A Theory of Public Opinion

By Francis Graham Wilson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 11
The Situation of the Common Man

I

In intellectual history there is a recurring issue of profound interest to a democracy: when does the common man, the an at the margin of learning, have a right to decide a public question? What issues may be adjudicated by such a man? When has the expert, the man in the house or the office, exceeded his power in preventing a decision by a majority of such people? Much humor, as well as learned philosophical judgment, has been lavished here. At one extreme we recall Joe Miller's eighteenth- century jests which, on occasion, humiliated the Oxford clerk to the advantage of the countryman. And at the other extreme, it may be remembered that Plato in the Republic penned one of the most stinging denunciations of the democratic common man that has ever been written. It has been popular to praise common sense at the expense of the abstract knowledge possessed by aristocrats. But in most instances the issue of the right of common ideas to oppose expert opinion has been discussed within the elites, and at the level of sophisticated dialectic. Before the appropriation committees of Congress civil servants expert in budget matters have been locked in combat with inquisitive Congressmen, and throughout society one group of professionals has contended with another for the right to set its sign and seal on policy. Around election time there is suddenly a renewed flurry

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