- The Privatizing of Public Opinion
Since World War II, the influence of American political parties in the electoral and governing processes has significantly eroded, and governmental institutions such as Congress have become increasingly individualized. For modern politicians, public opinion has been seized on as a partial substitute for political parties and disorganized institutions. Winning public support seems to offer a rare opportunity to augment scarce political resources and to bond together supportive coalitions in a fractured government and a disjointed polity. Today’s pollsters have become our secular priests, and politicians and journalists flock to them for guidance.
The attention to public opinion within the political world has been more than matched by academics. The study of public opinion is now one of the dominant fields of social science research. There are few areas of modern life that have received as much attention and resources as survey research.
Susan Herbst has offered a timely and sophisticated analysis of the history and meaning of public opinion. Herbst’s central argument is that the method for measuring public sentiment profoundly shapes the expression and meaning of public opinion. Herbst convincingly challenges the prevailing treatment of polls as simply a neutral measuring mechanism for producing a clear, objective rendering of the mass public’s attitudes. Instead, she argues that public opinion is a constructed category and a mechanism that politicians and others use to control or domesticate the mass public.
With economy and clarity, Herbst draws on political theory from Max Weber to Michel Foucault and Jürgen Habermas to develop a set of conceptual tools for tracing the historic development of public opinion research. At the most general level, Herbst situates polling in the broad historical shift toward rationalization and a rising devotion to quantification and statistical thinking. The central chapters of Numbered Voices provide an insightful analysis of the historic development of techniques for measuring public opinion and of the changing meanings of the term “public opinion.” [End Page 146]
Public opinion has a long history dating—in written records at least—to ancient Greece. This history is characterized by fierce debates over the rationality of public opinion and by a remarkable variety of techniques for measuring and expressing mass attitudes. Public opinion was measured and expressed through festivals, pamphlets, dramatic performance, and limited elections. Oration was the most important techniques for assessing attitudes. Nearly all of these techniques relied on unstructured methods; the structured format of modern surveys is a singularly recent development.
The philosophers of Greece presented two divergent (and enduring) approaches to understanding and evaluating public opinion. Plato distrusted the public and discussed public opinion as ill-informed and subject to emotional shifts of opinion. Aristotle, on the other hand, offered early support and justification for aggregating the opinions of individuals. Although the views of any individual might be suspect, he argued that the collective preferences of individuals had special properties of wisdom, “goodness and intelligence.” Plato’s disparaging characterization of public opinion was probably shared by most elites. Not until centuries later did modern analysts of mass preferences justify scientific opinion surveys by returning to the notion that the sum of many atomized individuals was especially rational and wise.
Following ancient Greece, the major development in the expression and measurement of public opinion was the invention of the printing press in the sixteenth century. The circulation of ideas was no longer limited by physical proximity or by oral communication; ideas could travel and the written word encouraged the development of sustained and rich political discussion.
The printing press continued to coexist with oral techniques such as parades and riots, which were popular means for expressing opinions during the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, salons in Paris and coffeehouses in London became centers for elite intellectual life and means for expressing public opinion on religion, politics, and art. The salons and coffeehouses not only reflected mass public attitudes but also—through newspaper accounts and word of mouth—influenced public discourse.