constructing public opinion

Ever since I got into the heart of my cynicism book, I realized that I was fascinated by the history of “public opinion,” because it seemed to embody a lot of the historical ambiguities of the Enlightenment and its legacies.  Did it represent a principle of popular participation in the deliberations of the state, or the cynical manipulation of the populace by elites?  Who measured it, who influenced it, who contested it?  The answers to these questions depend a lot on how concretely we imagine the various, competing representations of public opinion: polls and election results nowadays, but perhaps more aptly petitions and riots, if we think about some of its 18th century expressions.  The continual standoff in the 1760s and ’70s and between the Wilkites and the House of Commons demonstrate the competition among various representatives of “the public” and its “opinions” in our period.

I’m now returning to a book I read earlier but did not use, Justin Lewis’s Constructing Public Opinion: How Political Elites Do What They Like and Why We Seem to go Along with It (Columbia UP, 2001), and enjoying it a great deal.  It’s actually appropriate to my earlier discussions of “everything studies,” because it shows the benefits of the open-ended yet disciplinarily based approach I’ve been thinking about. 

The most valuable thing about this is Lewis’s analysis of the processes and interests that help to construct and circulate public opinion in the present, though much of this argument has become familiar to anyone who has followed this kind of media-critique in the blogosphere since the beginning of the Iraq invasion (something that Lewis himself has written about as well, apparently). 

But I was also interested in the fact that Lewis, as someone working from a cultural studies perspective, was able to point out the constructedness of those polls and newscasts, and to point to conventional political scientists who believe in the scientific status and transparency of their own methods, without simply dismissing those representations entirely  in the manner of the Frankfurt School.  Polls and newscasts, once they are robbed of their pretensions to comprehensiveness, serve perfectly well as partial constructions that reveal some kind of displaced, distorted relation to the reality they purport to reveal.  The key is recognizing that the forms of displacement and mediation that bring us “news,” for example, are often more powerfully affected by an interest-laden conventional wisdom than by the more complex realities “on the ground.”

It seems to me that if the humanities and humanities research have anything to offer in an academic environment dominated by science and scientific research, it’s insights like these about the constructedness and discursivity (i.e., the historicity and contingency, but also the interest-laden, institutionally-driven nature) of social processes that otherwise move forward without comment.  But these are not the kinds of insights that are welcomed while public opinion is being “formed” or while large-scale, consequential political decisions are being made.


UPDATE:  Wow, this is the most depressing book I’ve read in a long time, because it was written before the Iraq invasion, and so a lot of its evidence comes from the Panama and Gulf War I invasions, which seem to have functioned as the templates for Bush II’s forays into “nation-building.” (demonized “dictators, check; moral discourse selectively applied to enemies of US “democracy”, check; journalists’ and think tanks’ complicity in the selective transmission of historical context, check) .  Essentially, anyone familiar with this book’s argument in 2001 could have predicted the systematic manner in which this war was rationalized and then sustained, though perhaps not how badly it was to be executed.  Lewis must be appalled to see how prescient his argument was at the time.

 I’m not going to flog this topic here, where I don’t think I’ll get a lot of disagreement, and it may not even be on point for an 18c blog, but it still seems important to point out that the Iraq war and its reality-resistant coverage in the press serve as perhaps the best test case for Lewis’s claims that there are structural factors that skew the collection and reporting of “public opinion,” that entrenched elite “opinion” clearly trumps “public opinion” when it diverges from its pet interests, and that the image of an “uninformed” or passive “public” whose opinions need to be shaped serves the interests of these elites.   

For anyone interested in the ongoing business of “manufacturing consent,” see here or here.


2 responses to “constructing public opinion

  1. This is an interesting point in the context of Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Habermas, as a lot of people have said, idealizes the eighteenth-century public sphere as a neutral, unitary, single space for rational argument. But if it was never really neutral, and if it was subject to the constant incursions of the unwanted menu peuple (as in the case of Wilkes or Gordon), then can we really speak of a transformation? I don’t know; what do you think?

  2. Hi, Greg,

    Yeah, it is hard to see what’s left of Habermas once you take away this macronarrative of emergence and decline, and this is why many historians, I’ve discovered, feel that JH is at this point empirically discredited.

    And yet the public sphere functions very powerfully as a trope or metaphor in any number of fields, despite the attempts to kill it.

    Lewis doesn’t say much about JH, but he does have interesting things to say about the Frankfurts, which suggest to me a more productive use than the dismissals I saw 10 years ago in the work of people like Andrew Ross (remember him?). So JH might benefit from revisiting his roots in the Frankfurt school, and seeing what can be jettisoned at this point in a similar manner.