The Exaggerated Life of Death Panels? The Limited but Real Influence of Elite Rhetoric in the 2009-2010 Health Care Debate

In Political Behavior, Daniel Hopkins analyzes the ability of American elites to frame political issues to sway public opinion, as well as the real-world constraints on that ability. Previous experiments demonstrate that elites can influence public opinion through framing, yet those experiments may not account for limitations on that ability. The author uses the 2009-2010 health care debate, along with automated content analyses of elite- and general population language, to study real-world effects of framing. He finds that the language Americans use to explain their opinions is generally stable, and that the public adopts the language of both parties’ elites symmetrically. Elite rhetoric did not appear to have strong effects on Americans’ overall evaluation of health care reform, but it can influence the reasons they provide for their evaluation. Lastly, Hopkins discusses the possibility of automated content analysis of elite rhetoric as an innovative method in distinguishing framing from other communication effects.