During the Krugman/Crooked Timber kerfluffle this summer I argued that Krugman's argument that elite pundits and policy wonks ran roughshod over American politics was too simplistic; we also needed to account for voter preferences, especially on big-ticket policy decisions like the Bush tax cuts and the Iraq War. For this I was raked across the coals... after all, isn't public opinion created or manipulated by elites?
Via Chris Blattman, there is some new experimental research in the APSR (ungated) by John Bullock that shows that the effect of elites' cues on public opinion is not dominant:
An enduring concern about democracies is that citizens conform too readily to the policy views of elites in their own parties, even to the point of ignoring other information about the policies in question.
This article presents two experiments that undermine this concern, at least under one important condition. People rarely possess even a modicum of information about policies; but when they do, their attitudes seem to be affected at least as much by that information as by cues from party elites.
The experiments also measure the extent to which people think about policy. Contrary to many accounts, they suggest that party cues do not inhibit such thinking.
This is not cause for unbridled optimism about citizens’ ability to make good decisions, but it is reason to be more sanguine about their ability to use information about policy when they have it.That doesn't mean that elites can't use public opinion -- especially when it's an ignorant opinion -- to skew policies in ways that suit their own preferences. The selling of the Iraq War might be such a case, when the public was convinced in large numbers that Saddam Hussein was directly or indirectly response for the attacks on 9/11. It may be an example of the mass ignorance that Bullock describes. But as an exception to the general pattern that would have to be demonstrated rather than merely asserted. In general it's just not enough to say that the public is easily manipulated into accepting elite opinion.