An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Fall 2012

Is Public Opinion Stable? Resolving the Micro/Macro Disconnect in Studies of Public Opinion

James N. Druckman and Thomas J. Leeper
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Public opinion matters, both as a central element of democratic theory and as a substantive foundation for political representation. The origins and nature of public opinion have long attracted the attention of social scientists. Yet a number of questions remain; among the more perplexing is whether–and under what conditions–public opinion is stable. The answer depends in large part on whether one looks at aggregations of individual opinions (macro public opinion) or at the individual opinions themselves (micro public opinion). In this essay, we explore the macro/micro divide and offer a framework to determine when opinions are likely to be stable or volatile. This framework reflects both the content of the political environment and the nature of individuals’ opinions. Using public opinion dynamics surrounding the Patriot Act as a primary example, we discuss the role of opinion stability in interpreting public opinion and in understanding the normative implications of public preferences.

JAMES N. DRUCKMAN, elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2012, is the Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science and Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. He edited the Cambridge Handbook of Experimental Political Science (with Donald P. Greene, James H. Kuklinski, and Arthur Lupia, 2011). He is currently Editor of the Public Opinion Quarterly as well as the American Politics series from the University of Chicago Press.

THOMAS J. LEEPER is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science and a Graduate Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. His research focuses on the role of information in politics, especially in the U.S. context. Polarized, a blog he maintains for Psychology Today, examines psychological perspectives on public opinion.