Public opinion is a collective attitude or preference concerning political issues shaped by a varied and complex interplay of factors. Group membership, personal experience, gender, race, education, class, media, government officials, elites, religion, geographical region, culture, and political ideology all affect socialization and knowledge acquisition that influence and are influenced by public opinion. Public opinion tends to be stable over time, but historical and catastrophic events, economic or technological changes, personal experiences, and group replacement may cause it to shift. Polling is a primary means to collect public opinion, and, despite its shortcomings, most agree that polls are invaluable to democratic societies.
Public opinion is vital to the concept and practice of democracy. The U.S. Declaration of Independence, for example, decried the British Crown for not adhering to the people’s voice. However, the institutional structure of the U.S. political system hinders democratic responsiveness. Staggered elections, gerrymandering, the Electoral College, single-member winner-take-all plurality elections, voting discrimination, a non-elected judicial branch with the power of judicial review, a large non-elected bureaucratic sector, and unequal representation in the Senate are all structures that insulate policy making from public opinion. Moreover, representatives have no legal obligation to adhere to public opinion. Consequently, many Americans believe their opinions do not matter in policy making.
Media and Public Opinion
Most scholarship agrees that the media are central to opinion formation and expression. Critical theorist Jurgen Habermas conceptualized that a “public sphere” is necessary for democratic societies to deliberate and reflect on substantive issues to develop and ascertain the common good. The media play a crucial role in that public sphere, especially in large societies like the United States. Walter Lippmann observed that the media play a vital role in shaping the public’s reality of the world around them. Many scholars since then have documented the significant influence the media have in shaping public opinion. The media perform an agenda-setting function that does not necessarily tell the public what to think but has considerable power to tell the public what to think about. In short, the media make some issues more salient than others. Numerous studies demonstrate that issues receiving heavy coverage like drugs or crime often become top priorities in opinion polls, but that the news media disproportionately convey the views and interests of those with power. Corporate conglomerates own and control most mainstream news organizations, and political and economic elites often define and dominate the news. The result is an information system that reflects dominant interests.
In addition to shaping opinion, the media report public sentiments mainly through polling data. Opinion surveys have become so central to politics and the news that many media outlets operate their own polling organizations or frequently commission surveys. Media use of polling data, however, is selective. For example, polls are prominently featured, often in superficial “horse race” surveys, on matters of presidential and congressional elections. Yet polls lack this centrality when the media cover most areas of policy, because, as some scholars argue, public opinion does not coincide with elite preferences. Furthermore, this point highlights that individuals are not in a passive, vegetative state when consuming the media. They actively construct and interpret information and messages.
Elites and Public Opinion
Some well-known commentators such as Walter Lippmann believe that the public is best treated as spectators to political life, asserting they hold irrational and conflicting preferences. Though they would rarely disclose these sentiments publicly, according to one Pew Research Center survey, the vast majority of policymakers polled agree with Lippmann that the public is incapable of making informed judgments about policy. Other analysts, however, demonstrate, mainly through aggregate polls, that the public often holds more rational or prudent views than most political and economic elites.
Despite declarations to the contrary, policymakers routinely ignore public opinion, especially in areas of economic and foreign policy. Research shows that political leaders track public opinion not to shape their policy positions to the public’s preferences, as is generally assumed, but to craft their policy message in order to move public opinion to the politician’s preferences. The objective is to minimize potential opposition to policies not supported by the majority of the public rather than to alter the policy. This threatens the very notion of popular sovereignty.
Many policy elites rely on the news media and other elites for public opinion rather than polling data. Scholars argue that the corporate community uses its structural, social, and knowledge advantages to articulate and convey its policy preferences to the public and government. Through policy-planning, opinion-shaping, and candidate-selection apparatuses, socioeconomic elites ensure more political access and policy responsiveness than the general public. Thus, policymakers’ indicators of public values are class biased and often do not represent the general public.
Despite institutional barriers to political participation, technological advances have increased the possibility for greater public involvement in policy making. The United States is one of the most heavily researched societies in terms of public opinion, with the government alone conducting more than a million surveys a year. However, public opinion is a complex phenomenon and in a society of more than 300 million residents, collecting and ascertaining public opinion is not without its obstacles.
All forms of opinion collecting are indications and interventions of public opinion. Critics argue that pre-coded survey questions and forced-choice answer responses, the most widely used opinion measure, fail to capture the complexities of an individual’s decision-making process. For example, responses such as “strongly agree” and “agree” fail to empirically quantify the magnitude of public preferences. Furthermore, some polls construct opinions rather than capture them, because surveys may make an issue more salient than others, thus creating the impression of public importance.
Polling may not capture actual public sentiment, since research shows that Americans are misinformed on many policy issues. A notable example is citizens’ views toward U.S. foreign aid. Those polled preferred cutting foreign aid spending by half but perceived that it took up nearly 20 percent of the U.S. budget. In reality, the United States allocates less than 1 percent of its budget to foreign aid. The paradox for opinion measurement is that those polled prefer drastic cuts while simultaneously advocating massive spending increases.
An additional problem is framing. Research shows that the way questions are framed or worded may significantly affect the outcome of the answer and not capture true preferences. For example, programs for “the poor” receive significantly more support than “welfare” programs, despite referring to the same policies. The difference reflects the meaning of the terms, since most language lacks neutrality. Elite discourse, especially in the media, often influences and defines the terminology. At the extreme end of framing are “push polls”—loaded questions intended to influence the survey’s outcome. Measurement and sampling errors hinder accurate assessments of policy preferences. Sampling is important because of the high transaction costs that would incur gathering everyone’s opinion; accurate sampling is also important because public opinion is not homogenous, varying by gender, class, religion, and other factors. Also skewing polls are the respondents’ private views and the preferences expressed, assuming they answer the questions at all. Thus, it may be difficult to determine genuine public opinion concerning sensitive topics because of participants’ unwillingness or fear of the potential costs of expressing actual sentiments. Furthermore, research shows that knowledge is unequally distributed and the resource rich are more likely to effectively link and express personal preferences.
In addition to shaping opinion, technology changes the collection of public opinion as cell phones, call screening devices, “Do Not Call” lists, and wariness toward strangers make it increasingly harder for pollsters to ascertain public preferences. The Internet, however, presents new avenues (and problems) to opinion collection and expression.
Polls measure what we claim to know but often fail to determine how and why we know it. They lack context by focusing on opinion outcomes without considering the social forces and assumptions that inform those opinions. These issues are not to imply that polls are meaningless, but rather to acknowledge that surveys establish a specific framework for which opinion is measured and it is imperative to understand the limits and constraints of the frameworks. Moreover, the act of measuring opinion itself requires considerable resources that are mainly enjoyed by a small population segment.
- Berinsky, Adam J. 2004. Silent Voices: Public Opinion and Political Participation in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Jacobs, Lawrence R. and Robert Y. Shapiro. 2000. Politicians Don’t Pander: Political Manipulation and the Loss of Democratic Responsiveness. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Lewis, Justin. 2001. Constructing Public Opinion: How Political Elites Do What They Like and Why We Seem to Go Along with It. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Lippmann, Walter.  2008. Public Opinion. Edinburgh, Scotland: Word Power Books.
- Manza, Jeff, Fay Lomax Cook, and Benjamin I. Page, eds. 2002. Navigating Public Opinion: Polls, Policy, and the Future of American Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Page, Benjamin I. and Marshall Bouton. 2006. The Foreign Policy Disconnect: What Americans Want from Our Leaders but Don’t Get. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Zaller, John. 1992. The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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