We hear references to “public opinion” all the time but we rarely reflect on what it is, and why it’s important.
Political thinkers have struggled over the meaning of public opinion since antiquity. Plato was deeply distrustful of the public, while Aristotle believed “the many … may yet taken all together be better than the few.” To Macchiavelli, “public opinion” had no moral value, yet strategically it was crucial for political leaders to pay attention to it as a failure to do so could imperil one’s rule.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the political commentator and journalist Walter Lippmann argued that public opinion has little conceptual utility because most citizens have neither the time nor interest to truly understand issues in their complexity. The philosopher John Dewey disagreed, arguing that citizens are perfectly capable of understanding their world – nevertheless, their ability to do so is subjected to different forms of “organized manipulation” (i.e. advertising, PR, etc.).
All of these thinkers were writing about “public opinion” long before polling became a ubiquitous feature of the political and media landscapes.
Whether we are talking about environmental issues, foreign affairs, health-care reform or national security, actors on all sides commonly deploy “public opinion” as a weapon to advance their arguments, as if to proclaim that they speak on behalf of “the public” where others do not. Most agree upon the strategic benefits of such an approach, but has anyone considered the consequences?
Take the issue of climate change.
In 2008, Health Canada commissioned the polling firm Environics to survey Canadians about their understanding of climate change. The resultant report suggests that climate change will have a direct effect on the health of Canadians. Given that “most Canadians” believe climate change is taking place and that “a significant proportion” can see evidence of it in their own communities, the time for the agency to act is now.
Such findings are routinely challenged by others claiming to speak for the public. The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente argued recently that citizens are “cooling” to the notion of global warming and that politicians ought to carefully pay attention to public opinion in advance of meeting to discuss binding international agreements. Wente cites several polls that show, for example, how concern for the environment in Canada has fallen relative to other issues (e.g. crime, the economy). She then proceeds from the national to the international scale, arguing that citizens around the world have acquired weak appetites for action, especially for endorsing what she calls “Kyoto-style” international agreements.
The environmental community also uses “public opinion” for its side. Take for example Jim Hoggan, a well-known Canadian PR professional, environmentalist, and author. In March 2009, Hoggan argued that “over 90 per cent of Americans agree that the U.S. should act rapidly to combat global warming, including 34 per cent who feel the U.S. should make a large-scale effort even if it costs a lot of money.” The David Suzuki Foundation (on whose board of directors Hoggan serves as chair) reported in 2006 that Canadians were totally confused about the causes of climate change, attributing the problem to the hole in the ozone layer more than any other factor. A big part of the problem with public understanding about climate change, Hoggan asserts, is that citizens get unreliable information and no longer know whom they should trust. In his recent book, Hoggan reports survey data that shows that 82 per cent of people polled trust scientists, while 66 per cent trust environmental organizations and television weather reporters equally. By contrast, only 47 per cent trust the mainstream media. For Hoggan “the media—print or broadcast—have not succeeded in transmitting even the most rudimentary explanation of the actual cause of climate change.” Hoggan also notes that a whopping 81 per cent of people believe that PR experts deceive the public. Surely this can’t be good news for a PR man on a mission to change public perceptions about environmental issues.
What is one to do in the face of such competing claims about the state of public opinion? I suggest that the best thing we can do is ignore the polls altogether. Indeed, the fundamental problem with the debate about public opinion is that it’s a zero-sum game that only leads us down a path to ambivalence.
In a provocative critique, the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued, “public opinion does not exist.” By this he did not mean public opinion does not come to have objective qualities – rather, his instructive point was that public opinion is a social construction, and a dangerous one at that. Bourdieu’s chief concern was with how polls are reported and the fact that they often carry more weight than they should. This happens, he argues, not only because the media are incapable of dealing with complexity, but also because we do not reflect carefully enough on how “public opinion” is shaped and represented. In other words, his concern is not with the inherent worth of polls but with how they are used. For Bourdieu, “public opinion” is at best a projection of what the media and political elite think about. At worst, it is a rhetorical tool that organized groups (in politics, the economy, and civil society) wield in their respective efforts to exert power and control over public discourse and policy.
I do not believe that polls have absolutely no role to play in how we talk about urgent issues like climate change. Nor do I endorse a nihilistic argument that we ought to just tune out entirely and let the chips fall where they may. The problem is that “public opinion” has been invested with a scientific power that obscures its social and political context – it has been granted far more value and authority than is deserved.
As the sociologist Earl Babbie might have put it, the idea of “public opinion” is probably useful in the context of scientific research, but in the world of culture and politics it could only ever be a “figment of our imaginations.” He did not mean that such concepts are entirely useless, just that we need to remember that the important question is: what do we do with our concepts?
Rather than assenting to what “public opinion” data tell us citizens want our political leaders to do, I think we desperately need to generate new forms of public expression, to raise critical questions about climate change instead of simply responding to those questions posed by others. Until we do so, we are liable to be governed only by the polls, and by those who sponsor them.
** Note: this column also appears under a different title in The Mark News here