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5.5: What Is Public Opinion and Where Does It Come From?

  • Page ID
    198689
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    Learning Objectives

    By the end of this section, you will be able to:

    • Define public opinion.
    • Describe the different types of public opinion.
    • Detail the external influences that affect the development of an individual’s opinion.

    Political participation is an important measure of the health of a democracy, as popular involvement serves as a source of its legitimacy. However, the public cannot be expected to carry out the responsibility of making the government run. People have jobs, families, and other pressing concerns, and while it is always important to be involved somehow—whether by voting, writing officials, or reading about politics—we elect public officials to represent our interests and to serve as experts in ways we cannot. But how do elected officials know what we want? Voting is certainly a good proxy for understanding how people feel, but it does not provide a great deal of detail for public officials to understand public sentiment on certain issues. This is where the concept of public opinion is very important. Being able to gauge what people want is an integral part of the rationale behind democratic government.

    Public opinion is the aggregation of individual views that represent the feelings that people hold on an issue at a given point in time. Not all people have opinions on all topics, and therefore another way to define public opinion is to say that it represents the views of ordinary citizens that they are willing to express openly. People’s opinions can change for many reasons, so it is also important to recognize that a public opinion poll is a measure of how people feel at the particular moment when the poll was conducted. By measuring public opinion, elected officials throughout government gain insight into what people think should be done about certain issues.

    There are some issues where the majority of the public shares the same opinion, otherwise known as the majority opinion. For example, in a 2020 Harvard University poll,

    • 80 percent of Americans surveyed agreed with the statement “Without our freedoms, America is nothing”;
    • 93 percent stated that they believe clean air and water are basic rights;
    • 92 percent supported the right to a quality education;
    • 92 percent supported racial equality; and
    • 89 percent agreed that affordable health care is a right.108

    Because each of these figures represents more than 50 percent of those surveyed, these views may be considered representative of the majority opinion. However, this definitely does not mean that the majority of people have opinions on all issues or even share a common point of view. For example, a farmer may have a strong opinion on federal agricultural subsidy programs, while a dentist may not. As Stanford University Professor Jon Krosnick writes, “American citizens vary a great deal in terms of the personal importance they attach to their attitudes on public policy issues.”109 While people may not know everything about every issue, they are likely to hold strong opinions about the ones that are most important to them. The theory of issue publics states that the American electorate is made up of multiple small groups that care about single issues, rather than a public that cares equally about all issues. The opinion not of the broader public but of business, political, and other cultural elites—that is, elite opinion—represents the views of one of these small groups.

    Where do people’s opinions come from? In one of the seminal works on the topic, aptly named Public Opinion (1922), journalist and political commentator Walter Lippmann writes, “We can see how indirectly we know the environment in which . . . we live.”110 In other words, we acquire most of our information secondhand, not through personal experience, and myriad external forces influence our opinions. We can broadly categorize these forces. Demographic groups are one of the most influential of these external forces. Think about your age, your race or ethnicity, and your gender. These demographic characteristics can influence how people feel about certain issues or candidates. For example, Black Americans are twice as likely as Asian or White Americans to agree with the statement that not enough attention has been paid to the January 6, 2021, riots at the United States Capital. Black Americans are also more likely to attach a high level of importance to prosecuting the Capitol rioters, by a margin of approximately 20 percentage points over other racial groups.111 It is not unreasonable to attribute Black Americans’ opinions to the unfair treatment they have experienced at the hands of a historically prejudiced justice system, and through this example, we can see how self-identification affects people’s opinions. On the issue of Brexit, or Britain leaving the EU, the thrust of the debate centered on immigration, and opinion polls on the topic illustrated a stark divide based on demographics. College-educated individuals in the UK were much less likely to hold anti-immigrant views, with 20 percent of college-educated Britons saying they would not accept a Muslim as a family member, compared to 43 percent of less educated Britons.112

    Social groups also affect our opinions on politics and public officials. Think about who you spend time with: your friends, your family, a sports team, your classmates, and your coworkers. These social groups have a strong impact on how we think about issues. In other words, and to paraphrase Vincent Price, it is not so much where we stand on the issues but with whom we stand.113 Perhaps your parents were lifelong Democrats, and this is why you tend to vote Democratic. If you work in the world of finance, you will likely be surrounded by conservative thinkers, and this may lead you to espouse lower taxes. These people—your social groups—influence how you think about an issue, and the opinions you form will reflect your association with these groups. This process by which people assimilate to group values is also called socialization.

    Connecting Courses

    Sociology is the study of groups, human connections, social influences, and cultural forces that shape our relationships and personal worldviews. Sociology and political science naturally overlap. Both disciplines are considered social sciences; that is, they both examine human societies and groups. By understanding the broader theories of sociology, political scientists can gain insight into social norms and organizations as they relate to political institutions and actors.

    The set of beliefs, principles, or doctrines that guide one’s views of how the government should work is referred to as their political ideology (political ideology is covered in more detail in Chapter 3: Political Ideology). Political ideology can act as a framework that directs people’s thinking on political issues. Identifying as a liberal or a conservative, for example, will influence how you feel about particular issues. As John Hopkins University and Harvard Professor V. O. Key writes, “For many persons the policy position of their party, as they perceive it, may strongly affect their own policy preferences.”114 Liberals tend to support government programs, intervention, and social reform, and thus if you view yourself as a liberal, you will also likely support measures such as government-sponsored health care and government-sponsored programs for minorities. Conservatives, on the other hand, generally do not believe in government intervention and tend to maintain that governmental control means fewer individual freedoms. Therefore, individuals who identify as conservative are likely to consider increased taxes for things such as social welfare programs unnecessary and an infringement on people’s ability to make and keep the money they have earned. The title of the first chapter of Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion, “The World Outside and the Pictures in Our Heads,” refers to the idea that our opinions depend a great deal on the worldview we assemble for ourselves. Political ideology is one of these “pictures” to which Lippmann refers; we rely on ideology as a cue to how we should react to various ideas. In Britain, ideology also affected how people felt about Brexit. A majority of the Conservative Party (60 percent of Tories) supported leaving the EU, while 70 percent of Liberal Democrats and 53 percent of Labour Party members supported remaining as part of the EU.115 In this way, we see that ideology is a factor across nations in terms of our opinions.

    Sometimes we look to specific people in our lives to form opinions on politics. Social researchers Bernard Barelson, Paul Lazarsfeld, and William McPhee quote James Bryce as saying, “There is the active class [of person], who occupy themselves primarily with public affairs, who aspire to create and lead opinion.”116 Otherwise known as opinion leaders, these people can shape ordinary voters’ opinions, either purposefully or inadvertently. Who are opinion leaders? As Barelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee note, opinion leaders may be bankers or mayors, or they may be “near-by influencers.”117 John Stuart Mill describes the idea in a slightly different way: “The mass do not now take their opinions from dignitaries in Church or State, from ostensible leaders, or from books. Their thinking is done for them by men much like themselves, addressing or speaking in their name, on the spur of the moment.”118 In other words, anyone in your social circle or someone you see through the media, and increasingly social media, can be an opinion leader, and you may consciously or subconsciously take their views into consideration when forming your own opinions. This is not to say that elite public figures are not opinion leaders. Northwestern University Professor Benjamin Page and Columbia University Professor Robert Shapiro’s study on presidential influence on public opinion, for example, found that presidents who are popular do, in fact, have the ability to sway how people think about issues.119 However, it is important to reiterate that anyone can be an opinion leader: “In the course of casual daily conversation the political pundit of the work group, the bridge-playing wife of a political ‘active,’ the well-informed neighbor—these and others may well convey the relevant political sentiment to a more or less passive audience.”120 Opinion leaders are people whose words you value—or, as University of Pennsylvania Professor Elihu Katz and Columbia University Professor Paul Lazarsfeld famously explain, all social strata generate their own opinion leaders “horizontally,” and opinion leaders in your own immediate environment can be just as instrumental in informing your opinions.121 Sometimes these opinion leaders are people we see in the media, and sometimes opinion leaders have influence because they are frequent media consumers. For more on this subject, see Chapter 12: The Media.

    It feels reasonable to believe that our family, coworkers, and important figures can affect our thinking, but multiple studies have also shown that the media can influence how we form our opinions. George Washington University Professor Robert Entman asserts that the media contributes to what people think about as well as to their political preferences and evaluations.122 Early works from V. O. Key note that the media may exert a particularly significant influence on opinion in the short run, on people with lower levels of information, and on opinions regarding certain issues, such as international affairs or those with which individuals have minimal personal experience.123 Similarly, Page and Shapiro found that the media was particularly powerful in shaping opinions on foreign affairs,124 and how the media frames stories about presidents has been shown to influence voters’ evaluations of political leaders.125 Studies on poverty and crime have also shown that the way the media frames an issue can influence public opinion on these issues.126 Chapter 12: The Media looks further into the relationship between the media and politics, but suffice it to say that a plethora of research exists to substantiate the claim that on different levels and to varying degrees, the media does influence public opinion.


    5.5: What Is Public Opinion and Where Does It Come From? is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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