Box 2.6 (continued)
of individuals who constitute the political public, and who formulate these opinions as working guides for their political representatives. This public opinion listens to many propagandas, most of them contradictory. It tries in the clash and conflict of argument and debate to separate the true from the false. It needs criticism for its very existence, and through criticism it is constantly being modified and molded. It acts and learns by action. Its truths are relative and contingent upon the results which its action achieves. Its chief faith is a faith in experiment. It believes in the value of every individual's contribution to political life, and in the right of ordinary human beings to have a voice in deciding their fate. Public opinion, in this sense, is the pulse of democracy.
SOURCE: George Gallup and Saul Forbes Rae, The Pulse of Democracy. The Public- Opinion Poll and How It Works ( New York: Simon and Schuster, 1940), quoted passage at p. 8.)
Since Gallup's earliest polls, a variety of technical improvements in the collection and analysis of survey data have made preelection polling much more accurate. Polling on issues--how people feel about health care reform, foreign policy, and other current affairs--is still extraordinarily difficult and complicated. Sampling and survey design will be addressed in Chapter 3, where you will be introduced to that method as well as to several other methods of assessing public opinion.
The story of public opinion is a long one, beginning with the ancient Greek philosophers who thought and wrote so much about popular sentiments and the meaning of those sentiments in a democracy. Some periods have seen more interest in public opinion than others due to the predominance of certain forms of government: In autocratic regimes, public opinion is important only in that it must be tamed or controlled, whereas in democratic states, the nature of public opinion (in theory) determines the direction of public policy. In every era, new democracies emerge--the most recent set appearing in Eastern Europe--and the same enduring questions about public opinion arise: Who composes the public? And how might we know its desires? As we saw in Chapter 1, these questions are difficult to answer. Yet no democratic state can evolve if its leaders and citizens fail to grapple with such monumental theoretical and practical issues.