When we know what policies are likely to be successful or bring about improvements and change, why don’t we have the political will to implement them? Peter Enns, associate professor of government and the focus of a recent story on the Cornell Research website, was teaching high school in Baltimore when this question occurred to him. He saw that teachers and leaders knew what made schools effective, but the necessary political will to make required changes often did not exist. Enns wanted to study why.
In his PhD work, Enns realized the importance of public opinion. How do you measure public opinion over time? How responsive is the political system to the public’s mood? Why does public opinion change? Is support for specific policies based on objective information or is it based on being misled?
In his most recent book Incarceration Nation (Cambridge University Press, 2016), Enns examined these questions in relation to the criminal justice system. The United States is the most punitive democracy in the world, and in the last four decades, incarceration rates in the country have increased 500 percent. With 60 years of data analysis, Enns found that politicians in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s did, in fact, respond to an increasingly punitive public with punitive policy. He argues that media coverage of rising crime led to this increasingly punitive public opinion.