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Problems of Public Opinion

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

“The man who lacks sense enough to despise public opinion expressed in gossip will never do anything great” - this is from Hegel's Philosophy of Right (1822). It's no secret that at CommGAP, we're all big advocates for public opinion, nevertheless we need to be aware of some of the problems that public opinion poses in its role as political factor.

Everyone can think of examples of public opinion seemingly landing somewhat off the mark in elections, referenda, polls, or other manifestations of the public's will. Elites then tend to shake their heads in exasperation about what they might call "public ignorance."

Public opinion scholar Vincent Price lists some of the problems of public opinion that may prevent it from being the ideal expression of public will:

- Lack of knowledge
- Insufficient cognitive ability and inadequate comprehension of political processes
- Limited access to information and communication resources

The danger is obvious: all democratic states have some element of popular vote, some even practice direct citizen democracy. If citizens that are legitimate to vote on political issues are not qualified to actually comprehend, let alone judge such issues, their vote can prevent political progress and even do harm. To solve the problem of an incompetent public, Walter Lippmann proposed to take political decisions out of the hands of ‘ordinary’ citizens and install a system of experts to take over. John Dewey called for an education system that enables people to find and comprehend relevant information. Habermas, on the other hand, proposes that the actual problem lies in what he calls the re-feudalization of the public sphere. He argues that since the first half of the 19th century the public sphere has been dominated by a mutual dependence of political system, economy, and mass media. As a result, citizens have limited access to the public sphere, which prevents deliberative dialogue, which again might lead to politically unfortunate voting decisions.

Let me outline a little utopia of an effective civil society based on public reasoning:

(1) The public is not defined as being equivalent to the mass of a population or electorate, but following Dewey as all people that are indirectly affected by the consequences of transactions (issue publics).

(2) Issue publics have access to a communication structure that allows deliberation among its members as well as information of the people that are not members.

(3) We presume that Rousseau was right in assuming that the exchange of arguments among the members of a public leads to the establishment of the volonté générale, to a position that is in the interest of the general population.

(4) Arguments and results of the deliberation are communicated to those citizens that are not members of the specific issue public. If interested, they scrutinize the discussion and form their own judgment, if not interested they accept the suggestions made by the given public.

(5) The electorate vote according to either their own (now informed) judgment or the judgment of the issue public.

It's an utopia, I know. But it's one that might be worth striving toward to.


Illustration: John Digesare


Submitted by Bill Petti on
I am somewhat skeptical, more so than I used to be, at the idea of a successfully deliberative democracy. The idea of a rational public reaching optimal policy preferences via open discourse is indeed an old one, but I wonder to what extent the assumptions still hold that authors such as Rousseau rested their theories on. Over the last twenty years the field of behavioral economics has shown that even in the face of complete information people may still make choices that are not rational, in the classic sense of the term, but are instead significantly attributable to the way that people process information and the way choices and issues are framed. When it comes to politics we can safely assume that there will be no shortage of framing campaigns and that power will play just as big of a role as rational dialogue in determining public opinion. It is unclear to me how you avoid this. We could say that since it will be an open system competing frames may cancel each other out, but that is effectively what we have now.

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