Nature of Public Opinion. During the greater part or human history government was viewed as something exalted and mysterious, beyond the comprehension of the masses. The authority of rulers was believed to be of divine origin, and 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, government came to be viewed as a means by which the best interests of the people could be served, and the officials of government as public servants selected to express and carry out the popular will.
This change in attitude toward government has been owing largely to the growth and power of public opinion and to 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 active part in government and the development of means of communication and of 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 of an interested class or of 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 is difficult to find a general 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 or 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. Public Opinion is usually formed by a small group of leaders, 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 the purpose of government is almost always opinion which is organized and which represents special knowledge concerning the question at issue. Besides, the intensity of an Opinion 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.
In order 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 the formation of a general consensus of opinion 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 he maintained and the national ideals to be realized. The means of informing and influencing public Pillion should be extensive and honest and should not be used to deceive the public or to further the interests of any selfish group freedom of opinion and of 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 allowed to compile for supremacy. Finally, the will of the majority, when clearly and fairly expressed, must be accepted by the minority until such time as 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 oi 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 loped and effective in controlling the actions and policies of government. 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 extensive organization and the expenditure of vast sums, is directed to various forms of propaganda intended to form and direct the political ideas of the people. In part this is an honest attempt to educate and enlighten the people and to arouse their interest in furthering needed reforms or in 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 to methods of influencing the public mind both in business and in politics. Democracy and propaganda have developed side by side.
One of the most important agencies in the formation oi public opinion is the press, particularly the newspapers and, to a less extent magazines and hooks. The newspaper, through its news and editorial columns, 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 problems of the day Formerly the editorial opinions oi the press 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 editorial attitude of the press and to pay more attention to the news items, forming their own opinions on the basis of 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 the way in which it is presented. The omission of certain types of news 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 news papers 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, the control of such agencies is important, inasmuch as they may distort or suppress information and thus mislead public opinion.
What is done by the press through the printed word is supplemented today by the spoken word by means of 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 for 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 for the purpose of directing public Opinion in favor of their interests. In addition to the use of newspapers and magazines favors? is to their point of view, they prepare party platforms campaign textbooks and a flood of documents, pamphlets Posters, and other forms of prepared opinions. In many case the solar reads only the material furnished by his own party and thus is strengthened in his traditional allegiance. In addition to the political par ties there are many associations that carry on campaigns of education or propaganda or the purpose of influencing public opinion and securing 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 or against certain measures. Groups representing the interests of various types of business, of labor, and of the farmers hold different opinions on the relation of government to economic questions, and use various methods in spreading their ideas or in bringing pressure to bear upon the voters. Reform movements have usually been started by organized groups, such as those that were formed to further the abolition of slavery, equal rights or woman, 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. In 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 time of war, propaganda is now organized on an immense scale for the purpose of unifying public opinion at home strengthening the morale of the troops and of the population behind them. Dividing the public opinion or breaking down the morale of the enemy, and creating favorable opinion in neutral countries. War aims are stated in such terms as will appeal to popular ballets and emotions, the enemy it accused of aggressive War guilt or of inhuman atrocities, and available news it 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.