Nature of Public Opinion. During the greater part of human history, the government was viewed as something exalted and mysterious, beyond the mass’s comprehension. The authority of rulers was believed to be of divine origin. The people were expected to give reverence and obedience, not to question or criticize the acts of those in authority. With the spread of democracy, the government came to be viewed as a means by which the people’s best interests could be served. The officials of government as public servants were selected to express and carry out the popular will.
This change in attitude toward government has owed largely to the growth and power of public opinion and the development of methods of giving it effective expression. Among the factors contributing to this growth have been the increased intelligence of the people resulting from public education, the widening of the electorate, enabling the people to take an active part in government, and developing means of communication and devices to keep the public informed and interested.
What is generally called public opinion has been criticized on the ground that it is neither public nor opinion. Prevailing opinions are often those of a small minority or an interested class, or a few outstanding leaders. The masses are often indifferent or ignorant, or misinformed. In this sense, public opinion may not really be public. Besides, there may be wide inferences of opinion on controversial questions, sometimes with a distinct cleavage between two opposite views, sometimes with many attitudes shading off one into another. In such cases, it isn’t easy to find a consensus that can be called public opinion.
Public opinion is usually a more or less confused mass of public opinions. Much of what is called public opinion is not really opinion. An opinion presupposes extensive and accurate knowledge on the question under consideration and a reasoned judgment or conclusion reached by deliberate thought. Many so-called opinions are rather prejudices or beliefs or hasty conclusions of traditional dogmas.
Few persons have the knowledge or the willingness to do the difficult thinking necessary to form opinions. Most persons accept ideas created by Others and believe them to be their own. A small group of leaders usually forms public Opinion, and individuals accept their arguments or suggestions, as they have neither the knowledge nor the time nor the interest to enable them to form opinions of their own. The soundness of public opinion depends to a large extent upon the wisdom and unselfishness of political leaders.
Effective public opinion for government is almost always an opinion that is organized and represents special knowledge concerning the question at issue. Besides, an Opinion intensity is often of more importance than the number of persons who accept it. An organized and vociferous minority often gives the impression that its opinions are the opinions of the majority.
So that public opinion may be sound and effective, several conditions are necessary. The population should be intelligent and constantly alert in public affairs. It should also be homogeneous and possess a community of interests. Wide differences in race, religion, or class interests interfere with forming a consensus on public questions.
If the political mind of a people is to be sound, there must be behind minor differences, an essential agreement on the nature of the government to be maintained and the national ideals to be realized. The means of informing and influencing the public Pillion should be extensive and honest. They should not be used to deceive the public or to further the interests of any selfish group freedom of opinion and discussion is necessary.
Minority groups must have the right to urge their views by peaceable means. Sound opinions can be formed only if all points of view can be freely expressed and compiled for supremacy. Finally, when clearly and fairly expressed, the will of the majority must be accepted by the minority until its opinions prevail.
Popular government has failed in some countries because of the unwillingness of minorities to acquiesce in majority rule. With the growing complexity of modern life and with the expanding powers of government, the amount of information needed and of effort required to create intelligent public opinion is constantly increasing.
The success of democratic government depends upon the degree to which public opinion is sound; well, doves are loped and effective in controlling the government’s actions and policies. The alternative is some form of dictatorship. Which may be efficient, but which is dangerous because it destroys freedom and self-government.
Methods of Influencing Public Opinion
Because of the importance of public Opinion in modern democratic states, much attention, involving the extensive organization and the expenditure of vast sums, is directed to various forms of propaganda intended to form and direct the people’s political ideas.
In part, this is an honest attempt to educate and enlighten the people and arouse their interest in furthering needed reforms or opposing dangerous proposals. In part, it is the deliberate attempt of certain groups or interests to secure popular support for policies to their selfish advantage.
Much attention in recent years has been directed to the psychological study of group opinion and methods of influencing the public mind both in business and politics. Democracy and propaganda have developed side by side.
One of the most important agencies in forming a public opinion in the press, particularly the newspapers and, to less extent, magazines and hooks. Through its news and editorial columns, the newspaper presents facts, interpretation of acts, and statements of opinion.
If facts are presented am rarely and impartially, the newspaper performs invaluable service in keeping citizens informed on the day’s problems. Formerly, the press’s editorial opinions carried great weight, and editors in whom the public had confidence exercised widespread influence on public opinion.
At present, readers are inclined to discount the press’s editorial attitude and pay more attention to the news items, forming their own opinions based on the information. Thus con toyed. Accordingly, public opinion is affected by the type of news published and by the color given to the news by how it is presented.
The omission of certain news types and the failure to present the facts fairly are accusations frequently brought against the press. Loss of confidence in its impartiality and accuracy is caused partly by the fact that newspapers or chains of papers are owned by interests which use them to further certain attitudes and opinions, and partly by the belief that the press omits or distorts news that might be objectionable to its advertisers, on whom it depends in large measure for financial support.
Since much of the news from all parts of the world is furnished by news bureaus, such agencies’ control is important since they may distort or suppress information and mislead public opinion.
What is done by the press through the printed word is supplemented today by the spoken word utilizing the new devices of the radio and the talking picture. The events of the day and the opinions of its leaders are brought to the attention of millions, many of whom read little and could not otherwise be reached.
The speeches of public men, which formerly reached only a limited audience, are now broadcast and are listened to by immense numbers. The effects of these inventions on modern democracy may prove epoch miking, as their power for public education or public deception is almost unlimited. Posters, placards, and bill-boards also appeal to many who do not read newspapers or books.
Political parties carry on extensive campaigns of propaganda to direct public opinion in favor of their interests. In addition to the use of newspapers and magazines favors? From their perspective, they prepare party platforms, campaign textbooks, and a flood of documents, pamphlets, Posters, and other forms of prepared opinions.
In many cases, the solar reads only the material furnished by his own party and thus is strengthened in his traditional allegiance. In addition to the political parties, many associations carry on campaigns of education or propaganda or influence public opinion and secure the adoption of certain governmental policies.
In the United States, such organizations as the American Federation of Labor, the Congress of Industrial Organizations Political Action Committee, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Educational Association, the American Legion, and the Grange have been active in influencing public opinion or against certain measures. Groups representing the interests of various types of business, labor, and farmers hold different opinions on government relation to economic questions and use various methods in spreading their ideas or bringing pressure to bear upon the voters.
Reform movements have usually been started by organized groups, such as those formed to further the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, civil-service reform, and the prevention of child labor. In many cases, rival organizations compete for public favor. Some groups believe it is necessary to be prepared for war and favor a vigorous foreign policy others cling to isolationist doctrines and support pacifist ideas.
Considerable effort is made to inform public opinion by public and private agencies that are not concerned directly with further any particular interest or point of view. This class would fall a large part of the documents, reports, and statistical material published by national and local governments, by bureaus of municipal research, and by various endowed foundations. The medical and bar associations also make efforts to inform public opinion concerning their special fields. Much influence is also exerted by churches, chambers of commerce, and men’s and women’s forums and clubs.
In times of war, propaganda is now organized on an immense scale to unify public opinion at home, strengthening the morale of the troops and the population behind them. Dividing the public opinion or breaking down the enemy’s morale and creating favorable opinion in neutral countries.
War aims are stated in such terms as will appeal to popular ballets and emotions. The enemy is accused of aggressive War guilt or inhuman atrocities, and available news is exaggerated, and immutable news minimized. Every method to arouse hate and enthusiasm is utilized, and all opinions which differ or oppose are ruthlessly crushed. The growth of modem democracy has made public opinion important in the field of international relations as well as in internal politics.