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Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law 26.6 (2001) 1361-1374

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Manipulators and Manipulation:
Public Opinion in a Representative Democracy

Lawrence R. Jacobs
University of Minnesota

Politicians and special interests have attempted to capture and manipulate citizens for as long as recorded history. The question is not whether elites attempt to manipulate citizens but whether and to what degree they succeed. Is public opinion relatively autonomous from the willful strategies of politicians and private interests to manipulate it in specific directions? Or, are citizens willfully manipulated into engaging in a form of mass karaoke in which they mouth "opinions that they would not hold if aware of the best available information" (Zaller 1992: 313)? The relative autonomy of public opinion is an age-old question that cuts to the core of debates over the scope, nature, and feasibility of democratic government --government based on responsiveness to the mass public.

Joseph Schumpeter (1950), one of the most influential democratic theorists of the twentieth century, argued for government by technocrats precisely because of his deep skepticism about citizens, a skepticism that has been shared by a string of political observers from Plato to Walter Lippmann. Schumpeter (ibid: 263-264) declared that the "popular will" had "little, if any, independent basis" and was captured by the organizationally and financially advantaged. Mass public opinion was simply the manufactured "product" of "salesmen"--self-seeking politicians and special interests with an "axe to grind" who skillfully used the techniques of mass advertising to produce the public attitudes that they desired. Workable democratic government, Schumpeter argued (ibid: 269), required narrowly restricting the role of citizens to selecting "the men [End Page 1361] who are able to do the deciding" based on their instrumental and technical knowledge that uniquely equipped them to fashion wise and beneficial policy.

For many political observers, the political history of the twentieth century seemed to illustrate the potential for elites to mold public opinion in ways that were both horrendous (such as the German Nazis' use of mass rallies) as well as narrowly opportunistic within the confines of representative government, such as the Health Insurance Association of America's use of "Harry and Louise" advertisements to turn public opinion against President Clinton's health care plan. The potential of special interests and demagogues to capture public opinion as well as more general doubts about the competence of Americans has led most contemporary policy makers--upwards of two-thirds of legislative and executive branch officials--to agree with Schumpeter's dismal appraisal of the mass public's potential to serve as a reliable partner in government decision making (Jacobs and Shapiro 2000; Pew 1998; Kull 1999; Kull and Destler 1999). Determining whether mass public opinion can be captured and turned into a manufactured product through the advertising of an interest group like the Health Insurance Association of American (HIAA) or a powerful government official is a decisive issue in assessing the potential for democratic government and the appropriate role for public opinion in decisions on health policy.

The Conditionality of Public Opinion Manipulation

Writing just after War World II and its period of extraordinary but ultimately false fears that German propaganda would seize the minds of civilians, two social science pioneers, Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton, argued that manipulation of public opinion was unlikely and highly circumscribed; it required a set of specific and rare conditions related to elite behavior and information content (1948). In particular, they suggested that successful manipulation required unified elites that would transmit uniform information. For the public to be manipulated, it needed to be instructed--in harmony, if not by one voice--on a clear direction to follow. The normal state, though, of American public life and that of other representative democracies is elite division and divergent messages. Indeed, the reality of American policy debates in our own time is intense partisan disagreement. The press also plays a critical role: its reporting tends to mirror the intensity, content, and relative degree of dissensus [End Page 1362] in ongoing debates among authoritative...


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pp. 1361-1374
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2005
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