Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

History of mass public opinion and the political process

The Captive Public: How Mass Opinion Promotes State Power, by Benjamin Ginsberg. New York: Basic Books, 272 pp. $18.95. Conventional political theory states that mass opinion is the ultimate check and balance in democracy; it reins in all political activity. What we fail to acknowledge, says Benjamin Ginsberg in his highly readable ``The Captive Public,'' is that mass opinion is easily manipulated by the political powers it is supposed to contain. This is called - it goes by any number of names - persuasion, propaganda, or public relations.

Ginsberg argues that mass opinion poses a dilemma. By using polls, referenda, and most important, elections, governments have become more responsive to the public; the public has benefitted from this. At the same time, gathering opinion has helped Western governments avoid uprisings and riots, and lets the state ``domesticate mass belief, regulate the content of popular opinion, delimit the impact and harness the power of mass opinion for their own purposes.''

About these ads

How have governments done this? By formalizing the opinion process. There is an inculcation of formalized opinion in Western democracies, says Ginsberg. In the United States, it starts early on, in school, where students participate in regular elections for everything from student council members to the basketball team captain. It is capped by biennial public service announcements to ``get out and vote.'' Polls, too, are conducted and reported endlessly. Thus, we have gone from ``spontaneous assertion to routine expression.''

This formalization of opinion has broken what Ginsberg calls the ``inverse power law.'' Historically, governments were only interested in mass opinion when the state was weak and powerless to coerce, tax, or conscript soldiers. To survive, the state's elite had to listen to the masses or be vulnerable to ``spontaneous assertions'' - for example, riots. Strong governments, with sufficient coercive powers, had little need to listen to the masses, since they could both get what they needed and quell uprisings at will. Hence, the expression of mass opinion has a quieting effect; it lowers the political flash point and avoids conflicts; and any government, weak or strong, can do as it pleases - more or less - by allowing a vent for mass opinion.

The mechanics of mass opinion have been subject to historical events. Enfranchisement is linked to the needs of the state. Throughout Europe, for example, the voter base increased from elites to include merchants and the masses as weak governments needed to raise taxes or conscripts for war. Reliance on polling resulted, mainly, from losing touch with the people directly. The progressive movement in the US led to the end of patronage and the demise of party machines, and, ultimately, close contact with the rank and file was broken. Polling, Ginsberg says, has been a boon to conservative elites who never had close contact with the masses.

But how does all this lead to control by the state? To manipulation of the masses?

Polls are created by pollsters. They address subjects that pollsters and their clients want to address, not necessarily subjects important to the public. More important, polls require little effort from the public; for many, giving an opinion is enough of a political act.

Elections, too, require passive effort from the public. Ginsberg estimates that the US spends $1 billion annually to maintain and staff voting areas and keep restrictions and paperwork to a minimum, making it extremely easy for people to vote. But allowing people to vote does not necessarily mean people decide. Elections can be adjusted in many ways: specifying a majority or plurality victory; using proportional representation; limiting the choice of candidates; instituting formal registration; and, ultimately, gerrymandering voting districts. For example, requiring voters to register in person six months prior to elections has had a strong effect on keeping the poor and less-educated off the register. Those who control elections and polling allow the public to perform - what is to the controlling elites - a politically safe action.

One consequence of the ``technology of opinion management'' has been significant: Polls, media spots, direct mail, etc., are very expensive. (Campaign costs in the US for the 1980 elections exceeded $200 million.) Such capital-intensive methods give an advantage to conservative elites who have greater financial resources. Ginsberg further claims that the shift to the right since 1980 is not a classical voter realignment but is due to the success of opinion management.

About these ads

This is a well-written and well-argued book. Spiced throughout with examples from Western Europe and the US, from the 17th to the 20th century, it is an enjoyable political history. One problem is that Ginsberg's data are not complete and, he admits, not conclusive. Though his ideas may not translate to all Western democracies, he does present a convincing case for post-World War II America.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.