The American Journal of Sociology/Volume 01/Number 2/The Guidance of Public Opinion

THE GUIDANCE OF PUBLIC OPINION.

The fact that there is a widespread belief that the ruling power in public affairs, as well as in social life, is public opinion, makes it desirable that the nature of public opinion itself—how it is constituted, who forms it, the way in which its influence is manifested, the ways in which it may be guided—be carefully studied. Perhaps in no other country in the world is so much emphasis laid upon public opinion as in the United States—not even in Switzerland. There, though in many of the cantons the people themselves directly make their own laws in popular meeting, or by general vote, they still are guided in great part by the executive or by the legislative assembly, that drafts bills and presents them to the people for their approval. It is the assumption there that the body which drafts the laws, as the servant of the people, is acting in the people's interests, and the people are strongly inclined to accept its advice. Ordinarily the same men serve year after year in the legislature; and the executive officers frequently remain the same almost throughout a generation. These men largely guide, and the people follow. It is expected that minority parties will be represented on executive boards, and the defeat of a minister's plans is no reason for his resignation, as in England and France.

In the United States, on the other hand, it has not been customary for the people to trust their representatives and officials so completely; and the officials on their part increase this distrust by encouraging the people to believe in their own wisdom. It is practically always assumed here in a public discussion that whenever the people express themselves on any question they are right. The people cannot make a mistake.

Another theory of like import, but perhaps more nearly true, is that whenever the people have clearly expressed their opinion on any subject, their decision for the time being must be right so far as political policy is concerned, because it is best that the people do as they will, even though the result of their action may be a temporary misfortune, inasmuch as the highest object that can be attained is the training of the people, and the people can learn only by experience. One may, however, question whether it is not ultimately going to be possible for the people to be so well trained that they may profit by the experience of others, and thus save much suffering for themselves.

But what do we mean by public opinion? How is it constituted? Is it a judgment clearly formed after careful study?

At present the question that is most prominent before the country is that of free coinage of silver. Almost every person that we meet upon the street is ready to express an opinion regarding this question. How has this opinion been formed? It is certainly true that very, very few have thought carefully upon the question, or have studied it fairly on both sides. There are wide differences of opinion, and there are doubtless good reasons for these differences. They arise chiefly, perhaps, because of different local circumstances affecting local industrial conditions, or the conditions of influential classes. Many, especially in the southern and western states, feeling the pressure of the industrial depression through which we have just passed, finding themselves deeply in debt and finding it difficult to pay their debts, and having been told the undeniable fact that money has appreciated in value since their debts were formed (i. e., a dollar will buy more goods now than then), feel a sense of wrong and injury. It is simple and natural for them to believe, whether it is true or not, that if money has appreciated in value it costs them a greater effort to pay a debt than would have been needed under a system of free coinage of silver, and that consequently they have been wronged. Almost every person is likely to feel a sense of injury under the pressure of an unpleasant burden. Now this opinion is not one clearly reasoned out. It is made up mostly of sentiment, based upon a somewhat erroneous knowledge of some few facts in the situation. Many of these people, as well as many of their opponents, have gained their ideas mostly from the newspapers, or from chance talks here and there with men whom they believe, in some instances, to be better informed than themselves, but who often have used only the same sources of information. Conviction deepens simply from the repetition of the thought.

Then again, we all of us doubtless have our opinions formed from former prejudices, we ourselves unconsciously selecting the facts and statements that fit into these former prejudices, and thus tend to confirm us in our own beliefs. We approve the opinions of the editor of our party organ much more readily than those of his opponent, though the question be an entirely new one. Not a few, probably, of the less well-informed citizens of the community, blindly follow what their party newspaper says, and these perhaps whose opinions are formed almost wholly at second-hand are the ones that hold their opinions most tenaciously and are most positive in the promulgation of them. It is quite possible that the number of voters who have been Protectionists because they were formerly Republicans is greater than the number of voters who have become Republicans because they were Protectionists.

It is probably not too much to say that not 25 per cent, of our adult voting population have deliberately made up an opinion on a public question after anything like a reasonably full and fair study of the facts in the case. Public opinion, then, seems to be a mixture of sense and nonsense, of sentiment, of prejudice, of more or less clearly defined feelings coming from influences of various kinds that have been brought to bear upon the citizens, these influences perhaps being mostly those of sentiment rather than those acting upon the judgment.

If we ask who it is that first gives expression to the leading facts or views that tend to shape public opinion, we find the reply not much more definite or satisfactory. The originators of opinion are different ones on different questions, and perhaps in almost no case can we say that the opinion is one clearly taken from certain individuals. The opinion itself grows in part by reflex action.

On matters of religion, for example, it has been believed that preachers and theologians have formulated the doctrines of theology; and that, as time goes on and theological doctrines change, the changes have been made mostly by the religious teachers as a result of careful investigation. But it is probable that the feelings of the people, as determined in good part by consideration on subjects of politics, of morals, of business, etc., have so modified the opinions expressed by the preachers themselves, and have so reacted upon the feelings of the theological leaders, that our present dogmas, as believed by the public, are rather the result of conflicts of pew versus pulpit than of the direct action of the pulpit over the pew. Most of us have seen and felt the change in the religious opinions of certain individuals, coming largely from feelings regarding personal friends or relatives. We may note also how powerful was the effect of the protestant revolution of the sixteenth century in moulding political beliefs and opinions.

Of course this process of shaping public opinion differs materially in different countries. In certain countries of Europe, Germany for example, a comparatively few persons shape the thought of the people on many political questions. In that country the opinion of the emperor is almost directly accepted as conclusive in many of the court circles. Earlier, Prince Bismarck's views had a like influence. Very intelligent men when questioned regarding public matters were ready to reply: "I do not know. If it is best, Bismarck will attend to it." Among the working classes the opinions of the socialistic leaders are often taken as authoritative and followed directly; and so on through the different political parties, a comparatively few leaders not merely suggest the beginning of public opinion, as in this country in some cases, but they themselves by giving direct expression to their views almost absolutely control it. On general questions of economic policy the professors in the universities, who are supposed to be special authorities on those questions, have far more influence than do men in similar positions in this country. The important sanitary reforms in the city of Berlin were instituted and carried through by Professor Virchow, then a member not merely of the city council but also of the state and national legislature; Professor Georg Meyer of Heidelburg has held the corresponding positions in Baden, and many other similar cases may be found. On the other hand, there can be little doubt that Mr. William L. Wilson's professional training and practice hurt his influence in Congress with some; and only lately a member of the city council of Philadelphia, who wished that he might hear some lectures on finance, qualified the wish by the statement that the lecturer ought not to be a university professor.

In England party leaders through their speeches in Parliament and before their constituents in great part determine what the people shall think on important questions of the day, though there, doubtless more than in Germany, the opinion of the leaders is modified by what they think the people are likely to wish for. Especially is this tendency evident in late years on questions of policy where the labor vote is likely to be felt in parliamentary action. The influence of a dominant personality like that of Gladstone or Bismarck is plainly seen by the course of events since the retirement of those leaders.

In the United States, on the other hand, so far as political matters are concerned, we find that our politicians as a rule rather follow than lead public opinion. Our leaders apparently often wait and find it hard to determine which side of prominent questions they shall take until they are able to gauge which way the public is likely to act. Indeed at all times the politicians say that they deem it their duty to follow public opinion, and that their votes in Congress shall be guided by the wishes of their constituents. For the last two or three months it has been almost impossible to find out definitely and clearly the opinions of important political leaders on the silver question, and the case is by no means an isolated one. We have here no few leaders who are generally followed. Public opinion seems to be rather, as intimated before, something that grows by a process of accretion.

And yet there are exceptions, and the positively expressed opinion of a man in prominent position doubtless counts. Nobody questions that the positive statements of President Cleveland regarding money, regarding the tariff, have had great influence. Nobody questions that the positive statements of McKinley on the tariff have had great influence; and doubtless our political leaders might well increase their influence if they were bold enough to speak, or if circumstances forced them to speak more positively.

Many of our great newspapers have a personal following of readers whose views are shaped by the opinions expressed in the editorial columns; but probably since Horace Greeley's day there has been no paper that has exerted the direct influence over its readers that do the great papers of England and Germany.

One chief reason, perhaps, of the comparatively small influence of our press is that the people know the fact that the papers are run from motives of personal profits, and that the policy of the paper is largely determined by the amount to which its opinions will affect its sales and advertising. Often editors with positive opinions are forbidden by the proprietors to express them, because such expression might affect the sales of the paper; and still more often it is true that a paper is compelled to modify its statements for fear that the influence on public opinion might affect unfavorably some outside business in which the proprietor of the paper is engaged. Philadelphia editors have called attention to the fact that Philadelphia papers did not join in the attack on Postmaster General Wanamaker. Wanamaker is a good advertiser. It is stated on trustworthy authority that the subscription list of a well-known republican weekly newspaper dropped almost immediately from 12,000 to 8,000 when in 1876 that paper intimated that possibly Tilden was rightfully elected. Another prominent partisan daily lost a profit currently reported at $100,000 a year upon becoming independent in politics. With so shifting a constituency, one can hardly expect an editor to make very bold attempts to guide public opinion. The facts are useful to show the part played by prejudice and habit. And yet the editor may at least partly justify, on moral grounds, his position for trying to hold his constituency. One cannot guide the opinions of people who will not listen to him, and possibly more good can be accomplished in the long run, by moving slowly and carrying the public gradually than by shocking them by new and unsuspected and unwelcome views.

Besides the ways mentioned we have direct efforts made to shape public opinion by certain classes and societies organized for especially that purpose, as, for example, the New York Reform Club, the National Tariff League, the lately formed municipal leagues in our great cities, etc.; and our schools, churches and public institutions of various kinds each plays an important part in certain lines of thought.

These circumstances—that our people with all their prejudices are so ready to take up ideas here and there; that they are omniverous newspaper readers; that they have so active minds with, on the whole, it must be said, so little exact information, and probably it is not too much to say also with so little soundness of judgment in determining what their views on public matters shall be—give an unusual chance for guiding public opinion in the right way, if any one will take the trouble deliberately to set about the work. One may be fairly sure that the leaders of our political parties are willing to take up any issue that is likely to win when placed before the people, whether that issue be in accordance with the previous line of policy of the party or not. But it is also true that no new idea is likely to be accepted by either the party or the people without effort to inculcate it. Our people are very conservative in their nature; they believe in the established order of things, and political abuses as a rule grow gradually out of well established institutions. The people are not likely to know these abuses and they go on increasing without any protest, until some few individuals seeing the extent of the abuses start a crusade against them. The duty, in consequence, lies not merely on our politicians, but it lies on all intelligent, moral men who have the welfare of the country at heart, to rouse, guide, shape public opinion. What right has one to sit idly by and let the state drift on, always in the direction that leads toward disaster? Unless he is watched the average office-holder is in a position so exposed to temptation that he will ultimately yield.

What has been said regarding the nature of public opinion and the way in which it is formed, suggests in itself the best methods of guiding it.

Few people who have not made the effort have any clear conception as to the amount of influence, especially in local matters, that one individual may exert by a little judicious talk with a few men of influence in different classes in society. I have more than once seen one man within two days practically change, or formulate, one might better say, the opinion of a large part of a community by a dozen conversations with as many different men, each representing some special social or business class.

It is of course a commonplace that along many lines that are chiefly moral, public opinion is shaped by the influence of our churches, by public lectures, university extension lectures, meetings called especially for purposes of agitation; and there can be little doubt that all of these measures do at times change legislation through the power that they exert over public opinion. An instance of a law originated and passed through the influence of a university extension lecture was given a year or two ago. But these methods are so well understood that it is not worth while to dwell upon them. Let us note particularly two chief methods that are often spoken of but that are often misjudged and misused.

If one is going to effect any material change in the real nature of government or in general public opinion on fundamental questions involving material change in habit one must begin with the rising generation. There is a belief on the part of many that it is the duty of schools and colleges directly to shape public opinion on important questions of the day. It is thought that they must take up the specific topics under public discussion and teach right views—in practice, of course, the teacher's own views. Not many years since the New York Nation expressed regret that so many of our younger political economists were securing their training in Germany, because, as it said, the tendency of the teaching in the German universities on the question of the tariff was opposed to free trade. The paper feared that these young men, returning and taking positions in our universities in this country, would corrupt the youth by teaching specifically the doctrine of protection instead of that of free trade, which the paper believed ought to be taught. Some of our universities have already felt themselves compelled by the politicians to have lectures given, partisan in their nature, upon both sides of such questions as the tariff and money.

There can be little doubt that this belief on the part of the public not merely that the universities do teach specific doctrines but that they ought to teach specific doctrines and thus influence public opinion, has had great effect, and that in many of our universities one-sided political doctrines are taught, and the attempt is made to guide public opinion thereby. We know that at the present day we have throughout the country also a league of Republican Clubs in the universities, whose purpose it is so to commit the young men to the doctrines of the Republican party of the day that they will not only have influence in carrying current elections but will also be committed to the party machine for the future. It is rather the duty of young people not yet voters to hold their opinions on these great questions in abeyance till they have had time to work them out, or, if they cannot do that, they ought at least to gather all the information they can before their voting age is reached. This restraint of course may be carried too far. One must not be like Hamlet, unable to decide when the emergency arises.

Persons who have any far-sighted interest, however, in the political future of our country can but deprecate such teaching of political doctrine in our colleges. The public opinion that anv democratic country most needs is not an opinion shaped by positive teaching on the part of the few and blindly followed by the many, but is an opinion deliberately formed by the citizens on careful investigation of the subjects. Our schools and colleges ought not to attempt to teach specific doctrines of political policy. The purpose rather should be so to foster and cultivate thorough habits of investigation and independent judicial habits of mind in the discussion of political matters, that whatever question arises young men who have come from the universities will feel in conscience bound not to accept the theories and opinions of others, but carefully to investigate for themselves. The issue of today will be dead when our younger students become voters. They need power and judicial capacity, not specific opinions. What matters it, in the long run, so far as the existence of the country is concerned, whether we have a free trade policy or a protective policy? It is but a matter of dollars and cents; it is but a matter, more or less, of the distribution of wealth in the country. But the question whether our citizens are to be thoughtful and unprejudiced in their opinions, affects vitally the form and spirit of our government. There can be no question that many of the professors in our universities are themselves chiefly responsible for the wrong attitude of the public on this question of the influence of universities upon public opinion. They have themselves, by their bigoted habit of mind and their desire to indoctrinate the youths with what they believe to be correct opinions, encouraged the public belief that the universities were places for the propagation of specific doctrines. Public questions ought to be discussed freely, of course; but students ought to be trained to think for themselves, not to accept ready made the opinions of their professors.

The second great organ as well as guide of public opinion is the press. I have already intimated that our press is not independent; that it is not an influence that always tends toward good in the shaping of public opinion. Almost without exception, as has been said, our editors feel called upon to present questions of public interest from a partisan standpoint, giving facts and arguments on one side, suppressing facts and arguments on the other, instead of furnishing material on both sides by which the people will be encouraged to think out independently the issue of the day. Perhaps no other one influence is so much needed in our political life today as is a press that is truly independent—not one that, cutting loose from the two or three leading parties of the day, is equally under the control of some commercial class in the community, and is simply exploiting both parties for the benefit of that one class.

It is perhaps, however, too much to expect from any newspaper that must be run more or less from motives of commercial profit to take a thoroughly judicial attitude on all questions, whatever they may be, that arise. We shall never have a paper thoroughly independent in stating its views on public questions until we have a paper entirely independent of its circulation and advertising. Probably no greater service could be done to the country by any wealthy man or group of men than the liberal endowment of a paper with a sum so large that it would be a matter of indifference whether people subscribed or not. A paper with such an endowment, in the hands of trustees of integrity, whose aim it should be to give the news fairly and fully, to give the basis for judgment on all political questions, to give carefully written, moderate opinions on both sides, might be more of an educating influence in the community, and might have a stronger tendency toward elevating the political tone of our country than a dozen new universities. Something is now done in that direction by Public Opinion; but that gives simply a culling from the existing papers—and that by no means suffices.

The difficulty, of course, of securing a thoroughly intelligent, unbiassed corps of editorial writers cannot be overestimated; but a sufficient sum given for so worthy a purpose might beyond question make a vast improvement, at any rate, upon present conditions, and one might well believe that the details could be reasonably well arranged. A paper of the kind suggested, if independent of circulation, would easily secure, nevertheless, a very large constituency, and would exert an influence more than proportionate to its circulation.

We see then that in fact at the present day our public opinion is not thought, but that it is largely made up of prejudice, of sentiment, and is easily led in almost any direction regarding matters on which one has not already committed himself by joining a party or by previous habit. We have seen still further that it is perhaps one of the greatest misfortunes of our time and country that public opinion is so little a matter of judgment based on ripe consideration; and the present condition of affairs makes it evident that it is the duty of thoughtful men first to take the lead consciously and conscientiously on important questions of the day, as best they can; to use their influence in shaping public opinion, not by concealment of the facts but by open statement of the facts and fair argument so far as possible; and, secondly, to use what influence they can exert to promote among the people, by the means suggested, as well as by all other means, methods of training that will lead our people more and more consciously to wish to free themselves from prejudice and to shape their lives in public matters more and more by judgment.

While the people cannot soon be ready to vote intelligently on complicated questions, they can so vote on simple fundamental questions, if they will; and they can, far better than they now do, put men in power who will faithfully work for the public good.

Cornell University.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925.


The author died in 1929, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.