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Exercising Democracy


Exercising Democracy
UMaine political scientist urges citizens to give their own opinions a workout


Operating under the influence of opinion
Amy Fried discusses the influence of public opinion.

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If Americans want to live in a healthy democracy, it requires some exercise.

That means more than simply trooping to the voting booth on Election Day, according to political scientist Amy Fried.

"One of the underlying principles of democracy is that the people have the power to rule," says Fried, an associate professor of political science at The University of Maine. "You can judge how healthy a democracy is by looking at the involvement of citizens and the quality of the political environment."

If a democracy is in tip-top shape, Fried says, citizens will not only vote, but they also will use other means to communicate their desires and policy preferences to elected officials. In turn, elected officials will engage in reasoned debate designed to convince others of the validity of their points of view.

For the past 11 years, Fried's work on public opinion, the media, political culture, political psychology and political participation has diagnosed some of the unhealthy aspects of American democracy, including the propensity of elites politicians, the media and interest groups to manipulate public opinion and the perception of public opinion.

Today, Fried says, citizens are subject to manipulation by political elites more than ever before.

"Politicians and political parties now use sophisticated tools, first created by the advertising industry, to determine how to affect individuals' views and votes," she says. "Just as marketers present their products in the most favorable light, so do political consultants, who frame their issues and candidates and their competition to shift citizens in their direction. And just as consumers can be educated about product advertising, so can citizens learn how to assess political claims."

"An awareness of the way that the politics of public opinion works can lead to remedies."
Amy Fried

Fried's research in these areas, some done with UMaine political scientist Tim Cole, is widely published. In 1997 she wrote the book Muffled Echoes: Oliver North and the Politics of Public Opinion. She also has addressed media and legislator constructions of public opinion in the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, why conservative politicians and interest groups promote public anger, and the way interest groups influenced the establishment and celebration of Earth Day. As a faculty fellow of UMaine's Margaret Chase Smith Center for Public Policy, she has worked on a project to improve political communication and citizen choice.

It's an awareness of the way that the politics of public opinion works that can lead to remedies, says Fried, whose research on topics such as citizen participation deals with how people can manage to make their voices heard.

Having an audible voice means more than reading a few newspaper articles the week before the first Tuesday in November and then casting a vote. To guard against manipulation by elites, citizens need to realize that the way issues are presented by the media or by politicians may be skewed. They also can seek out alternative points of view when forming their opinions. Rather than relying on elites to tell them which issues are important, they can organize in groups to draw attention to the issues that most affect their lives.

Beyond that, citizens can work to ensure that future generations understand democracy and are enthusiastic about participating in it by encouraging reforms in the educational system. Civic skills can help students learn how to compromise and organize, and citizens can voice their support for programs, such as Americorps, that promote learning through service to the community, says Fried.

It can be an exhausting exercise, she admits. But it's essential for democracy's good health.

"For citizens, being skeptical is good, even essential, but being cynical is not. Citizens should be aware of and able to discern between manipulation and principled argument. This requires an interest in the world outside citizens' immediate private circles, and a belief that they will be able to effectively communicate their preferences," Fried says.

However, a healthy democracy doesn't necessarily require that the public's preferences are automatically translated into public action. No democratic theorists argue for unrestrained popular command. American democracy was designed to create a space for deliberation by elected officials, Fried says.

"It's important for elected officials to know what the public thinks, and to take it into account in their reasoning. But we also want them to use their own judgment. Decisionmaking doesn't come down to politicians using one method or the other it's both," Fried says.

In democracies, elected officials have many avenues for learning about the public's preferences. These include polls, mail and phone calls, focus groups, or idiosyncratic measures, such as sales of particular T-shirts. However, these indices do not always reveal what the public really thinks. They also are vulnerable to distortion, deliberate or not, by the media, elected officials and pressure groups.

"One of the problems with polls is that they only get answers to questions the pollsters ask. Those questions are written based on the agenda of politicians and pundits, so they may miss the way people really think about an issue. For instance, after the Clinton healthcare plan did not pass in 1994, pollsters stopped asking questions about healthcare. But that doesn't mean that a lot of citizens stopped thinking that dealing with the lack of healthcare is important.

"By and large, the issue agenda is elite-driven, including a combination of the media, elected officials, parties and large interest groups. The media also tends to take a blockbuster approach in its coverage, riding high-profile stories of personal tragedies, such as Chandra Levy, O.J. Simpson and Princess Diana, as well as political blockbusters, such as the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and the war against terrorism. That drives out consideration of other issues," Fried says.

Fried believes that the use of public opinion today poses serious problems for democratic citizenship. By generating false impressions of what the public thinks, elected officials, interest groups and the media may make citizens feel more remote from their government, and doubtful that their participation in the political process matters.

This has fostered cynicism about politics among Americans, many of whom discount the sincerity of campaign promises and believe that debate among politicians is simply argument for the sake of argument, she says.

"Citizens must educate themselves about the issues and understand how the political process works," Fried says. "That means developing an appreciation for other points of view, the value of criticism and the difficulty of compromise.

"We tend to socialize with people we agree with, and that keeps us from being exposed to other points of view. We should cultivate the ability to listen to others, and not divide the world into enemies and allies," says Fried.

In her American government classes, Fried tells her students that they have the power to make a difference in politics and in their communities.

"When people pushed for political changes in the past, they didn't know when they started out if they would be successful. But they organized and made a difference. I tell my students that the people in Maine government and representing Maine in Congress are not different from them. If you believe something's important, go out and work on it, run for office, or bring it to the attention of your government," Fried says.

by Gladys Ganiel
September-October, 2002

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