Public Opinion

Posted on September 14, 2017


Today it seems politicians are driven by public opinion polls. Ex-President Bill Clinton famously didn’t do much without consulting the public opinion polls.

In one NBC News article published in January 2008, Tom Curry, a national affairs writer, noted that Clinton was one of this generation’s master politicians. Clinton “consults polls as if there were giant wind socks that tell which way the wind is blowing. And then he asks the pollster to help him determine which current he should try to harness to move him closer to his destination,” said Dick Morris, who was a Clinton strategist in his first term as president.

Walter Lippman, one of the twentieth century’s great political writers, said, on the other hand, “democracy is much too important to be left to public opinion.”

Who is right here?

How about this one. “It is the absolute right of the State to supervise the formation of public opinion.” Joseph Goebbels, one of Adolf Hitler’s architects of Nazi Germany.

I kind of like Benjamin Disraeli’s “public opinion rather deserves to be called public feelings.” Disraeli was English prime minister in the nineteenth century.
Disraeli’s sentiments reminded me of the difference that theologians make between happiness and joy in the context of Christianity. Happiness is transient and largely dependent on feelings, while Christian joy is spiritual and eternal, no matter the natural circumstances.

Herbert Spencer, a nineteenth century English philosopher, remarked “opinion is ultimately determined by the feelings, and not by the intellect.”

Abraham Lincoln was less intellectual about the matter. “Our government rests on public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much.”

Leonardo da Vinci’s commented that “the greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.”

Where are we going with this?

All of us have opinions individually. On the other hand, public opinion is collective opinion, or the opinion of others collectively. If we do a “random” sample of 5,000 households or people, and ask them something relatively simple like “are you satisfied with our President?” we will get an opinion ranging from 0 to 10, and probably a few -0s and 10+s given today’s divisive political climate.

Then we could follow up, “what is the most important thing the President should be directing his attention to?” In this instance, public opinion offers a direction.

We will have a random sampling of, number one, what Americans think of Donald Trump and, number two, what he should be doing.

Should he read this second poll, Trump could do one of two things: move in the direction of the most popular answers of the opinion poll, or just ignore it and do what he thinks is best.

There is one other major source of public opinion, and those are elections. They tend to confirm public opinion although the correlation is not always strong or self-evident.

So, is public opinion important?

A young politician today, Marco Rubio, noted that “we live in a society obsessed with public opinion [true enough]. But leadership has never been about popularity.” Rubio conflates public opinion with popularity but makes his point.
Should rulers, elected or in power through other systems than the vote, be subordinate to public opinion, or as Rubio suggests, ignore public opinion when leadership demands another course?

“It isn’t polls or public opinion at the moment that counts,” Rubio quoted Harry Truman. “It is right and wrong and leadership—men with fortitude, honesty and a belief in the right that makes epochs in the history of the world.”

The leader of modern India, indeed the man who forged modern, independent India (you can Wikipedia the man and the process) Mahatma Gandhi didn’t waffle: “For me every ruler is alien that defies public opinion.”

Thomas Jefferson and many of the Founding Fathers might have agreed, since they created a Republic where power proceeded from the vote, although the franchise was restricted in those early days.

If we should get in a war, a real, nasty shooting war in which the whole nation is involved, not just our professional armed forces, then we may wish to remember what a couple of old generals said. They helped beat the Germans and the Japanese into submission during World War II.

“Public opinion wins wars,” noted General, and then later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

And his counterpart in the Pacific agreed. “One cannot wage war under present conditions without the support of public opinion, which is tremendously molded by the press and other forms of propaganda.” General of the Army Douglas MacArthur.

Published as “Opinions on Importance of Public’s Opinion Differ,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday August 27, 2017