Dr. Eileen Lynch
11. Public Opinion and Political Socialization
Identify and explain three qualities of public opinion. Give an example of a question that would measure each of these qualities.
The beginning of the video segment in this lesson peppers us with a barrage of rapid-fire answers from a wildly varied population sample. Every one of them has an opinion on the question they were asked at the particular moment of their videotaping, and each one of them is earnest in their answers, even when they answer “I don’t know”.
But all this are personal opinions. What we need to know is what constitutes a public opinion. We need to know when the personal becomes the public.
The textbook offers us a few pointers by identifying the qualities of public opinion as direction, intensity and stability. Also, we are told that different people have different opinions on the same matters. From anything like music, deodorant or beauty products, to serious issues like global-warming, cancer research and the price of gasoline. When these personal opinions are made concerning a public matter then they become part of the public opinion. In fact, the textbook wants us to know that public opinion is the expression of attitudes about government and politics.
In the text, V. O. Key, Jr. mentions that public opinion is constituted by the opinions of individuals that a government should notice. A good example of this quality of public opinion, which I define as “opportune” but the textbook insists on identifying it as “direction”, could be the questions that are asked about the performance of a local government that the general public can control more directly, and where the answers can be measured on a scale. Namely, a question like: “Do you think your City Manager has complied this year with his job description?” If I were a procrastinating City Manager and a poll was taken in the city which I am supposed to be managing, I should be wary of an overwhelmingly failing report card, since I would be easy to fire and even easier to replace by a more competent City Manager.
But public opinion could also be made up of enough people expressing themselves so strongly for or against something that their views are likely to affect government action. This is a facet of public opinion that I enjoy thinking of as a “juggernaut” quality, but is more properly described as the “intensity” quality. And the context for such aspect of public opinion would apply to the arena of regulatory actions by the federal government, where sometimes the public opinion demonstrates more power than even special interest groups. Specifically, I think of the smoking habits in
Also, public opinion is situational, because the people that express their opinion and the situations that provoke such opinions are in constant flux. “Convenience” is my pet name for the “stability” quality of public opinion, which can be measured by its sudden change or the lack of it. And right away I think back to President Clinton and “Monica-gate”. The question was, “Do you think it matters how the President exercises his sexuality?” Public opinion on this question could have been represented graphically with an oscilloscope! The moment anyone mentioned morals and ethics and what not, there appeared a big trough on the graph. And then, every time we got a paycheck and realized we had enough money to pay the bills, the Bill graph would reach another peak.
To conclude I would like to note that public opinion is measured using the three qualities mentioned above by the use of polls, which help quantify a subject matter that is absolutely and completely subjective: personal opinions that might or might not be well informed on public matters of government and politics. This mathematically implausible situation was cleverly addressed by Brandon Carter when he revised his original statements to the Antrhopic Principle: Beware the sampling simplification!
Democracy Under Pressure: An Introduction to the American System, 10th Edition, Milton C. Cummings, Jr., David Wise, Thomson