The Role of Public Opinion in Policy Argument: An Examination of Public Opinion Rhetoric in the Federal Budget Process

By Levasseur, David G. | Argumentation and Advocacy, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview
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The Role of Public Opinion in Policy Argument: An Examination of Public Opinion Rhetoric in the Federal Budget Process


Levasseur, David G., Argumentation and Advocacy


Public opinion holds great importance in democracies because a democracy, by its very definition, connotes a form of government that is responsive to the people (Williams & Edy, 1999). Alluding to such importance, Mill (1859/1975) observed the "ascendancy of public opinion" in modern democracies where "the idea of resisting the will of the public ... disappears more and more from the minds of practical politicians" (p. 69). Bryce (1898/1927) similarly argued that in the United States, public opinion "rifles as a pervading and impalpable power, like the ether which passes through all things" (p. 271). Contemporary political scientists have continued to find a strong, but often complex, link between public opinion and political decision making (Burstein, 2003). As Hanson and Marcus (1993) explain, in a democracy "everything depends on public opinion," and this is "the greatest strength--and also the chief weakness--of democratic politics" (p. 6).

Of course, to say that public opinion plays an important role in democratic governance begs the question of what exactly counts as "public opinion." The very meaning of "public opinion" has been contested over time (Herbst, 2001). Ancient Greeks, for example, associated public opinion with public rhetoric; in the Greek city-states the rhetoric of citizen assemblies constituted public opinion (Glynn, Herbst, O'Keefe, & Shapiro, 1999). Habermas (1962/1989) has illuminated a similarly strong connection between discourse and public opinion in eighteenth-century Europe. In this particular historical context, public opinion emerged in the bourgeois public sphere. Citizens created this vibrant public sphere as they came together in public spaces, such as coffee houses and salons, to discuss matters of public concern. In more recent times, public opinion has lost this vital association with discourse. The advent of George Gallup and modern public opinion polling techniques have transformed public opinion from a discursive process into an empirical product. Today, polling has become the dominant definition of public opinion (Glynn et al., 1999) as well as a "cultural obsession" (Hogan, 1997, p. 162).

In response to this proliferation of polls, scholars across disciplines have attempted to reassociate public opinion with discourse. In establishing this reassociation, rhetoricians have endeavored to reveal the rhetorical nature of publics. For example, McGee (1975) has attempted to show how "the people are more process than phenomenon (p. 242). In McGee's (1998) view, the term people actually serves as a "rhetorical device" that transforms individuals into a collectivity (p. 116). Similarly, Willard (1996) has argued that publics are "rhetorically constituted" (p. 228), Hauser (1999) has described publics as "emergences manifested through vernacular rhetoric" (p. 14), and Olson and Goodnight (1994) have shown how a public can be "brought into being by oppositional argument" (p. 272). Rhetoric not only creates and sustains publics, but also determines the very meaning of public opinion. In this view, which I will refer to as the rhetorical view, public opinion is seen as "epiphenomenal, as arising out of the process of social and communicative interaction" (Lipari, 1999, p. 86). This rhetorical construction of public opinion has vital implications for democratic governance (Herbst, 1998). For example, scholars have shown that rhetoric equating public opinion with poll results undermines the health of the public sphere and hence the overall health of a democracy (Goodnight, 1990; Hauser, 1999; Herbst, 1993; Hogan, 1997; Zarefsky, 1994).

The rhetorical construction of public opinion also has significant implications for public policy. The very nature of democratic governance necessitates an interrelationship between public opinion and public policy. The rhetorical view refuses to see public opinion as an entity (citizens' individual, aggregated beliefs) outside the state that policy makers can choose to acknowledge or ignore; instead, policy argument shapes the very meaning and relevance of public opinion in the policy-making process.

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The Role of Public Opinion in Policy Argument: An Examination of Public Opinion Rhetoric in the Federal Budget Process
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