In my own work and in my own studies, I think about public opinion as a critical force in politics and, therefore, in governance. Readers of this blog know that. But what we see working in the crisis around the personal life of the golfer, Tiger Woods, is an older, ever-present sense of how public opinion works; yet it is working in a new, globalized media environment, around an iconic sporting superstar.
"I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." -Thomas Jefferson
Thoughtful comments to my recent post on approaches to fighting petty corruption sparked for me an interesting discussion with Sina Odugbemi about norms, public opinion and law. Mainly, our talk centered on the following “chicken or the egg” issue: Do you adopt laws first and ask citizens to obey them? Or, do you gauge public opinion around an issue first, then adopt a law that reflects that society’s prevailing view on that issue? No matter how you dice it, the enforcement of that law would be easier when it conforms to majority opinion as opposed to when it does not.
"Public opinion seems to achieve integration: the individuals trying to avoid isolation are ready to compromise, thereby furnishing society with some common ground which, as is generally acknowledged, is a condition for the society's survival. Public opinion seems to stabilize societies. Partly this is a consequence of integration but it is more. Political scientists interested in developing societies complain that the lack of public opinion, or of an infrastructure of consensus among persons interested in the political sphere, leads to extreme and frequent upheavals. Public opinion establishes priorities. In the field of communication research, this is called the agenda-setting function. It dictates what problems society deems to be its most urgent tasks. Public opinion confers legitimation. It is striving for consensus (exerting strong conformity pressure on the individuals), defending established norms, or creating those which in turn will be legally sanctioned. This is the meaning of 'all governments rest on opinion.'"
There's nothing worse that can happen to a young scholar at her first conference presentation than having one of the big founders of one's academic field sit in the first row and stare intently at her poor little PowerPoint presentation. This happened to me with Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, one of the most eminent figures in the field of contemporary communication studies.