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Book Reviews 669 Reading Public Opinion: How Political Actors View the Democratic Process. By Susan Herbst. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998; pp. χ + 256. $16.00. Following her much acclaimed 1993 book, Numbered Voices: How Opinion Polling has Shaped American Politics, Susan Herbst seeks to broaden our conceptions of public opinion and its role in democratic governance. She goes beyond simple public opinion polling to consider the many ways in which political professionals and activists assess and understand citizens' preferences. Through depth interviews and surveys, she analyzes the "lay theories" of the politically active and reveals how polled opinions play only a minor role in democratic policy making. Herbst draws from a wide range of past scholarship, including early studies of public opinion and group formation, postmodern theories, cultural studies, political science, and communications in order to lay the foundation for her argument that public opinion is socially constructed and affected by institutions, technology, and political culture. In contrast to much of the experimentally based literature on political cognition which fails to take account of culture, language, and experience, Reading Public Opinion employs a rhetorical psychological approach and depth interviews which clearly demonstrate the pragmatic ways political actors evaluate public opinion. Herbst's data come from a case study of Illinois state government. She conducted depth interviews with 44 working political professionals and party activists: legislative staff members, reporters who covered the Illinois capitol, and Illinois delegates to the 1996 Democratic and Republican party conventions. These rich qualitative data were supplemented with a survey of 528 convention delegates from across the United States. Using interpretive methods for querying her informants and analyzing their discourse , Herbst convincingly demonstrates the sharply contrasting views of public opinion held by these three differently situated groups of participants in the policymaking process. For the staff members interviewed in this study, two indicators of public opinion were particularly relevant: interest group communications and the content of the mass media. The journalists, on the other hand, talked about public opinion in terms of interpersonal dialogue and conversations with citizens. The party activists relied on yet another conception of public opinion and were more comfortable with public opinions expressed through polls and through conversations with friends and acquaintances. Drawing on the language of her informants, Herbst adeptly demonstrates how one's location in the social and political world constrains the ways in which public opinion is constructed. Her informants view public opinion in very pragmatic, instrumental terms that are shaped by their professional roles. For example, staffers discuss public opinion in terms of "which segments of the public will react to a legislative maneuver and how such reactions will become manifest" (153). Public opinion , as measured by polls, is not particularly useful. Polls are not conducted 670 Rhetoric & Public Affairs regularly on statewide issues. Moreover, polls capture only a fleeting snapshot of the public mood and fail to communicate the intensity, directional dynamic, and organization of opinion which are necessary to formulate politically successful policy. Interest groups and journalists are far better situated to articulate public sentiments for staff members because they are informed, accessible, and perceived as able to persuade an otherwise amorphous and indifferent public. Interestingly, staff members rely on interest groups and media to convey public opinion despite their acknowledged biases. Staffers think of themselves as knowledgeable enough to "'see through' media bias and still glean some useful data about public opinion" (72). The political roles of journalists and party activists are quite different from those of legislative staff members, as are their conceptions of public opinion. Herbst argues, however, that understanding each actor's position in the democratic process explains the observed variations in definitions of public opinion. Journalists' views of public opinion as conversation with citizens/readers fit in with their anti-authority bias in political coverage. Party activists see public opinion as aggregations of individual opinions either through conversations or polling. The activists' disregard for interest group and media related expressions of public opinion is completely consistent with their roles as delegates representing citizens' opinions to the political leadership of their respective parties. Although convention delegates' views on public opinion are interesting to examine and help to broaden the inquiry beyond the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5238
Print ISSN
1094-8392
Pages
pp. 669-670
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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