and U.S. relations with China. The study concludes that members rely on more sources of information about public opinion on national security than the literature has suggested. For example, members do not only look at intentional and issue-linear communications they receive from the public. They tend to be hunter-gatherers for information, and they seek out clues the public did not know it was transmitting. Members also look at public opinion in a highly anticipatory manner - reading the public's preferences not only in the here-and-now, but also as they may evolve. And whereas the literature tends to equate public opinion with public opinion polls, which weight every individual's opinion equally, members appear to view opinion in "lumpy" terms, assigning very different weights to the opinions of different kinds of people. All this helps to explain why there are sometimes divergences between the polls and members' perceptions of pub-lic opinion. Ultimately, it also suggests the need for a broader understanding of pub-lic opinion, which takes into account not only quantitative polling data, but also the qualitative perceptions of practitioners such as members of Congress, whose job it is to assess the contours of public attitudes.