Public Opinion and Constitutional Controversy. Edited by Nathaniel

Book Reviews
American Politics
own historical relationship, a path-dependent product of
the constitutional reasoning and forms of statutory interpretation that the particular courts have adopted to date,
the accumulation of the judicial approaches of the individual judges on each court, or a product of judicial wariness by judges in a vulnerable institution at a time of
heated political rhetoric? Mezey offers only tantalizing hints
on the possibility of each of these aspects as the source.
Nevertheless, this book offers an important attempt to
draw together the many lesbian and gay rights’ cases into
a more coherent picture of how they have collectively
shaped public policy on gay families. And it lays out a
concise and clear picture of the twists and turns to date in
this still unfolding history.
Public Opinion and Constitutional Controversy. Edited
by Nathaniel Persily, Jack Citrin, and Patrick J. Egan. New York: Oxford
University Press, 2008. 376p. $99.00 cloth, $29.95, paper.
— Brandon L. Bartels, George Washington University
Although the public does not pay a great deal of attention
to the business of the U.S. Supreme Court, Americans do
tend to hold meaningful opinions on many of the issues
that appear on the Court’s docket. In this edited volume,
Nathaniel Persily, Jack Citrin, and Patrick J. Egan have
assembled a team of authors who have written about the
dynamics and causes of public opinion on essentially every
important constitutional issue undertaken by the U.S.
Supreme Court over the past 60 years or so. The result is
an extremely valuable resource containing both a wealth
of information about the descriptive and dynamic nature
of public opinion on these highly salient issues and exploratory explanations concerning those attitudes. The chapters rely on extensive public opinion data to make various
arguments about these issues.
The book examines a comprehensive set of constitutional issues, including desegregation, rights of the accused,
school prayer, abortion, the death penalty, gender equality, affirmative action, flag burning, federalism, gay rights,
the right to die, government takings of private property,
the war on terror, and the 2000 presidential election (the
infamous Bush v. Gore case). Indeed, these are not “side
issues” in American politics. Many of these issues—
particularly abortion, race, gay rights, and the death
penalty—are extremely important in defining the ideological and partisan fault lines in American politics. They
serve as wedge issues in presidential and congressional campaigns, and some even define the social liberalism–
conservativism spectrum. Thus, as the authors point out,
it is crucial to understand how public opinion has changed
on these issues and what factors influence people’s positions on them.
As the editors point out in the introductory chapter,
the book seeks to make two central contributions. First, it
attempts to elevate the importance of “popular constitutionalism,” which is the notion that “constitutional discourse ought not to be the exclusive province of judges
and lawyers” (p. 4). Instead, popular constitutionalism
“attempts to shift attention away from courts’ pronouncements on the Constitution and toward the behavior of
elected officials and popular social movements” (p. 4).
This is an important contribution. The Court is a major
policymaker in American government, and therefore, we
must be cognizant of how other actors—members of Congress, the president, the American public—view the Court’s
policies and pronouncements. The second contribution
of the book revolves around the important theoretical and
empirical work done on the effects of the Court’s rulings
on public opinion, which centers on classic questions of
legitimation, the Court’s capacity as opinion leader, and
Charles Franklin and Liane Kosaki’s influential “structural
response model” (“Republican Schoolmaster: The U.S.
Supreme Court, Public Opinion, and Abortion,” American Political Science Review 83 [September 1989]: 751–
71). Like the first contribution, this second one is also
very important, as these questions remain at the forefront
of the study of the Court and public opinion.
Each chapter follows a similar format: assessing the literature on the topic, examining trends in public opinion
over time in conjunction with important Court rulings,
and then providing an explanation of those trends and/or
specifying an explanatory model of public opinion on the
issue. For instance, in the chapter on abortion, Samantha
Luks and Michael Salamone engage the existing work on
public opinion and abortion, including Franklin and Kosaki’s aforementioned structural response model. They then
examine trends in both media coverage and public opinion on the topic and explore differences in opinion over
time based on different question wordings. The authors
find that a majority of Americans believe that a constitutional right to an abortion should exist (as guaranteed in
Roe v. Wade and subsequent decisions). But opinion related
to certain restrictions of abortion rights—waiting periods,
parental consent, partial birth abortions—appears to be
more moderate, with the majority favoring many of these
restrictions that the Court has upheld. On the whole, the
authors find “public and constitutional jurisprudence
largely in sync with one another” (p. 101).
In the chapter on affirmative action, Loan Le and Citrin follow the same general path as Luks and Salamone,
but in addition, they specify statistical models explaining
support for affirmative action and how the bases of support have changed over time. The authors find that, over
time, the public has consistently opposed preferences for
racial minorities, especially quotas. And the Supreme
Court’s jurisprudence on the matter has been fairly congruent with the public’s preferences. The findings, at least
for affirmative action and abortion, comport with some
popular legal perspectives contending that Justice Sandra
960 Perspectives on Politics
Day O’Connor, who was a pivotal player in carving out
the Court’s legal doctrine in both areas, had her finger on
the pulse of public opinion and essentially kept the Court
on track with public preferences (e.g., see Jeffrey Toobin,
The Nine, 2007).
Overall, the book achieves its two broad goals of propagating the concept of “popular constitutionalism” and
addressing classic, important questions regarding the congruence between the Court’s decisions and public opinion. While the book covers a rather comprehensive set of
constitutional issues, I would like to have seen examinations of two additional issues: freedom of the press and
the right to bear arms. Perhaps public opinion data are
not as widely available on these topics.
On freedom of the press, the Court has, of course,
issued several landmark rulings over time. This would also
be an interesting topic to analyze in the more recent context of the Valerie Plame leak investigation, where New
York Times reporter Judith Miller actually went to jail after
refusing to reveal a source to a federal grand jury. I would
be very interested in seeing public opinion data on whether
people believe the Constitution affords privileged status
to communications between reporters and anonymous
sources. The Supreme Court has previously ruled that no
such constitutional right exists (Branzburg v. Hayes, 408
U.S. 665, 1972).
On the second issue, I would also like to see an investigation of whether and under what conditions people
believe that there exists a constitutional right for individuals to keep and bear arms. Of course, this book was
published in the same year that the Supreme Court issued
its landmark ruling that such a right does exist (District of
Columbia v. Heller, 478 F. 3d 370, 2008). But controversy
around the meaning of the Second Amendment has existed
for several years. Indeed, even before the Court issued its
Heller ruling, some politicians, and certainly the National
Rifle Association, had long been asserting that the Second
Amendment protects an individual’s right to keep and
bear arms.
Finally, I want to say a few words about where this
book fits into the political science literature. Work on
the Court and public opinion, including this book, typically falls somewhere in between judicial politics/public
law and public opinion. But actually, I have found that
much of this work is often categorized as judicial politics
and public law only. This is unfortunate. My hope is that
more of this work will be read widely by scholars of
public opinion and political behavior. The authors have
made the case for why it is important to understand
public opinion on constitutional issues, in conjunction
with key Court rulings. As alluded to already, many of
the issues on which the Court makes law and policy are
central issues in political discourse, which makes this
book—and related work—of high importance to the field
of American politics writ large.
Doorstep Democracy: Face-to-Face Politics in the
Heartland. By James H. Read. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 2008. 224p. $54.00 cloth, $17.95paper.
— John D. Griffin, University of Notre Dame
This is at once a how-to book for aspiring politicians and
a book with loftier ambitions. The author narrowly lost a
1992 Minnesota state legislative election, and much of
the book is an exposition of the notes he assiduously took
based on 7,500 doorstep conversations with potential voters. At the same time, the book has a normative point to
make—claiming that a “healthy democracy” depends on
personal interactions between aspiring politicians and average citizens.
The introduction is bold and thought provoking. It argues
that face-to-face conversations between candidates and voters are essential to a healthy democracy because both learn
from these conversations, because door knocking will lead
to more competitive races, and because these conversations
will engage citizens in public affairs. “By doorstep democracy,” James H. Read states,” I mean the practice by which
an elected official or candidate for elective office initiates
in-person conversations with as many of the district’s eligible voters as possible, asks for each individual’s vote, invites
substantive discussion of public issues, and allows the voter
to codetermine the discussion agenda” (p. 177).
After an explanation of how the author became involved
in politics, subsequent chapters in the book follow a pattern: On the basis of his campaign notes, he relates a series
of anecdotes and ties his experience back to the book’s
theme, the significance of personal voter contact. This is
easier to accomplish in some chapters than others. In Chapter 2, he classifies the kinds of conversations he had with
voters on their doorsteps (i.e., sympathetic, informative,
tense, multiissue). In Chapter 5, he summarizes his experience by discussing the specific issue of abortion policy
with voters at their homes.
In other chapters, the link between Read’s campaign
experience and the book’s argument about the importance
of personalistic politics is more tenuous. In Chapter 3, he
illustrates how he used the media to portray himself as a
“hardworking [future] representative,” which was consistent with his door-knocking strategy. However, the book’s
principal argument is mostly an afterthought in this chapter. Chapter 4’s discussion of the campaign’s financing is
not, to my reading, linked to the doorstep democracy
concept at all.
The anecdotes related are often telling, but not always.
One Holdingford resident who asked for the return of a
$20 donation after the author’s pro-life credentials were
questioned makes a lasting impression on the reader. Other
anecdotes proceed like a parade of barely related memories.
In the penultimate chapter, Read recapitulates the final
days of the race and sets forth some evidence to support
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