Home Free Lab ReportsThe term public opinion lied deep in history

The term public opinion lied deep in history

The term public opinion lied deep in history, both of its components have old origins, although it is not used as a whole and as a political concept until the 18th century. Phenomena like the public opinion had occurred since the antiquity. In Babylonia and Assyria, where the popular attitudes were of great interest, like the legend of the Caliph who was caring about the opinions of his citizens concerning his rule, the matter that led him to disguise himself and interact with them in order to know such things. One can assume that the opinion of the public has been of a great importance for a long time. In Athens, at that time, there were two different political parties, oligarchs and democrats . While the former wanted to have a state ruled by the few rich who can vote and hold public office, the latter was claiming that all male should have equal rights. Aristotle, in his book Politics, gave a definition of the both forms of governments as “An oligarchy is said to be that in which the few and the wealthy, and a democracy that in which the many and the poor are the rulers.”
Plato, who was not a Democrat, had no trust in the rule of the wealthy, who had shown that they care only about their interests and the advantages of the few against the majority of the ordinary citizens. He also distrusted the ability of ordinary people to rule a city like Athens, because they were easily manipulated by the ambitious politicians. Moreover, he made a difference between opinion and knowledge, he did not give an importance to the opinion, he believed that opinion is a popular belief, which is available to human cognition, and it is related to the ignorant or untutored majority. Whereas, he gave a huge importance to the knowledge of ideas that are unchangeable, which is related to only a few people like philosopher-kings, as he named them, or the lovers of wisdom, who have wisdom, knowledge and intellectual capabilities that could be given to the general population in order to create an intellectual world without hatred and bloodshed, as he mentioned in his Republic: “Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy,… cities will never have rest from their evils.”
On the other hand, Aristotle in his Politics stated that “an element of truth. Hence, the many are better judges…For some understand one part and some another; and among them they understand the whole.” Aristotle believed that taking the opinion of the majority is a good decision in terms of politics and election, even though he had an unfair choice of the masses, which was limited to only one-third of free adult male citizens. He also believed in the power of community, in which what the public believes should be accepted, by gathering people to debate in order to have a valuable collected opinion.
After that, the term was implicitly used in the Roman societies, it was so familiar to them since they were working with it in many contexts. The Roman politician, lawyer and senator, Marcus Tullius Cicero dealt with the concept in different issues, for example, when he tried to expose the reaction between the politicians and Roman citizens, and other cases concerned with politics and the public. He was of great importance concerning the notion of public opinion, because first; he was an active political leader, who always tried to be in touch with the people, in order to understand their opinions, and use them for his political interest, as Anthony Everett said “Cicero (…) could swing opinion; and he was the ablest politician on the right.” (Everett. 127). Second, he was against those who support the monarchy, and became an important author because of his speeches and books of his war and fight for public support. According to Cicero, the notion of public opinion and its perception differ according to the form of societies. At that time there were no mass media, the communication between the leaders or the politicians and the citizens was face-to-face interaction in which gossips and rumors are the source of the information and affect the people’s reputation. He used certain terms instead of public opinion, such as opinion, estimation, and judgement of the Roman people. He was supporting the opinion of the many, as he mentioned in his treatise Topica: “For people think that men of talent or wealth, or those whom time has tested, are worthy of credit; perhaps this is not right, but the opinion of the many can hardly be changed, and those who judge as well as those who make assessments from all their views with reference to it” (Topica. 73).
Quintilian said that Cicero was “the name, not of a man, but of eloquence itself,” because his ideas, series of daily letters, books, treatises are still of great importance till nowadays, and they inspired the Enlightenment thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, Montesquieu and Thomas Jefferson who borrowed many ideas from Cicero.
One of the most important figures in discussing the notion of public opinion was the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes . He claimed that in every state there should be a communication from the citizens to the government, because he considered the people as the main part to form a state, in which there is a contract between the leaders and the citizens. After the death of Hobbes, the British scholar John Locke composed Two Treatises of Government that were written in 1690, in which he did not accept the idea that kings and queens had a “divine right” to rule others, therefore he presented a theory in politics which claims that governments should be created among free people as social contracts. Moreover, he argued that the leaders got their power from the consent of the governed , and held their power as a public trust, and the people can judge the performance of the government, the standard he named as public opinion. Furthermore, he stated that the role of the state is to use its power to control people and protect their rights, including life, freedom, and property, and in return people can rebel against their government if the latter did not protect them. Locke also stated that the government should be separated into various branches and each branch should have limited powers that satisfy its function, and give freedom and protection for people against any tyrannical powers as he said in his Two Treatises on Government: “The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but to have only the law of Nature for his rule. The liberty of man in society is to be under no other legislative power, but that established by consent in the commonwealth, nor under the dominion of any will, or restraint of any law, but what that legislative shall enact according to the trust put in it”.
1-2 The American public opinion
Over eighty years after Locke introduced his political perspectives on government, the American revolutionary Thomas Paine introduced the Common Sense that helped to change the opinions in the 13 colonies. At that time, the patriots, who wanted to have their freedom, were afraid that most of the Americans are still loyal to the King George III, and if they declare their independence they will lose the public support. In the Common Sense, he exposed that the king was a tyrant who was behind the different attacks on the colonies. In addition, Thomas Jefferson was also influenced by some of Locke’s ideas, and adopted them into the Declaration of Independence . During the Enlightenment , these ideas were spread into Europe and affect many philosophers such as: Montesquieu who liked the idea of limited constitutional government and separated branches that will protect the rights of the public and prevent one branch to use unlimited power over the other branches (checks and balances). And Rousseau who accepted the idea that people must be free and no king or queen had a complete authority over them. However, he did not agree with Locke concerning the way the state should be, he believed that the form of government that was presented by Locke did not distribute an equal sovereignty among people, and he argued for a direct government by the people. In the late 18th century, the concept of public opinion regarded as a crucial notion in politics, this phenomenon conceptualized as the corollary of the end of the old hierarchy, and religion as sources of legitimating, where the power of public opinion was presented as a fundamental source of authority. The development of this concept, and the extent of its power was demonstrated by its ability to change the 13 North American British provinces to the USA. The ideas of both Locke and Rousseau were clearly presented in the declaration of Independence (1776) which aimed at replacing the monarch, by the head of the constitutional republic.
In the late 19th and the early 20th century, the English historian James Bryce, one of the primary authors who regard comprehensively ”public opinion” as crucial notions that deserve much attention. In his American Commonwealth 1888, he concentrated on three main features of public opinion, the competence of the public, the constitution of public opinion, and the relationship of public opinion with opinion leaders (i.e. the function of public views in the political procedure). In that research Bryce observed the insufficiency of attentiveness that is shown by public in politics, so that he did not trust that public opinion could or ought to decide the subtle elements of policy. However, he observed that this latter in America was dominated by the mass public through political parties. Studies about the public opinion that showed up in that period were comparable in focus to Bryce’s work, but they did not reach the same conclusion, the two authors A. Lawrence Lowell and Walter Lippmann respectively wrote two books, Public opinion and Popular Government (1913) and Public Opinion (1922). The first book was an attempt to precise investigation of public opinion and its relationship to government. Lowell tended to the greater part of Bryce concern, especially in terms of the competence of the public, he believed that public opinion’s role in politics had to be severely constrained, due to his lack of competence to manage the political information and due to the negative influence on the making of policy.
Lippmann was influenced by both Plato’s theory of knowledge and Aristotle’s Politics. In his book “Public Opinion” He explained the original form of the problem facing democracy; for him the environment is complex, and man’s political capacity is simple, so can a bridge be built to cover that gap? Also, he asked how people can gain information and knowledge of issues that enable them to rule popularly. This idea obliged anyone to think whether it is possible for men to use very simple means to act very well upon complex issues. This problem grows more and more in the modern era. For Lippmann the complexity of the environment; social, political, and economic life is “out of reach, out of sight, and out of mind.” (Lippman 17) He started his book with chapter titled “the world outside and the pictures in our heads” (3). He stated that human live is exposed to a wide and complex nature. Consequently, the reality that they know, act, and behave upon it is no more than their own representation of the environment, and he named that by “pseudo-environment,” (20) where people create “most inadequate picture,” (15) or “stereotypes” (194) that misguide them in their deals with the world outside, and crystallize their opinions into ”Public Opinion” and shape their political actions. However, there are many factors such as news media and propaganda that had great ability to manufacture and manipulate the public through presenting information that are chosen with special interests, and affect people’s perception of the world – that is the world “in our heads.” in such conditions, citizens are poorly informed and cannot manage political affairs and take part in government. To overcome this problem, Lippmann proposed a remedy in his “Phantom” stating that there should be an expanded role for experts and few men of action, public policy analysts and political leaders who would have a direct relation with a particular issue. Lippmann named them as “insiders.” (Public Opinion 120) Their main role is to disseminate the details and provide knowledge and understanding of the matter to the public, so that it would stay informed, also they might offer advice on policy affairs to political bodies such as Congress. Those “insiders” “will help to bring public opinions into grip with the environment” (Public Opinion 215). Consequently, minimize the role of citizens. To confirm, Lippmann did not exclude entirely the public from his theory. Rather, he believed that the process of governing and decision-making must be the work of minority of elite administrators and social scientists.
Lippmann’s theory of democracy was represented by John Dewey in his book ”The Public and its Problems” that is published in 1927. Here, Dewey’s major concern is to further Lippmann’s study of democracy in the modern era. He formulated Lippmann’s theory of knowledge and asked “how the gap between the limited capacities of the citizen, and the complexity of his environment is to be bridged.” The two authors were agreed upon the existence of that gap between the complexity of the environment, and citizen’s capacities. Both of them recognized the difficulties that would result from a popular government that is run by poorly informed citizens. However, Dewey stated that the most important thing for popular government is the behavior of its citizens, and the social knowledge; the background of built-up knowledge, and the way people collect their ideas to understand their social and political environment. He defined public opinion as a collection of individual’s opinions upon certain issue, these opinions are strongly affected, and shaped by social relations. Therefore, it is a result of the interaction of individual’s behaviors with different groups that were formed as a reaction of certain issues or problems. These groups share different beliefs, cultures, and institutions. This definition provides deeper understanding of the social construction of knowledge and the democratic system. For him opinions could never be understood without communicative processes that produced them, the matter that led him to state that the general public consisted of smaller and diverse publics, thus it is not correct to speak about this entity only as a collection of individual opinions. He also disagreed with Lippmann’s idea of having a limited number of elite administrators, and experts because they would misuse the power and block it for their own interests, and that contradict the democratic system.
Edward. L Bernays, the first scholar to introduce the concept of “Public Relations”, and the first to apply the theory of public opinion into Public relations. The main source of his ideas was Lippmann’s writings mainly “Public Opinion”, and that was clearly stated in the second chapter of his book Crystallizing Public opinion that is disseminated in 1923, where he presented Lippmann’s idea that regarded public as incompetent to acquire enough knowledge to manage political affairs. Also, he used Lippmann’s notion of stereotypes, but with a different interpretation. For Lippmann, stereotypes inform about the world before seeing it, but for him: stereotypes are “the basis of a large part of the work of public relations counsel,” (Berneys, Crystallizing public opinion 150) because they can be understood, and existed in “the average mind.” According to Bernays, stereotypes have advantages because they can be used as a tool to reach the public. Moreover, in 1928, he wrote a book titled “Propaganda” in which he tried to raise public awareness through presenting the emerging field “Public relations”, and its relation with “Propaganda”. It is already mentioned in Lippmann’s writings as one of the factors that manipulate and shape public opinion. Conversely, Bernays claimed that ” propaganda” has a positive impact on public, it provides people with a unified image during wartime, and offer an agreement on industrial issues during peacetime such as promoting clients’ products or services. Also, he introduced the two phrases of Lippmann: the “invisible government ” that is the work of public relations counsel as he said: “propaganda is the executive arm of the invisible government.” and the “manufacturing consent ” that he changed into the “engineering of consent “. In sum, Bernays and Lippmann were used the same ideas, but they were diametrically opposed, Lippmann believed that stereotypes, propaganda, and news system were obstacles to inform public opinion. However, Bernays claimed that they have a positive influence on social values, and public perception of issues.
1-3 What is public opinion: types of public in US
Scholars have different definitions of the notion depending on how one is defining the term public and which opinions should be taken into consideration, either of groups, individuals, or elites. Public opinion is a phenomenon that is difficult to define because of both social and economic effect and the way government should be run, the matter that leads scholars to provide different interpretations, and identifications to it. Most simply, one can define the public opinion as the aggregation of the majority’s opinion.
When taking policy decisions into account, the public opinion become the sum of individual, majority, group or elite opinions…
Speaking of individuals’ opinions, one should know that the opinions of the different individuals deserve and should be treated equally even if those individuals have some knowledge about the issue or not. Thus, it is the collection of the different views of the different segments of the society on one particular issue. A different perspective emphasizes that the public opinion is those views of the most people about one issue. In democratic states like the USA, the government leaders count the views of the majority the most and consider them as a guider in the policy-making decisions. They also consider the opinions of the few as of less importance. This perspective of public opinion is symmetric with the idea of an election in which every single person is entitled to an opinion on an issue, a leader, or a policy. The public rarely has one single unified opinion, there are often some disagreements about the preferences of the people. For example, in 2005, the Congress was fighting with giving funding to support stem cell research in order to have a new cure. An opinion poll has been done by the Pew Research Center for the People ; the Press indicates that 56% of the public were for stem cell research. However, there are certain groups, who formed political constituencies, had different views, like the white evangelical Protestants were against stem cell research, while Protestants and Catholics favored it. Moreover, some scholars affirm that the debate among group on different issues will create what they call a public opinion. Groups like: Political parties, interest groups, associations and unions of trade, nonprofit organizations, and corporations, can discuss issues that they are interested in, and can articulate positions about them to define them as social problems. Whereas, the individuals face difficulties to make their problems known and taken seriously. These organized groups have some sources like lobbyists and funds, to make the polls and pay for the advertisements. In addition to the ability to gain the interest of policymakers and mass media. Groups made it easily due to social media that helps them to publicize their views through Facebook and other platforms.
All of the politicians, pollsters, policy specialists, activists, and journalists have agreed that the opinions of leaders and elites have a great weight on shaping, creating and interpreting the public opinion, and it can also be articulated by the pundits. Walter Lippmann remarked that the ordinary people cannot keep up with the numerous issues that face the government, because they have not either the time or the inclination to do so. They also have no opportunity to live the political events directly, therefore they must rely on other sources which are conveyed by the elites through the media. In Lippmann’s opinion, it is important for specialists to manage the public opinion because they have knowledge and abilities to promote policies. Thus, people should count the opinions of the elites not of the ordinary citizens.
After knowing what public opinion is and its different interpretations, one can ask where does public opinion come from? Since the opinion is a judgement on something that is often based on fact or knowledge. So there are many factors that can influence the public opinion, such as: Politicians: Many officials affect the public opinion by actively campaigning to generate public support for particular political issues and causes, by giving speeches and interviews, stage rallies, and listen to constituents.
Media: The news media affects it by covering all the important political events extensively (e.g. the immigration in the USA). Since people receive their information from the media, and find that the latter is shedding so much light on a particular issue. Thus, the public opinion will place more importance on that political issue. So the media have a great impact.
Socioeconomic status: It affects it according to persons’ status that shapes how they perceive political and economic events like tax cut or health care benefits. There is a difference between how wealthy and poor people are affected, for example; wealthy people support a tax cut because they would have more advantages than the poor people.
Major events: For example: a war, or an economic downturn can affect the opinion of people on different matters such as in support of a president. Example: In the United States, the people support their president dramatically, whenever a foreign crisis has taken place. He will gain a popularity in a short period of time, what the political scientists named it the rally ’round the flag effect.
Opinion leaders: They are often new commentators, bloggers , or prominent members of the community who express openly and publicly their own political opinion. They affect the public opinion by influencing others to see things the way they do.
To conclude, public opinion will change, when these factors change. Without forgetting that these factors can also affect one person’s political socialization
1-4 The public opinion polling:
In a democratic state, the public opinion is essential in American politics that aims to inform public policy making. The opinion polls help to briefly present the views of the people to the government leaders who make decisions that affect to society. These leader often check the opinion of the public while policy decisions are made, and when there is an election campaign. Before dealing with the public opinion polls, when should distinguish between what is a poll and what is a survey. The two terms often are used interchangeably, but still there are differences between them. A poll is typically headed by a commercial organization looking for a profit. It consists of a short questionnaire administered to a sample of between 600 and 1500 people in a short period of time. Whereas, a survey most often is conducted by academic researchers. Its questionnaires are longer and designed to check the foundations and results of opinions in details. It may be administered to thousands of subjects over an extended period of time.
The public opinion polls are surveys commissioned by different people or groups to measure people’s point of view on a particular issue. A poll is generally initiated when someone need an answer for a particular political question.
However, in the United States, public opinion polling has a historical background. It is everywhere, since the opinions are polled every day about different topics such as: taxes, the federal budget, the environment and global warming. It date back to the first days of the American republic, the polls were related to the newspapers. In 1824, The Harrisburg Pennsylvanian was the first one who conducted the first informal straw poll that predicted that Andrew Jackson wins the presidential election over John Quincy Adams. Even if they were inaccurate, they became important features in magazines and newspapers. By the 1920s, scientific polls are used by market researchers that utilized samples representative of people to know their product preferences. After that, there was the emergence of the polling organizations which are businesses that gauge public opinion through strategic methods, such as the famous Gallup organization. It is an American organization that introduce public opinion research on great numbers of topics by using the Gallup poll. It is first introduced and developed by George Gallup in 1932, when his mother-in-law looks for an office, the majority of people thought that she would fail. His poll showed that she has an opportunity to win and he was right. Then, it went on till it was widely used in 1935. These days, it is routinely measured public opinion on different social, political, and economic issues.
Gallup poll and other similar polls aims to collect accurate statistics. The questions designed by the pollsters should be objectively worded, neutral and impartial. This means they must not reflect the opinions and the positions of both pollsters and politicians. After designing the adequate questions, the polling organizations have to select the poling sample. For example, Gallup organizations made an interview with a quota sample of people who belongs to a particular demographic categories, according to the sex and age groups. Gallup had correctly predicted who will win in the 1940 and 1944 presidential elections. However, in the 1948 election, it incorrectly predicted that Thomas Dewey would defeat Harry Truman, this is called margin error . Since that time, the quota sampling method was replaced by probability sampling , in which samples are selected to be representative of a population. One of the common types of probability sampling is the random sampling, where samples are chosen randomly to be part of the polls. The random sampling is a good way to avoid any bias in the selection of the samples, like what happened in the 1936 presidential election, when Literary Digest predicted that Alfred Landon would beat future president Franklin Roosevelt. It was one of the most famous examples of a random sample bias in American history.
However, there are different ways of measuring the public opinion. One of them is the quick poll, which is an online poll, usually consisting of one or two questions, that is administered to whoever wants to take it. Another type is the questionnaire that includes different types of questions such as: Closed-ended questions and Open-ended questions . In addition, there is Exit poll are kind of interviews done face-to-face with voters when they leave the voting booth to know their candidate preference in the election and their positions on issues. Plus, a push poll is a marketing technique used by political campaigns to know the opinions of people about candidates and issues through leading questions.
1-5 Public Opinion and Foreign Policy Nexus
United States is a country “of the people, by the people and for the people” As Abraham Lincoln claimed. He also said: “Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much”. Its government system would not be able to function without the influence of public opinion because it has the authority to make policies, and pass laws thus it is very important for the government to observe public opinion, measure its attitudes and hear its voices to shape policies. And that can be achieved through the use of scientific polling. That is emerged in the period surrounding the First and Second World War, and coincided with the rise of public opinion as a great power in democracy. It was used by many researchers who were involved in the study of the nature of public opinion, and its impact on foreign policy which is defined as collection of people’s opinions on issues regarding relations with other nations. While dealing with these phenomena, scholars focused on the extent to which public opinion intervenes in the making of foreign policy. They developed three classifications and categories of that relation. The first category is that public opinion does not play any role in the making of foreign policy and that was stated in “Almond-Lippmann consensus “. According to them, public opinion on that subject is viewed as: “Volatile” or “non-stable” thus, it offers dubious foundations for the making of foreign policy. Also, it is viewed as “Incoherent”, and “Irrelevant” i.e. it is subject to manipulation, and manufacture, so that it is unnecessary. In addition to that public may not be aware of particular policies or policy shifts i.e. it is uninformed. Therefore, political actors do not show responsiveness to the public, and made policy decisions without its knowledge, they generally prefer to take actions that stimulate no public attention, and that facilitates the implementation of policy, or they simply ignore the public for instance in November 2002, U.S. President George W. Bush declared that if Iraq does not follow the United Nations’ recommendations, the United States will wage a war against it. Despite the rejection of the U S public to that war, George Bush preferred to lead rather than to follow the public opinion, and that was a common thing in U S presidents from Harry Truman (1945-1953) to Bill Clinton (1993-2001). However, in other another category researchers claim that the relation between public and policy exist, and that through the manipulation of opinions by policy makers, and political elite, to bring public into line existing or proposed policy and avoid opinions that might affect the direction of policy. Thus public opinion is known as an entity to be massaged, managed, manipulated and manufactured to support decisions made by political actors, and elected politicians, because The White House, recognizes the political importance of public support but does not accept it as a given factor. So that it shaped through presenting false information or controlling all the sources of information about specific issue, and that happened during Gulf War in 1991, in which the Secretary of defense controlled all information about the military operation in the Gulf. Another classification of that relation is that , policy responds to public, in which public opinion plays an active role in shaping foreign policy, as it is stated in Cohen’s (1973.62) quotation of a State Department official: “To hell with public opinion….We should lead, and not follow”. While emphasizing the role of public and its support for policy during Vietnam War. In addition to that, Public opinion “…is expected to be an autonomous force capable of shaping policy agendas and determining the actions of receptive policy-makers” (Petry. 540) It strongly influences politicians on what and how they should support and present their platforms, also it affect political actors’ actions and policy choices by judging them for the failures of foreign policy thus policy-makers may contemplate the effect of their actions on future elections. Also, the impact of public opinion on policy mainly occurs at the level of the House of Representatives, where there is a direct link between the people and the elected politicians who should listen and respond to the public opinion.

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