Sociologist David Weakliem comments on the continuing controversy over the name of Washington’s football team:
In sportscasters’ language, opponents of the Washington Redskins name have been moving the ball at will recently. This isn’t because of overwhelming public support. In 1992, an ABC News/Washington Post poll asked: “Some people say that the Washington Redskins should change its team name because it is offensive to native American Indians. Others say the name is not intended to be offensive, and should not be changed. What about you: Should the Redskins change their team name, or not?” The same question was also asked in 2013 and 2014 in an Associated Press/Gfk poll. The results:
Should Should Not
1992 7% 89%
2013 11% 79%
2014 14% 83%
Although support for a name change is growing, it’s still a pretty small minority.
Weakliem looks at some other polls and sees some variation in who supports this sort of name change, and he concludes:
Putting it together, Washington DC has the demographics that would maximize support for a change. I suspect that another factor is that the team has been generally disappointing for a long time.
I don’t really know much about this one, although I do remember learning the song “Hail to the Redskins” (“scalp ’em,” etc.) back in elementary school.
As a political scientist, what interests me here is the contrast between public opinion (6 to 1 against a change in name) and the politics. One might characterize this as the difference between position and momentum. The Redskins name still hasn’t been changed, so in that sense the policy is congruent with public opinion, but there definitely is a sense that the supporters of the team name are on the retreat.
One might explain this via an elite-opinion or conspiracy theory story — the idea that supporters of the name change have power in the media and thus can drive the discourse in their direction — but I don’t buy it. It seems to me that there’s something about a change in opinion that has an effect, distinct from the average level.
Another example that comes to mind is the death penalty. It is still more popular than not, but it’s been my impression that, for several years, supporters of capital punishment have been on the defensive.
I don’t have any sweeping conclusions, but I think these sorts of examples are useful in helping us understand the connections between political science and policy (whether enacted by public or private institutions).