Benjamin Ginsberg

 

On his book The American Lie: Government by the People and Other Political Fables

Cover Interview of December 05, 2008

A close-up

Many of the same Americans who believe in the Easter bunny also think that public opinion is a significant force in political life.  Perhaps, not all would accept James Bryce’s famous assertion that popular support “has been the chief and ultimate power in nearly all nations at all times.”  Most Americans, however, agree that citizens’ preferences have a good deal of influence over the government and its policies.  Nearly 80 percent of those responding to a recent national survey said that the government listened to the people most or at least some of the time.  More than 90 percent agreed that elections made the government pay attention to public opinion.

School textbooks, politicians’ pronouncements and even the supposedly cynical mass media contribute to this view of the political potency of citizen sentiment.  Newspaper columnists and television commentators, for example, frequently link the power of presidents and other politicians to their popular standing.  In 2005, when President George W. Bush’s rating in the polls fell sharply, many pundits asserted that his loss of citizen support would erode the president’s ability to govern.  More generally, continual print and broadcast coverage of opinion surveys, the “mood” of the electorate and the meaning of election outcomes certainly conveys the impression that public opinion and voting must be important phenomena.  The media devote nearly as much attention to poll results and election analyses as they do to the celebrity gossip with which Americans seem endlessly fascinated.

To be sure, citizens’ perspectives are continually monitored and frequently evaluated by political elites and government decision makers.  Popular support is obviously essential to those seeking election or reelection to office.  Nevertheless, public opinion, voting and other aspects of popular political involvement are seldom the driving forces of national politics.  Public opinion is not an autonomous and immutable force that politicians must discover and obey.  The will of the people is, instead, a rather pliable phenomenon usually created by the very individuals and groups who claim to submit to it.  Typically, forces seeking to achieve particular goals in the political arena, be they offices, programs or policies, will endeavor to create a climate of opinion conducive to their efforts.  Rather than satisfy citizen opinion, politicians and competing political actors ordinarily attempt to create opinions supportive of their own purposes and preferences.  Any resultant consistency between citizen opinion and political or policy outcomes is more a reflection of the common origins of the two phenomena than a tribute to the power of public opinion.

Certainly, public opinion can be a powerful force once formed.  The formation of opinion, though, is typically a result of efforts on the part of contending interests, parties and politicians to attract popular support, and mainly reflects these groups’ relative capacity to achieve visibility, to communicate cogent appeals and to offer citizens solidarity and material incentives sufficiently compelling to secure their fealty.  Of course, all citizens cannot always be convinced of all things.  Large numbers of Americans, however, have little knowledge of, or firm opinions about, most aspects of government and politics.  Consequently, their views are susceptible to frequent manipulation by politicians, advocacy groups and political parties.  Lincoln was surely correct when he said that all the people could not be fooled all of the time.  But, even Honest Abe knew that all the people could be fooled some of the time, and that at least some of the people might be duped all the time.