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The Gallup poll measures “specific support” for the Supreme Court
Questions about trust and approval are part of a dimension of institutional evaluations called political scientists “specific support.” Specific support relates to performance satisfaction, whether an institution makes decisions that people like.
For example, people tend to say they support the Supreme Court when its decisions are consistent with their own policy views. And so one of the reasons why the Supreme Court’s approval is low is that many Americans think the court is inconsistent with their political beliefs.
Recent research by political scientists Stephen Jessee, Neil Malhotra and Maya Sen shows that the court has recently become more conservative than most Americans on a range of issues. The most notable is of course: Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organizationwhich the court rejected Roe v. Wade, abolishing the constitutional right of women to have an abortion. A poll commissioned by Jessee, Malhotra and Sen found that more than 60 percent of Americans opposed overruling roe and eliminating its protection for pre-viability abortions.
Similarly, in September, 42 percent of Americans told Gallup that the Supreme Court is “too conservative.” That’s the highest “too conservative” reading since Gallup first asked for ideological agreement with the court in 1993. Only 18 percent said the court was “too liberal”.
Specific support for the Supreme Court is unusually low
Under these circumstances, we would expect Supreme Court approval to decrease among those who are more liberal, but increase among those who are more conservative. That didn’t happen as much as expected.
Last year we published an analysis of Supreme Court approval by Americans using Gallup survey data from 2001 to 2018.
We first discovered that the Supreme Court’s approval concerns whether Americans think the court’s decisions are “about right” or whether they are “too liberal” or “too conservative.” The more people think the court is out of step left or right, the lower the approval rating.
However, we also found that the Supreme Court’s overall approval was more closely related to the perception that the Supreme Court was “too liberal” than that it was “too conservative.”
This shows that more conservative Americans translated disagreements with Supreme Court decisions into negative evaluations more easily than liberals. If this pattern continues, we would expect that the court’s shift to the right would not hurt the public position as much as a comparable shift to the left.
Since completing our published analysis, Gallup has released data on the Supreme Court’s approval and perception of its ideological performance for 2019 through 2022.
Using the statistical model we used with data from 2001 to 2018, we examined the new Gallup data to see whether Americans still translate ideological disagreements with the Supreme Court’s work into approval or disapproval in the same way.
The chart below shows the difference between the level of Supreme Court approval predicted by our model, on the one hand, and Gallup’s actual approval rating for each year from 2001 to 2021. We refer to this as the “approval gap.” Yellow segments show years approval was higher than expected. Black segments show for years that approval was lower than expected.
The model makes fairly accurate predictions for 2019 and 2020. The Supreme Court approval was about three points lower than expected for 2019 and one and a half points higher than the forecast for 2020.
However, the Supreme Court’s approval in 2021 was more than 16 points lower than the model predicted. In 2022, the Supreme Court’s approval was more than 8.5 points lower than the model predicted.
In the past two years, people who think the Supreme Court is “too conservative” have translated disagreements with its decisions more aggressively into negative evaluations of his job performance than in the past. While the change eased from 2021 to 2022, the court remains much less popular than it would have been if patterns we found through 2020 continued to prevail.
Why have so many Americans come to mistrust the Supreme Court? It’s not just the unpopular opinions.
So is the Supreme Court facing a legitimacy crisis?
Specific support is not the same as legitimacy. Legitimacy comes closer to the idea of what political scientists call “diffuse support,” which political scientist David Easton described as the “reservoir of … goodwill that helps [citizens] to… accept results they are against.”
Low specific support is a liability on the Supreme Court, leaving the court and its decisions vulnerable to political attack. However, a low approval in itself does not mean that the legitimacy of the court fails.
But in this case, the closer relationship between ideological agreement and approval offers an opportunity to see diffuse support diminish as well. The court has struggled with a legitimacy deficit in recent years and has burned more goodwill than it has built up. Although we cannot yet call this a legal legitimacy crisis, the Supreme Court does have a legitimacy problem.
Consider a 5-to-4 decision from this Supreme Court to settle a contentious presidential election. Would it settle the matter and stabilize the country’s politics as it did in the 2000s? Bush vs Gore, or would it further inflame the conflict? That’s not clear at this point — revealing cracks in the court’s legitimacy.
Biden’s court committee is concerned about the ‘legitimacy’ of the Supreme Court. So what exactly is “legitimacy”?
So what would restore the court’s status? There is some evidence that the impact on Supreme Court decisions diminishes over time. If the Supreme Court could get closer to public opinion in the future, it could gain more approval and ultimately a replenished reservoir of good feelings.
But if the Supreme Court’s decisions continue to diverge widely from public opinion on key constitutional issues, that could eventually—perhaps even soon—push legal legitimacy past its breaking point.
Without a trusted arbiter, the United States becomes increasingly vulnerable to political disagreements pouring out of the country’s political and legal systems into the realm of violence and violence.
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Kathryn Haglin is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota at Duluth.
Soren Jordan is an associate professor of political science at Auburn University.
Alison Merrill (@AlisonHMerrill) is an assistant professor of political science at Susquehanna University.
Joseph Daniel Ura (@joeura) is a professor of political science at Texas A&M University and Texas A&M University in Qatar.