Is It Important to Know Public Opinion?

Is it important in a democratic nation to find out how the public feels about popular issues? If so, should the public’s viewpoints be found out somehow when important issues actually face the country? Or are the people too badly informed or indifferent to have dependable opinions?

Public opinion is, in fact, recognized as an important force in statecraft. In countries ruled by dictatorships every effort is made to keep the public in line by allowing only one point of view to be heard. No free play of public opinion is permitted.

What’s public opinion to a democracy?

In a democracy like ours it is an accepted idea that the public which is called upon to make important decisions at the ballot box must be kept informed of popular issues. It is also an important principle of our governmental system that public policies are decided upon by the people. Popular control over lawmaking bodies, over executives in the government, and over domestic and foreign policy is a basic idea in our political society. The people are the source of power. Hence their opinions should mold the action of government.

The successful life of our government operating under these principles justifies our faith in the people’s good judgment. We believe that once the public’s views on public issues are known and acted upon, our government will be improved rather than damaged. It is often said that only those who distrust the public and the soundness of its judgment need fear an expression of its views.

Do elections tell enough?

Can we get enough information to keep us and our representatives informed of the trend of public opinion from elections held at regular intervals? Are our public problems so simple that they can be solved merely by a show of hands? That question was raised in the last century by a close student of American government, James Bryce, British ambassador to the United States. In his American Commonwealth, Bryce made the following comment:

“The obvious weakness of government by opinion is the difficulty of ascertaining it. ... The one positive test applicable is that of an election, and an election can at best do no more than test the division of opinion between two or three great parties. ... An American statesman is in no danger of consciously running counter to public opinion, but how is he to discover whether any particular opinion is making or losing way, how is he to gauge the voting strength its advocates can put forth, or the moral authority which its advocates exert? Elections cannot be further multiplied, for they are too numerous already.”

Bryce wrote on this subject before the modern polls had been developed. Nevertheless, he looked forward to the time when in a democracy the viewpoint of the people could “become ascertainable at all times.” Regular reports on the people’s views would stimulate the discussion of public affairs. They would assist, therefore, in the development of public opinion, and according to Bryce,

“It is the existence of such a public opinion as this, the practice of freely and constantly reading, talking, and judging public political rights, that gives to popular government that educated, and stimulative power which is so frequently claimed as its highest merit.”

Do polls stimulate discussion?

Can the polls contribute, then, to this stimulating discussion of public affairs by focusing attention on current issues? The Gallup Poll, for example, in the summer of 1943 inquired into public viewpoints on social security legislation. Asked whether the Social Security program should be changed to include farmers, domestic servants, government employees, and professional persons, the persons interviewed answered

Yes                              64%

No                                19%

Undecided                    17%

Similarly, the polls have tried to find out how much information people have on public affairs. Early in 1945 the Gallup Poll called attention to the lack of knowledge among American voters on the machinery of government. The results showed up a gap in the public’s knowledge of government which might be filled by the information agencies that reach the people of the country. Only 38 percent of the persons interviewed throughout the country knew the length of a representative’s elected term of office in Congress and only 30 percent knew how much a Congressman is paid.

On the other hand, the Fortune survey in a poll conducted in 1944 tried to find out what people thought were the big public issues at that time. A cross section of the population was asked, “Which two or three of these things do you think are the most important to America?” The choices and the results were

What should be done about preventing unemployment after the war          68.2%

The part the U. S. should play in world affairs after the war                     59.3%

Peace terms to be given Germany                                                          38.5%

Future social security provisions                                                             32.2%

Don’t know                                                                                           4.2%

If this poll accurately reflected the public’s views, could it have stimulated further discussion of these topics and informed government officials of the trend of popular opinion? Is this kind of information useful to the public?