US political experts, public: America's best yet to come

American political scholars share the general public's basic confidence in the nation's political system and an optimism that America's best times still lie ahead.

These are among conclusions of a Monitor survey of 526 political scholars at the American Political Science Association (APSA) convention in New York City Sept. 3 to 6.

Although the scholars often disagree as a group with the current administration's policies, or think results will be hard to achieve, they give President Reaganhigh grades for his early command of the Washington scene.

However, the Monitor survey shows the political scientists largely stable in their liberal Deocratic outlook. Full professors and graduate students hold similar political philosophies, which are also reflected by the social science profession as a whole, as show by studies over the past decade.

If anything, the young and women, the expanding or newer groups in the profession, are more critical of the administration.

Hence a "Reagan revolution" will likely have to win its own support -- by its achievements -- on the nation's campuses, where 2 million youths are expected to study political issues this fall.

Half of the questions on the Monitor's 50-question survey had earlier been asked of the general public. The experts' and the public's views, predictably, often differed.

But the scholars and the public agreed almost to the percentage point on the question "How sound is the American political system?" both groups calling it sound, by a 2-to-1 margin. Thirteen percent of the scholars said it was "basically sound and essentially good," and 55 percent "basically sound but needs some improvements." Again, an identical majority of scholarsand the general public (56 percent for both) think Americans have not seen the best of times.

Opinion experts caution that elites like political scholars may view questions in different terms from the public. Often elites respond by class or income, or with a different specific sense of what the question asks.

Still, it is interesting to note how the experts and the public converge and disagree on a number of reforms, issues, and trends.

The political scientists and the public are at opposite ends of the scale on a constitutional amendment to permit prayers in school: The experts are 9 to 1 against it, the public 5 to 1 in favor.

The political scientists (51 percent) are a little more likely than the public (44 percent) to think the quality of life of blacks in the US has gotten better over the past 10 years.

On the equal rights amendment, which would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, the scholars (83 percent) favor the constitutional change more emphatically than the public (63 percent).

On abortion, now both a constitutional and congressional issue, the scholars and public both favor legal abortion by at least 9 to 1 when the woman's health is endangered. But the public splits evenly on abortion if the woman is married and wants no more children, or if she is not married and does not want to marry the man. The political scientists by more than 4-to-1 majorities, like similarly educated Americans generally, would still favor the woman's ability to get a legal abortion under those conditions.

On institutional reforms, both the public and scholars reject a single, six-year term for president -- the scholars by 3 to 1, the public by 2 to 1.

The scholars (71 per cent) again oppose a two-term, 12-year limit for Senate officeholders, while the bublic by 2 to 1 approves the change. The public also is barely more inclined to tinker with the system by doubling the terms for members of the House of Representatives from two to four years. Fifty-one percent of the public this change in a May 1981 Gallup survey, while the same percentage of political scholars oppose it in the Monitor sampling.

The political scientists by 72 percent to 28 percent would shift the national voting day from Tuesday to Sunday. However, the public indicates voter turnout would not increase based on such a shift. Three-fourths of the public said in a June 1981 CBS-New York Times survey that the voting day change would have no effect on their likelihood to vote.

On a more-debated voting issue, both the political scientists and public favor a change from the electoral college to direct pupular vote for president. Fifty-six percent of the experts and 67 percent of the public favor such a change.

On whether to change the presidential nominating system, which now features state primaries that take place randomly from New Hampshire in February to California in June, 55 percent of the scholars favor holding regional or time-zone primaries in succeeding weeks, 24 percent prefer a national primary, and 21 percent would keep the current system.

Overall, the Monitor survey revealed little disaffection toward the system of foreboding for the nation among the political scholars.

Younger scholars tended to be more disapproving of the Reagan administration. Women scholars -- a fifth of the sample -- tended to see more of a negative impact from its policies. But both subgroups tended to agree with the whole survey group on non-Reagan-related professional questions.

The attitudes of the women scholars toward Reagan stand out, as did the judgment of similarly educated women during the last election. The women APSA respondents were 15 points more negative in disapproving of Reagan's handling of the presidency than the men. And while the men approved of Reagan "as a person" by a 55 percent majority, the women disapproved by 64 percent.

The younger sholars, graduate students, were more inclined (79 percent) than full professors (51 percent) to think the US is spending too much for defense and the military. But on questions such as whether Reagan can simultaneously build up the military and balance the budget, they were in almost exact agreement.

The young were more disapproving of Reagan's "new federalism" -- the shift in power and authority from the federal government to the state and local levels. But they and the professors generally agreed Reagan likely would shift only "some power," or "little or no power" to lower government levels. They agreed, too, that the primary shift would be in "some" or "considerable" net costs, rather than power, from the federal government.

Over 2,500 APSA scholars attended the Labor Day conference and received questionaires. The APSA has 7,000 members.

The University of Connecticut's Roper Center, directed by Everett C. Ladd, assisted in the design, processing, and analysis of the survey. The APSA, Thomas E. Mann, executive director, aided in its distribution.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.