Our latest “Voices and Choices” podcast features political psychologist Steven Kull, the director of the University of Maryland's Program for Public Consultation. For more than twenty years, Kull has conducted in-depth studies of public opinion on policy issues, in the United States and around the world. He has worked extensively with Congress to develop surveys that help lawmakers gain greater insight into where the public stands on a wide range of policy issues.
Recently, Kull presented new data at a briefing on Capitol Hill regarding the three major components of The Fair Representation Act, a reform bill introduced last summer by Congressman Don Beyer. We spoke about the public’s attitudes toward ranked choice voting, redistricting with nonpartisan citizen commissions and multi-member districts, but we also talked about the growing trend of the public’s distrust that the government is looking out for the best interests of the people. His findings are evidence of the need for systemic changes to how American voters elect their leaders in Congress. An excerpt from that interview follows, which has been edited for clarity.
It's important to note, the Program for Public Consultation and its citizen engagement project, Voice Of the People, does not take a position regarding any policy on which it surveys. It's only advocacy position is that Congress should listen to the people when deciding on policymaking.
Rich Robinson: You've been you've been studying these issues for quite a long time. Before we get into the actual data of the findings I want to build some context around where the public is and their views of how Congress is working. In 2016 you released a report about people's anger with government. Tell us a little bit about that.
Steven Kull: Well what we did is we started by asking people open ended questions about what how they felt about government and trying to find out why there is so much dissatisfaction with government. And from their spontaneous responses we distilled it down to 50 key critiques of government that we heard and then we ran them with a very large sample to see how many people agreed with these critiques and then we looked at what were the key themes that were coming through.
There were three themes and they were all related. One is that special interests have too much influence over government, particularly Congress, that they think in terms of their campaign donors rather than the people. [Another is] that the parties are too partisan, and this is very related to special interests because they are seen as serving different special interests that are competing, and so then, they make these commitments to those special interests and they get rigidified and polarized, and again, the interests of the people or are left out. And then the third theme we heard is that they don't listen to the people enough. There is a strong belief that if policy makers -- members of Congress -- would listen to their constituents, listen to the people, that there would be less partisanship and they would do a better job serving the common good.
Robinson: That report included a timeline of people's views about where government is as far as looking out for the interests of the people or just the interests of big corporations. Tell us a little bit about that and where it has traveled.
Kull: Yeah, there is a trend line question that has been asked for decades now about whether they think government is run primarily for the benefit of all the people or for the benefit of big interests looking out for themselves. Back in the 60s a majority thought that the government was looking out for the people and only secondarily for the big interests. That gradually changed over the decades with the numbers saying that the government primarily serves big interest rising higher and higher and recently in the last decade or so, it got up into the 80s. In the recent surveys we've done it's gotten above 90 percent, with people saying they think the government primarily serves big interests looking out for themselves, 92 percent.
Robinson: For a person who does these public opinion surveys, to see the public agree on any point of view at that level is really kind of amazing, isn't it?
Kull: Yes, it's quite extraordinary and it really does reflect some real problems that we have with democracy. Basically the people have lost confidence that the government serves the people and they perceive this as a real violation of a kind of social contract that they see as going back to the Founders. The view that we were taught in school is that our republic is based on a commitment on the part of the government to serve the people. And the perception is, that that's not happening. They serve big interests, primarily the ones that give them campaign donations, and the people are pretty much marginalized.