The Politics of Pessimism

Joe Keohane recently had a very provocative article (“The crime wave in our head“) in the Dallas Morning News raising the issue Americans’ misperceptions of crime. Koehane’s argument is based on trends in reported by Gallup polls that I’ve been using in my public opinion lecture for years: Americans think that crime is going up when crime rates are actually going down.

Public perceptions of increasing crime have remained about 50% for much of the last two decadesIn 2009, almost 3 out of 4 Americans believed that crime had increased in the last year.

Citizens were slightly more optimistic about their local communities. Only about half of all Americans thought crime was worse in their area.

Pretty consistently over the last two decades, over half of all citizens believed crime was getting worse in their own communities

The problem is that FBI crime statistics indicate that the crime rates have generally been dropping. For example, preliminary results from 2009 indicate that crime rates actually dropped in every category in the first half of 2009.

Violent crime Murder Forcible rape Robbery Aggravated assault Property crime Burglary Motor vehicle theft Arson
-4.4 -10.0 -3.3 -6.5 -3.2 -6.1 -2.5 -18.7 -8.2

As Keohane points out, democracy requires an informed public. The problem here is that misperception leaves us solving problems we don’t have:

If we believe crime is on the march in the streets all over the country, it influences our beliefs on critical issues from gun control to sentencing laws, from how we run our prisons to how much money we spend on law enforcement. Misinformation on the part of the public makes for bad lawmaking on the part of the government.

I think something similar happened with public schools. On one hand, note that parents (those of us with the most contact with schools) have much higher opinions of education than the public in general. In fact, Gallup has found satisfaction with education has pretty consistently been above 75% over the last two decades. In fact, that survey found that in 2009 more parents of public school students were “completely satisfied” (33%) with their child’s education than somewhat dissatisfied” (15%) and “completely dissatisfied” (9%) combined. Given all of the hopes and expectations we have for out kids… that’s not too bad.

Ratings of schools-parents vs general public

Certainly, lots of people were complaining, but those closest to the system thought their kids’ schools were generally on the right track.

There’s also a gap between perceptions of our local schools and those of the nation. A 2006 Gallup study found that Americans gave their local schools much higher grades that the nation’s schools in general. In fact, while only 21% of Americans gave the nation’s schools a grade of A or B, 49% of people gave their local schools those grades (and 64% of parents gave an A or B to the school of their oldest child).

We have met the enemy... and he is us.

Either we all live in communities with above average schools or we don’t know as much about other people’s schools as we think. Either way, it appears that we may have exaggerated the problem with schools and passed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and created an elaborate testing system that created a new set of problems (like teaching to the test). That may explain why only 21% of Americans believe that NCLB improved America’s schools while 29% believe it made them worse.

A little skepticism can be healthy. Too much skepticism may be very expensive.

How closely should elected officials follow public opinion? How well founded were the Founders’ fears of direct democracy?

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