The Man in the Street: The Impact of American Public Opinion on Foreign Policy

By Thomas A. Bailey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
THE SOVEREIGN CITIZEN

"Public opinion in a democracy wields the scepter."

-- CHARLES EVANS HUGHES


1

NERO murdered his mother and his divorced wife and did many other diabolical deeds with complete impunity, but he was forced to give up his ambition to become an actor when the Roman populace reacted unfavorably to his efforts. The Pharisees attempted to lay unfriendly hands on the Apostles, but they were compelled to desist when an angry murmur rose from the multitude. These are but two early examples, and by no means the earliest ones, of the sovereign power of an aroused public.

The British economist John Stuart Mill, writing in 1859 on liberty, concluded: "In politics it is almost a triviality to say that public opinion now rules the world." A year earlier Abraham Lincoln, debating with Senator Douglas on the issue of limiting slavery, declared: "With public sentiment on its side, everything succeeds; with public sentiment against it, nothing succeeds." And a dozen years later Charles Dudley Warner, perhaps with tongue in cheek, opined: "Public opinion is stronger than the Legislature, and nearly as strong as the Ten Commandments." Actually, it is often stronger than the Ten Commandments.

All governments, whatever their nature, rest on the foundation stone of public opinion. The Scottish philosopher David Hume observed as long ago as 1741: "As force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion." The yellowing scroll of history reveals few if any instances when a ruler flagrantly and persistently defied the will of his subjects without courting disaster. Even dictators are keenly aware of their servitude to public opinion, and this explains why they are at such pains to propagandize their people into supporting arbitrary rule. Hitler had to deceive the German nation through Dr. Goebbels' lie factory, and Mussolini and Stalin and other dictators of recent vintage had to employ similar chicanery. Censorship and propaganda are the unconscious compliments that despots pay to the potency of public opinion.

All this seems like an attempt to prove the obvious, but the truth is that millions of people are still unconvinced. Public opinion is so apathetic and preoccupied, so changeful and impulsive, so ill-informed and misinformed, that critics are apt to sneer at its power. Yet a giant who is fickle and ignorant still has a giant's strength, and may use it with frightful effect.

Another source of skepticism is that public opinion is awkward to describe, elusive to define, difficult to measure, and impossible to see, even though it may be felt. James Russell Lowell once remarked that popular

-1-

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