Public Opinion

What Is Public Opinion? Public opinion is the measure of what the public thinks about a particular issue, party, or individual political figure. Historically, it's been pretty difficult to accurately measure what the public thinks about a particular issue. However, most forms of democracy are based on the understanding that the government will function with the interests of their people in mind. We can find an acknowledgment of the people's role in many historical documents, including the Constitution of the United States, which begins with the phrase 'We, the People.' This 1940s poster from the National Archives highlights the importance of public opinion in policymaking (see video). Where Does Public Opinion Come From? There's a lot of things that come into play when discussing how people form opinions. Developing your opinions about issues affecting the world around you is a lifelong process that social scientists call political socialization. You'll have different life factors than everyone else, but for most people, factors like family beliefs, peer beliefs, education, religious beliefs, and media depictions have the greatest impact on their political opinions. The primacy tendency, or the theory that impressions acquired during childhood are the most long-lasting and influential, guides many studies of public opinion. For example, if your parents or other authority figures, like teachers, regularly included you in patriotic activities such the Fourth of July or the Pledge of Allegiance, social scientists would conclude that you are more likely to be patriotic and supportive of the U.S. government as an adult. How Do We Know What People Think? There's a lot of ways to measure public opinion, and there's usually a lot of disagreement about which method is the most accurate. One way to measure public opinion is through examining voter records, but not everyone is eligible to vote, and among those who are eligible to vote, not everyone will vote in a given election. For example, you might have voted in the 2008 election but skipped the 2010 midterm election for various reasons. In addition to voting, people can also participate in meetings, protests, and assemblies regarding a particular issue. While it's probably interesting to those involved, this kind of public opinion expression can be pretty hard to measure. Like voting, measuring public opinion by the number of people involved doesn't account for those who were unable to participate. Think about this way: not everyone at a rally necessarily supports the goals of those running the rally. They might just be there to show support for their friends and family. By far the most-used method of measuring public opinion is the public opinion poll, a survey of a small group of people regarding their opinions about a particular policy area. For example, this graph shows the change in public opinion regarding interracial marriage based on public opinion data from Gallup, Inc (see video). There are many different ways of conducting a public opinion poll, but the most accurate method is to take a random sample. In a random sample, social scientists attempt to create an unbiased grouping to study by asking a randomly selected group to participate in public opinion polling. By its very nature, the democratic process spurs citizens to form opinions on a number of issues. Voters are called upon to choose candidates in elections, to consider constitutional amendments, and to approve or reject municipal taxes and other legislative proposals. Almost any matter on which the executive or legislature has to decide may become a public issue if a significant number of people wish to make it one. The political attitudes of these persons are often stimulated or reinforced by outside agencies—a crusading newspaper, an interest group, or a government agency or official. The English philosopher and economist Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) saw the greatest difficulty of the legislator as being “in conciliating the public opinion, in correcting it when erroneous, and in giving it that bent which shall be most favourable to produce obedience to his mandates.” At the same time, Bentham and some other thinkers believed that public opinion is a useful check on the authority of rulers. Bentham demanded that all official acts be publicized, so that an enlightened public opinion could pass judgment on them, as would a tribunal: “To the pernicious exercise of the power of government it is the only check.” In the early years of modern democracy, some scholars acknowledged the power of public opinion but warned that it could be a dangerous force. Tocqueville was concerned that a government of the masses would become a “tyranny of the majority.” But, whether public opinion is regarded as a constructive or a baneful force in a democracy, there are few politicians who are prepared to suggest in public that government should ignore it Political scientists have been less concerned with what part public opinion should play in a democratic polity and have given more attention to establishing what part it does play in actuality. From the examination of numerous histories of policy formation, it is clear that no sweeping generalization can be made that will hold in all cases. The role of public opinion varies from issue to issue, just as public opinion asserts itself differently from one democracy to another. Perhaps the safest generalization that can be made is that public opinion does not influence the details of most government policies but it does set limits within which policy makers must operate. That is, public officials will usually seek to satisfy a widespread demand—or at least take it into account in their deliberations—and they will usually try to avoid decisions that they believe will be widely unpopular. Yet efforts by political leaders to accommodate government policies to public opinion are not always perceived as legitimate; indeed, journalists and political commentators have often characterized them as pandering to public opinion to curry favour with their constituents or as being driven by the latest poll results. Such charges were questioned, however, by public opinion scholars Lawrence R. Jacobs and Robert Y. Shapiro, who argued in Politicians Don’t Pander: Political Manipulation and the Loss of Democratic Responsiveness (2000) that politicians do not actually do this. They found instead that by the early 1970s the accusation of pandering was being used deliberately by prominent journalists, politicians, and other elites as a means of lessening the influence of public opinion on government policy. This practice, they theorized, might have resulted from long-standing suspicion or hostility among elites toward popular participation in government and politics. In keeping with their findings, Jacobs and Shapiro postulated the eventual disappearance from public discourse of the stigmatizing term pandering and its replacement by the more neutral term political responsiveness. Although they rejected the charge of pandering, Jacobs and Shapiro also asserted that most politicians tend to respond to public opinion in cynical ways; most of them, for example, use public opinion research not to establish their policies but only to identify slogans and symbols that will make predetermined policies more appealing to their constituents. According to Jacobs and Shapiro, most public opinion research is used to manipulate the public rather than to act on its wishes. Public opinion exerts a more powerful influence in politics through its “latent” aspects. As discussed by V.O. Key, latent public opinion is, in effect, a probable future reaction by the public to a current decision or action by a public official or a government. Politicians who ignore the possible consequences of latent public opinion risk setback or defeat in future elections. Government leaders who take latent public opinion into account, on the other hand, may be willing to undertake an unpopular action that has a negative effect on public opinion in the near term, provided that the action is also likely to have a significant positive effect at a later and more important time Public opinion seems to be much more effective in influencing policy making at the local level than at the state or national levels. One reason for this is that issues of concern to local governments—such as the condition of roads, schools, and hospitals—are less complex than those dealt with by governments at higher levels; another is that at the local level there are fewer institutional or bureaucratic barriers between policy makers and voters. Representative government itself, however, tends to limit the power of public opinion to influence specific government decisions, since ordinarily the only choice the public is given is that of approving or disapproving the election of a given official.