UMaine political scientist urges citizens to give their own opinions
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
"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
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
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,"
In her American government classes, Fried tells her students that they
have the power to make a difference in politics and in their
"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
by Gladys Ganiel
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.