Public opinion in crisis

A stable democracy depends on a sound public opinion. It is the essential basis of agreement about what is legitimate behaviour on the part of both public institutions and many of the relations of citizens to each other. It is the central common good or communities of most sorts.

The traditional notion of public opinion

Until the advent of continuous polling what was invoked by the phrase “public opinion” was a set of beliefs and attitudes that were assumed to be shared by nearly everybody in the nation concerning the grounds on which choices of public policies were to be judged and the performances of public activities to be assessed. As contexts change, depending on the degree to which different groups approve of those changes, differences emerge in many fringe situations. As long as there is a sense of community people deal with these differences mainly by agreeing to small verbal changes that accommodate certain important new demands without abandoning traditional formulae “I’m not a feminist, but…”

Public opinion in this sense was traditionally invoked by prominent public figures, politicians, journalists and intellectuals often with such phrases as “will not tolerate” or “demands” that a government do this or that. Such public protagonists assumed that their attempts to articulate the tacit understandings on which the society operated would be endorsed by the “general public” if they thought seriously about the matter. So churchmen would assume that as Christians their followers were committed to certain views, labour leaders that justice required a certain treatment of workers and business leaders that the rights of investors be respected. They would each attempt to represent such claims as reflecting a more fundamental agreement on the way the community needed to work of it was to flourish and command loyalty.
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