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Combative Politics

The Media and Public Perceptions of Lawmaking

Combative Politics

The Media and Public Perceptions of Lawmaking

From the Affordable Care Act to No Child Left Behind, politicians often face a puzzling problem: although most Americans support the aims and key provisions of these policies, they oppose the bills themselves. How can this be? Why does the American public so often reject policies that seem to offer them exactly what they want?
            By the time a bill is pushed through Congress or ultimately defeated, we’ve often been exposed to weeks, months—even years—of media coverage that underscores the unpopular process of policymaking, and Mary Layton Atkinson argues that this leads us to reject the bill itself. Contrary to many Americans’ understandings of the policymaking process, the best answer to a complex problem is rarely self-evident, and politicians must weigh many potential options, each with merits and drawbacks. As the public awaits a resolution, the news media tend to focus not on the substance of the debate but on descriptions of partisan combat. This coverage leads the public to believe everyone in Washington has lost sight of the problem altogether and is merely pursuing policies designed for individual political gain. Politicians in turn exacerbate the problem when they focus their objections to proposed policies on the lawmaking process, claiming, for example, that a bill is being pushed through Congress with maneuvers designed to limit minority party input. These negative portrayals become linked in many people’s minds with the policy itself, leading to backlash against bills that may otherwise be seen as widely beneficial. Atkinson argues that journalists and educators can make changes to help inoculate Americans against the idea that debate always signifies dysfunction in the government. Journalists should strive to better connect information about policy provisions to the problems they are designed to ameliorate. Educators should stress that although debate sometimes serves political interests, it also offers citizens a window onto the lawmaking process that can help them evaluate the work their government is doing.

Read the introduction.

208 pages | 46 halftones, 24 line drawings, 32 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2017

Media Studies

Political Science: American Government and Politics, Political Behavior and Public Opinion


“Atkinson makes clear in this impressive and important new book that the mass media’s appetite for conflict leads them to emphasize rancor rather than substance in their coverage of policy debates. This distorted coverage sours the public on the legislation being debated, and many citizens who agree with the substance of the policy nevertheless oppose it because they become disgusted with the apparently ceaseless, politically motivated squabbling. Lucid and readable, Combative Politics offers solid empirical evidence for exactly how media coverage influences policy opinion above and beyond the effects of citizens’ policy preferences.”

Thomas Nelson, Ohio State University

“This is a remarkable book— one of the few that jointly considers the lawmaking process, media coverage, and public opinion. The media focuses on the inherently conflictual process of lawmaking and policy debate, leading people to oppose legislation they might otherwise support. Coverage of the process leads to rejection of the outcome. Not only does the book accentuate how a seemingly democratic process generates misunderstandings and opposition but it also provides a framework for studying the interaction of policy, media, and public opinion. It is a must read.”

James N. Druckman, Northwestern University

"Overall, Combative Politics offers significant insight into how conflict-focused media coverage of policy debates can affect public opinion and lead to declining support for what would otherwise seem to be popular policies."

Congress & the Presidency

Table of Contents

List of Tables
List of Figures

1 Introduction: Conflict Breeds Opposition
2  The Dominance of the “Conflict Frame”
3  Love the Substance, Hate the Plan
4  Support for the Federal Marriage Amendment
5  The Politics of Health Care Reform
6  Exceptions that Prove the Rule
7  Conclusion

Appendix A: Creating Keywords for New Searches
Appendix B: Codebook for Content Analysis
Appendix C: Experimental Treatments
Appendix D: Alternative Model Specification (Estimating Support for the FMA)
Appendix E: Detailed Predicted Probability Plots (Opposition to Health Care Reform)

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