The Dangerous Allure of “Public Opinion”

In a 2015 poll, 30 percent of Republicans and 20 percent of Democrats supported bombing the country of Agrabah. No such country exists, except in the Disney film Aladdin. Public opinion, when uninformed, can be dangerous.

Politicians often cite “public opinion” to make their case. In a democracy, informed public opinion should matter. As James Madison wrote in 1791, “Public opinion sets boundaries to every Government, and is the real sovereign in every one.” Yet it is a double-edged ruler. While it can shape and restrain government, it can also mislead and endanger.

Public opinion, unfortunately, doesn’t and can’t always form by careful reasoning of individual citizens. Walter Lippmann, in his 1921 book, Public Opinion, explained: “[N]ot being omnipresent and omniscient we cannot see much of what we have to think and talk about . . . Except on a few subjects where our knowledge is great, we cannot choose between true and false accounts. So we choose between trustworthy and untrustworthy reporters.”

Nor is public opinion, as Jill Lepore argues in These Truths, the mathematical summation of individual Americans’ ideas. It is created by those we agree to follow, such as politicians, lobbyists and social movements — yet their job is focused on persuasion, not necessarily balanced reasoning.

Politicians have huge power in the information age. Political advertising was a $9 billion business during the 2020 elections. With today’s technology political consultants micro-target voters, giving them messages they want to hear and generating anger to harden public opinions they want to create.

In this effort ethics often takes a back seat to effectiveness. The first political consulting firm, Campaign’s Inc, launched in 1933 followed simple rules still in use: keep it simple, never explain anything, repeat the message, make it personal, pretend you speak for the people, put on a show, and create a good fight.

Surveys, another tool of public opinion crafters, presume to capture but often lead it. As sociologist Herbert Blumer once argued, “public opinion consists of what the public opinion polls poll.” In a 1987 study by Howard Schuman and Jacqueline Scott, one sample was asked “Which of the following do you think is the most important problem facing this country today — the energy shortage, the quality of public schools, legalized abortion, or pollution — or, if you prefer, you may name a different problem as most important.” Sixty percent chose one of the four. Another group was given no choices but was simply asked “What is the most important problem facing the country today? Only two percent named any of those four.

As Lepore puts it, the problem is that “[P]olitical consultants tell voters what to think; pollsters ask them what they think. But neither credits the idea that voters ought to make independent judgments, or that they can.”

Passions in public opinion, as the willingness to bomb Agrabah show, don’t mean the public understands an issue. In 1993–1994, the Health Industry Association of America ran “Harry and Louise” TV ads showcasing a fictional couple discussing worries about President Clinton’s health care reform proposals. The ads helped sink the Clinton plan. Midway through the ad campaign, a focus group was asked what they wanted in health care reform. Participants hated the Clinton plan yet named all its major elements. As Haynes Johnson and David Broder wrote in The System, their analysis of the plan’s debacle, “the people were woefully uninformed. The manufactured, and manipulated, ‘public opinion’ prevailed.”

There are no easy solutions, but those who govern bear responsibility for avoiding the danger of misguiding public opinion, especially when manufacturing it as a path to power. Too characteristic was Vice-President Spiro Agnew’s comment that “[D]ividing the American people has been my main contribution to the national political scene.”

Elected officials must also avoid slavishly following emotional public opinions that abandon reason. As Madison put it in Federalist #55, “In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates; every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”

Legislators in our form of government have the responsibility to listen to the public but to base decisions on the national interest. As Lindsay Rogers wrote in 1949 in The Pollsters: Public Opinion, Politics, and Democratic Leadership, “even if public opinion could be measured by adding up what people say in interviews over the telephone to people they’ve never met, legislators using this information to inform their votes in representative bodies would be inconsistent with the Constitution.” Our founding charter requires thinking, a healthy distrust of boisterous passions and compromise. The framers of the Constitution deliberately rejected the notion that elected officials should be required to vote as directed by those back home.

Citizens have a responsibility to be informed and reasonable. More than three-fourths acknowledge political debate is more negative and less fact-based, respectful, and substantive, yet a third use news sources they consider less reliable. One of the reasons: people say they’re too busy to look elsewhere.

Next time you hear “public opinion demands …” step back and do your own thinking.

Terry focuses on leadership, ethics, and decision making. He believes that “you gotta have a dream if you wanna have a dream come true.”