- Out of Touch: The Presidency and Public Opinion
The literature on public opinion is vast but few works have taken an inside look at presidential attitudes about the public. In Out of Touch: The Presidency and Public Opinion, Michael J. Towle analyzes archival data from the Truman, Johnson, and Carter administrations. Towle hopes to examine what motivates presidential administrations to pay attention to public opinion and how that information is interpreted. The book provides an unusual inside look at how administrations discuss and handle public opinion and another piece to the sometimes unwieldy public opinion puzzle.
Towle organizes his book around three key periods of public opinion for each president: times of popularity, times of declining popularity, and times of unpopularity. The first period, popularity, began when each president assumed office. This period, Towle argues, was filled with self-congratulation coupled with a fear that the current level of popularity was fleeting. Often, the messages of self-congratulation occurred simultaneously with archival data sources revealing a tension in using the current levels of popularity to achieve policy goals. Most striking, each administration believed that it was experiencing popularity because of "the belief that their actions resonated with the public" (30). Towle's analysis here is concise and provides a useful setup for the following chapters in which he explains how administrations grew out of touch with the American public.
Declining public opinion marks the second period of Towle's exploration and is primarily explained by cognitive dissonance theory. This period is marked by a decline in public approval for a president and his actions. Towle repeatedly shows how each administration engaged in dissonance reduction, and it is here that this analysis is at its clearest. The administrations held firmly to the belief that the current popularity problems were temporary and stemmed from image and communication problems. Memo after memo shows how each administration believed that the decline would soon come to an end. Most compelling in his analysis is the level of detail about the need for clearer communication that the author finds in internal memos accompanied by the dismissal of "the notion that the public had good reasons not to like what they were doing" (55). Towle's strength here lies in letting the documents speak for themselves while at the same time providing contextual information to allow the reader to more fully comprehend the significance of the documents presented.
During the last period, unpopular times, Towle argues that administrations rationalize their low approval ratings by blaming external causes such as lobbyists, the press, and political opponents for low levels of popularity. This [End Page 530] blaming also led to the belief that the dissenting portion of the population was an atypical minority and not the portion of the population with which the administration should concern itself. Viewing dissenters as the atypical minority allowed the administrations to patronize the American public by either dismissing them as uninformed—as the Johnson administration did—or by telling them that the root of America's problems was Americans themselves—as the Carter administration did. Taken together, Towle suggests that these attitudes led to the administrations' growing out of touch with the electorate.
Towle provides an additional chapter of analysis that explores how administrations grew out of touch with the American public. However, the analysis offered in this chapter does not add much to the information he has already presented but rather serves to reiterate points made in the earlier chapters. It is here that I found myself wanting more from Towle's work. Rather than a review of what he has already argued in the other chapters, I would like to have seen him propose new explanations or theories to explain his findings. Doing so would strengthen the overall usefulness of his findings.
This final chapter in particular points to what I perceive to be the major shortcoming of Out of Touch and that is its heavy reliance on a very small number of works and theories to explain the complex nature...