Public Opinion

Defining Public Opinion

Public opinion or political opinion is the aggregate of individual attitudes or beliefs held by the adult population.

Learning Objectives

Explain the relationship between public opinion and democracy

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Public opinion as a concept gained credence with the rise of “public” in the eighteenth century.
  • Since the 1950s, television has been the main medium for molding public opinion.
  • Public opinion is discussed as a form of collective behavior, which is made up of those who are discussing a given public issue at any one time. Given this definition, there are many publics; each of them comes into being when an issue arises and ceases to exist when the issue is resolved.
  • Public opinion plays an important role in the political sphere. Cutting across all aspects of relationship between government and public opinion are studies of voting behavior.

Key Terms

  • aggregate: A mass, assemblage, or sum of particulars; something consisting of elements but considered as a whole.
  • Jeremy Bentham: Jeremy Bentham was an English philosopher, jurist and social reformer. He is regarded as the founder of modern utilitarianism.
  • public opinion: The opinion of the public, the popular view.

Public opinion or Political opinion is the aggregate of individual attitudes or beliefs held by the adult population. Public opinion can also be defined as the complex collection of opinions of many different people and the sum of all their views.

Since the 1950s, television has been the main medium for molding public opinion. Public opinion as a concept gained credence with the rise of “public” in the eighteenth century. The English term “public opinion” dates back to the eighteenth century and has derived from the French “l’opinion”, which was first used in 1588 by Montaigne. This concept came about through the process of urbanization and other political and social forces. For the first time, it became important what people thought, as forms of political contention changed.

Adam Smith (1723-1790), one of the earliest classical economists, refers to public opinion in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. But it was Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the famous utilitarian Philosopher, who fully developed theories of public opinion. He opined that public opinion had the power to ensure that rulers would rule for the greatest happiness of the greater number. He brought in Utilitarian philosophy in order to define theories of public opinion. The German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies, by using the conceptional tools of his theory of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, argued (1922, “Kritik der öffentlichen Meinung”), that ‘public opinion’ has the equivalent social function in societies (Gesellschaften) which religion has in communities (Gemeinschaften) – election of opinions of many different people and the sum of all their views.

German social theorist, Jürgen Habermas (born in 1929), contributed the idea of “Public Sphere” to the discussion of public opinion. The Public Sphere, or bourgeois public is, according to Habermas, where “something approaching public opinion can be formed” (2004, p. 351). Habermas claimed that the Public Sphere featured universal access, rational debate, and disregard for rank. However, he believes that these three features for how public opinion are best formed are no longer in place in western liberal democratic countries. Public opinion, in western democracy, is highly susceptible to elite manipulation.

The American sociologist Herbert Blumer (1900 – 1987) has proposed an altogether different conception of the “public. ” According to Blumer, public opinion is discussed as a form of collective behavior (another specialized term) which is made up of those who are discussing a given public issue at any one time. Given this definition, there are many publics; each of them comes into being when an issue arises and ceases to exist when the issue is resolved. Blumer claims that people participate in public in different capacities and to different degrees. So, public opinion polling cannot measure the public. An educated individual’s participation is more important than that of a drunk. The “mass,” in which people independently make decisions about, for example, which brand of toothpaste to buy, is a form of collective behavior different from the public.

Public opinion plays an important role in the political sphere. Cutting across all aspects of relationship between government and public opinion are studies of voting behavior. These have registered the distribution of opinions on a wide variety of issues, have explored the impact of special interest groups on election outcomes and have contributed to our knowledge about the effects of government propaganda and policy. More often than not, leaders use public opinion to weight their options when instituting new policies, since public opinion represents the popular views of citizens on the proper role of government. However, public opinion can be subject to elite manipulation. Thus, public opinion cannot be the sole determinant factors for informing the people on important issues of the day.

The rapid spread of public opinion measurement around the world is a reflection of the number of uses to which it can be put. Public opinion can be accurately obtained through a random sample survey, if done correctly. Governments have increasingly found surveys to be useful tools for guiding their public policies through voter polls as seen in. The US Department of Agriculture was one of the first government agencies to sponsor systematic and large scale surveys. It was followed by many other federal bodies, including the US information agency which has conducted opinion research in all parts of the world. Public opinion can be influenced by public relations and the political media. Additionally, mass media utilizes a wide variety of advertising techniques to get their message out and change the minds of people.The tide of public opinion becomes more and more crucial during political elections, most importantly elections determining the national executive.

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Voter Poll: Voter polling questionnaire on display at the Smithsonian Institution

Political Values

Political cultures have values that are largely shared by their members; these are called political values.

Learning Objectives

Explain value theory and its relation to the individual’s political beliefs

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The values of a society can often be identified by noting which people receive honor or respect.
  • Values generate behavior and help solve common human problems for survival by comparative rankings of value, the results of which provide answers to questions of why people do what they do and in what order they choose to do them.
  • Over time the public expression of personal values, that groups of people find important in their day-to-day lives, lay the foundations of law, custom and tradition.

Key Terms

  • Cultural Value: Cultures have values that are largely shared by their members.
  • Personal Value: Personal Values provide an internal reference for what is good, beneficial, important, useful, beautiful, desirable, constructive, etc. Values generate behaviour and help solve common human problems for survival by comparative rankings of value, the results of which provide answers to questions of why people do what they do and in what order they choose to do them.
  • value system: A hierarchy of values that all moral agents possess, demonstrated by their choices. Most people’s value systems differ, making the imposition of a singular value system by the state a source of constant social warfare. This is an individualistic concept. One’s value system is molded by one’s virtues or vices.

Value Theory

Value theory encompasses a range of approaches to understanding how, why and to what degree people value things, whether the thing is a person, idea, object, or anything else. This investigation began in ancient philosophy, where it is called axiology or ethics. Early philosophical investigations sought to understand good and evil and the concept of “the good”. Today much of value theory is scientifically empirical, recording what people do value and attempting to understand why they value these things in the context of psychology, sociology, and economics.

A personal or cultural value is an extremely absolute or relative ethical value, the assumption of which can be the basis for ethical action. A value system is a set of consistent values and measures. A principle value is a foundation upon which other values and measures of integrity are based. Those values which are not physiologically determined and normally considered objective, such as a desire to avoid physical pain, seek pleasure, etc., are considered subjective. This means they vary across individuals and cultures and are in many ways aligned with belief and belief systems. Types of values include ethical/moral values, doctrinal/ideological (religious, political) values, social values, and aesthetic values. It is debated whether some values which are not clearly physiologically determined, such as altruism, are intrinsic, and whether others, such as acquisitiveness, should be valued as vices or virtues. Values can be defined as broad preferences concerning appropriate courses of action or outcomes. As such, values reflect a person’s sense of right and wrong or what “ought” to be. “Equal rights for all”, “Excellence deserves admiration”, and “People should be treated with respect and dignity” are representative of values.

Personal values

Personal Values provide an internal reference for what is good, beneficial, important, useful, beautiful, desirable, constructive, etc. Values generate behavior and help solve common human problems for survival by comparative rankings of value, the results of which provide answers to questions of why people do what they do and in what order they choose to do them. Over time the public expression of personal values, that groups of people find important in their day-to-day lives, lay the foundations of law, custom and tradition. Personal Values in this way exist in relation to cultural values, either in agreement with or divergent from prevailing norms. A culture is a social system that shares a set of common values, in which such values permit social expectations and collective understandings of the good, beautiful, constructive, etc. Without normative personal values, there would be no cultural reference against which to measure the virtue of individual values and so culture identity would disintegrate.

Cultural Values

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The Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map of the World: The Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map of the World, created by sociopolitical scientists Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel based on the World Values Survey.

The Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map of the World, created by sociopolitical scientists, Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, is based on the World Values Survey. Cultures have values that are largely shared by their members. The values of a society can often be identified by noting which people receive honor or respect. In the US, for example, professional athletes at the top levels in some sports are honored (in the form of monetary payment) more than college professors. Surveys show that voters in the United States would be reluctant to elect an atheist as a president, suggesting that belief in God is a value. Values are related to the norms of a culture, but they are more global and abstract than norms. Norms are rules for behavior in specific situations, while values identify what should be judged as good or evil. Flying the national flag on a holiday is a norm, but it reflects the value of patriotism. Wearing dark clothing and appearing solemn are normative behaviors at a funeral. In certain cultures they reflect the values of respect and support of friends and family. Different cultures reflect different values.

“Over the last three decades, traditional-age college students have shown an increased interest in personal well-being and a decreased interest in the welfare of others. ” Values seemed to have changed, affecting the beliefs, and attitudes of college students. Members take part in a culture even if each member’s personal values do not entirely agree with some of the normative values sanctioned in the culture. This reflects an individual’s ability to synthesize and extract aspects valuable to them from the multiple subcultures they belong to. If a group member expresses a value that is in serious conflict with the group’s norms, the group’s authority may carry out various ways of encouraging conformity or stigmatizing the non-conforming behavior of its members

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Forms of Disagreement

Political dissent refers to any expression designed to convey dissatisfaction with or opposition to the policies of a governing body.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the role that civil disobedience and direct action play as political tactics representing dissent

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Such expression may take forms from vocal disagreement to civil disobedience to the use of violence.
  • Historically, repressive governments have sought to punish political dissent.
  • The protection of freedoms that facilitate peaceful dissent has become a hallmark of free and open societies.

Key Terms

  • political dissent: Political dissent refers to any expression designed to convey dissatisfaction with or opposition to the policies of a governing body.
  • civil disobedience: A form of social protest, involving the active but non-violent refusal to obey certain laws, demands, or commands of an established authority, because they are considered to be morally wrong or detrimental.

Political dissent refers to any expression designed to convey dissatisfaction with or opposition to the policies of a governing body. Such expression may take forms from vocal disagreement to civil disobedience to the use of violence. Historically, repressive governments have sought to punish political dissent. The protection of freedoms that facilitate peaceful dissent has become a hallmark of free and open societies.

One form of political dissent is civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is the active, professed refusal to obey certain laws, demands, and commands of a government, or of an occupying international power. Civil disobedience is commonly, though not always, defined as being nonviolent resistance. It is one form of civil resistance. In one view (in India, known as ahimsa or satyagraha) it could be said that it is compassion in the form of respectful disagreement.

Civil disobedience can often take the form of direct action, which occurs when a group of people take an action which is intended to reveal an existing problem, highlight an alternative, or demonstrate a possible solution to a social issue. This can include nonviolent and less often violent activities which target persons, groups, or property deemed offensive to the direct action participants. Examples of direct action can include strikes, workplace occupations, sit-ins, tax resistance, graffiti, sabotage, hacktivism, property destruction, blockades, and other forms of community resistance.

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Direct Action: Mohandas Gandhi and supporters Salt March on March 12, 1930. This was an act of non-violent direct action.

Direct action stands in opposition to a number of other forms of disagreement, like electoral politics, diplomacy, negotiation, and arbitration, which are not usually described as direct action, as they are politically mediated. Non-violent actions are sometimes a form of civil disobedience, and may involve a degree of intentional law-breaking where persons place themselves in arrestable situations in order to make a political statement, but other actions (such as strikes) may not violate criminal law. The aim is to either obstruct another political agent or political organization from performing some practice to which the activists object; or to solve perceived problems which traditional societal institutions (governments, powerful churches or establishment trade unions) are not addressing to the satisfaction of the direct action participants.

A common form of political dissent in terms of military service is conscientious objection. A conscientious objector (CO) is an “individual who has claimed the right to refuse to perform military service” on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience, and/or religion. In general, conscientious objector status is only considered in the context of military conscription and is not applicable to volunteer military forces.