Public Opinion

By Carroll J. Glynn; Susan Herbst et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter Nine
Public Opinion and
Policymaking

LAWRENCE R. JACOBS

Unless mass views have some place in the shaping of policy, all the talk about democracy is nonsense. As [Harold] Lasswell has said, the "open interplay of opinion and policy is the distinguishing mark of popular rule."

—V.O. Key Jr., Public Opinion and American Democracy

V. O. Key Jr. firmly emphasizes what we observed in the first chapter: When we talk about democracy we must talk about public opinion. 1 By definition, in a democracy (from the Greek word demos), the people are supposed to rule. This expectation pervades American history; it is an important symbolic hope—if not a realistic aspiration—from the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution to reminders by Abraham Lincoln and others who have emphasized government "by the people" as well as "for the people."

The influence of public opinion on government is a central normative question (concerning the way things should be) as well as an empirical question (concerning the way things are) about democracy and politics. How much influence the public should have is a philosophical question that requires, as we saw in Chapter 8, that we evaluate the basic competence of the mass public. One major challenge to any aspirations for democracy is the possibility that V. O. Key Jr. himself feared: "that democratic government only amounts to a hoax, a ritual whose performance serves only to delude the people and thereby to convert them into willing subjects of the powers that be." 2

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