- • Explain the historical development of the concept public opinion
- • Explain the evolution of the modern public opinion poll
- • Identify the main criticisms of the modern public opinion poll
- • Identify the political consequences of the modern public opinion poll
Few Americans in the twenty-first century can remember a time when public opinion polls—like television, shopping malls, and eight-lane freeways—were not part of the popular landscape. Polls tell us which television shows are the most popular, how frequently people attend church, what person Americans most admire, plus a myriad of opinions on current political topics. Most famously, polls predict the likely outcomes of elections and draw controversy in the rare instances when the voters on Election Day contradict the pollsters’ predictions.
We shall also see in subsequent chapters that the study of public opinion is much broader than simply gauging popular reaction to recent events. It is, for example, also concerned with how people learn about government, their trust in existing political institutions, their support for the political rules of the game, the interrelationships among their opinions, and the trend toward political polarization that began more than twenty-five years ago. The list could go on. But more than anything else, the study of public opinion is justified by the simple notion that democratic institutions should result in government decisions that reflect the views of everyday people. In the words of Robert Dahl, the most eminent political theorist of the post-World War II era, “I assume that a key characteristic of a democracy is the continued responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens, considered as political equals” (1971, 1). It is this presumption, and its implications, that guides the systematic analysis of mass opinion.
Rousseau, in 1744, was among the first to use the term public opinion
), meaning the customs and manners of all members of society (as opposed to some
elite). By 1780, French writers were using the term interchangeably with common will
, public spirit
, and public conscience
to refer to the political aspects of mass opinion (Price 1992, 8). Public opinion
soon came into common usage among those writing about government.
However, long before scientific methods were developed to measure attitudes or the term public opinion gained currency, political theorists speculated about the “group mind” or the “general will” and how it might influence the political order. Writers beginning with Plato and Aristotle, through Locke and Hobbes as well as Rousseau, did not see public opinion as an aggregation of individual opinions, as is common today. Rather, they saw the whole as greater than the sum of its parts, much in the way a mob with a united purpose behaves in a fashion that would be foreign to any individual member. To these predemocratic theorists, public opinion was a mass entity that if brought to bear on public affairs had potential for enormous influence. It was like a force of nature, constrained perhaps by certain regularities but a unified whole that changed continually, like the currents in the ocean (Palmer 1936; Spitz 1984; Cress and Wootton 2011).
It was not until the rise of popular sovereignty that thinking about public opinion began to consider individual or group characteristics. By the eighteenth century, no Western political regime could afford to ignore the views of the masses. This change was brought about by the construction of electoral institutions and parliamentary bodies for regular consultation with the public and the gradual extension of the franchise to the lower classes. Henceforth, governments would find it necessary to take account of public opinion and its distribution throughout the polity. This accounting was not simply a question of government responsiveness to mass policy desires. Government also had to take account of popular support for the ongoing political order. A strong argument can be made that only when the political status quo was threatened did political elites, in an act of self-preservation, grudgingly extend the franchise to portions of the mass public (Ginsberg 1982). But with the granting of the franchise, there soon developed an ethical imperative that governments are morally obligated to heed public opinion in formulating policies.
In the early years of the American republic, to speak of “public opinion” was mostly to speak about the thin layer of the educated, affluent public in a position to communicate their views to government. While the nation’s founders agreed on the principle of popular government, they greatly distrusted the wisdom and judgment of the masses on political matters. To Alexander Hamilton,
The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right.
(Farrand 1961, 299–300)
While not all took such an uncharitable position, it was generally thought that public opinion was easily swayed and subject to fits of passion. Thus, institutions were developed, such as the Electoral College and the indirect election of senators, to distance political leaders from the opinions of everyday citizens.
Nevertheless, by the mid nineteenth century, many who followed the American political scene voiced concern about an excess of influence on political decision making by public opinion. One reason was the integration of the working class into the
electorate via the universal franchise. By the 1850s, it became impossible to argue that the public’s opinion could be ignored. Writing in 1848, Alexis de Tocqueville, perhaps the most astute observer of nineteenth-century America, thought “there was no country in which . . . there is less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America” (1966, 254). He felt the numerical majority intimidated the minority so that only a narrow range of opinions could be expressed. In the end, he feared that the views of the majority could result in either social or governmental tyranny (Spitz 1984, 70). History was, of course, to prove him wrong. But those writing later agreed with his assessment of the importance of public opinion. In 1888, the perceptive British journalist and author James Bryce would claim that “in no country is public opinion so powerful as in the United States” (1900). He also noted “the obvious weakness of government by opinion is the difficulty of ascertaining it.”
Of those writing before the development of the modern opinion poll, perhaps the most influential critic of public opinion was Walter Lippmann (1922, 1925). Like many of the founders, Lippmann believed mass opinion was subject to passions that could be induced by elite propaganda. He was convinced that the manipulation of public opinion by those opposed to the League of Nations was responsible for the tragedy of America’s failure to join after World War I. Famously, Lippmann perceptively observed that the images of politics received by the public are not direct pictures of events, immediate experiences of action, or provable economic and social theories. Rather, they are “pictures in people’s heads” generated by political interests to benefit their cause. In a prescient analysis of major findings by modern survey research, Lippmann challenged traditional democratic theory and its notion of an informed and rational public basing opinions on a considered judgment of the facts. He argued that the average person had little time for affairs of state and would rather read the comics than consider the pros and cons of weighty political issues. It should not be expected, therefore, that the mass public be competent in matters of state. Lippmann’s prescription for democracy was for the public to choose leaders but for public policy to be developed and implemented by scientifically oriented experts.
The debate over the role of public opinion in democracy was given a new focus by scientific polling, which first appeared in 1935 (Fried 2012). Among the most outspoken proponents of polls as a guide to government decision making was George Gallup, a pioneer of the new technology (Gallup and Rae 1940). Gallup was a prairie populist with a Ph.D. in psychology who believed in the collective wisdom of everyday citizens. He distrusted intellectuals and experts, and he thought that elite rule and democratic government were incompatible. The challenge for democracy, as he saw it, was, “Shall the common people be free to express their basic needs and purposes, or shall they be dominated by a small ruling clique?” In other words, how does one make those holding high public office responsive to the needs and wishes of the public?
Poll results, Gallup argued, could be considered a “mandate from the people,” a concrete expression of the policies the public desires the government to enact. No longer would elected officials have to rely on the ambiguities of elections, claims by self-serving interest groups, newspaper stories, communications from constituents, or other non-representative channels of public sentiment. Rather, they could turn to
the latest opinion poll. In the past, claims that elected officials should heed popular preferences directly when formulating policy could always be countered with arguments like those of sixteenth-century political theorist Michel de Montaigne (1967), who wrote that “public opinion is a powerful, bold, and unmeasurable party.”
Gallup saw the modern opinion poll as the high-tech equivalent of the New England town meeting—an opportunity for all citizens (or at least a representative sample) to voice their opinions. The scientific poll gave crispness, clarity, and reliability to mass opinion. Gallup and his supporters argued that through polls the will of the people could accurately be determined. No longer could failure to take seriously popular preferences when enacting public policy be justified by claims that public opinion is unknowable. With the aid of the modern opinion poll, it was the moral responsibility of elected officials to convert the public will into public policy. In Gallup’s view, “[p]olls can help make government more efficient and responsive; they can improve the quality of candidates for public office; they can make this a truer democracy” (Gallup 1965–1966, 549).
Not all were enthusiastic about the new polling technology and George Gallup’s prescriptions for it. Sociologist Herbert Blumer and political scientist Lindsay Rogers soon launched frontal assaults on the opinion poll and its implications. Blumer (1948) asserted the “one person, one vote” definition of public opinion inherent in polls was precisely what public opinion was not. Public opinion could not be reduced to a nose count of citizens. Rather, it was the interactions and communications among functional groups that percolated through society and came to the attention of government. These interactions and communications were not aggregations of individual opinions but “an organic whole of interacting, interrelated parts.” To Blumer, not all opinions counted equally. They merited the label public opinion
only to the extent opinions surfaced in a public forum and were taken seriously by those in government with power and influence. This view, of course, clashed directly with the populist inclinations of Gallup and other early pollsters.1
Lindsay Rogers, on the other hand, was convinced that the public was not intellectually or emotionally fit to play the role Gallup’s opinion-poll democracy required of it (Fried 2006). In any case, polls were not technically able to ascertain the public’s message. Rogers (1949) reformulated the position of the English philosopher Edmund Burke that it is the duty of elected representatives to follow their conscience and best judgment and not be slaves to moments of popular passion.2
Only in this fashion, argued Rogers, could the true public interest be served. Rogers was also one of the first to raise serious methodological questions about polls—that is, to challenge pollsters on their own turf. He addressed questions of measurement, opinion aggregation, intensity, and framing effects that occupy a great deal of attention among contemporary students of public opinion. In essence, he claimed that polls of public opinion did not really measure “public opinion.” Notably, polls do not allow for the deliberation of issues, and a sophisticated understanding of issues requires deliberation. Deliberation, in turn, requires group discussion and analysis. Rogers argued that “Dr. Gallup does not make the public more articulate. He only estimates how in replying to certain questions it would say ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ or ‘don’t know.’ Instead of feeling the pulse of democracy, Dr. Gallup listens to its baby talk” (1949, 17).
Rogers’ perspective on public opinion has intellectual roots in the writings of Founding Father James Madison. According to Colleen Sheehan (2004, 406), Madison rejected the notion of public opinion as simply an aggregation of public sentiments. Rather, he saw it as a process of community conversation and deliberation, with citizens influencing each other through public and private discourse, ultimately influencing political decisions through an “enlightened public voice.”
The critiques of Blumer and Rogers helped spawn the development of an important methodological innovation in public opinion—the deliberative poll (Delli Carpini, Cook, and Jacobs 2004). Gastil (2000, 22) defines public deliberation as the careful examination of a political problem, identification of solutions to that problem, and debate over the merits of proposed solutions. Lindeman (2002, 119) sees deliberation as “a cognitive process in which individuals form, alter, or reinforce their opinions as they weigh evidence and arguments from various points of view.” Luskin, Fishkin, and Jowell (2002, 456) assert that “Now several decades’ experience the wiser, we know that opinion polls . . . have not been the great boon to democracy that Gallup envisioned.” The problem, in their view, is responses to conventional opinion questions are mostly ill-considered and barren of information (see also Bartels 2008). A somewhat different critique is offered by Scott Althaus (2003, 278), who argues that fair representation is undermined by the uneven distribution of political knowledge. In particular, the poorly informed are less likely to have opinions than the better informed.
The general idea behind deliberation is that individuals will revise, modify, or change their opinions in light of new information and the force of argument made by fellow discussants. A by-product of deliberation is policy preferences that are more “in...