Constructing Public Opinion

Constructing Public Opinion: How Political Elites Do What They Like and Why We Seem to Go Along with It

Justin Lewis
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 240
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/lewi11766
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  • Book Info
    Constructing Public Opinion
    Book Description:

    Is polling a process that brings "science" into the study of society? Or are polls crude instruments that tell us little about the way people actually think? The role of public opinion polls in government and mass media has gained increasing importance with each new election or poll taken.

    Here Lewis presents a new look at an old tradition, the first study of opinion polls using an interdisciplinary approach combining cultural studies, sociology, political science, and mass communication. Rather than dismissing polls, he considers them to be a significant form of representation in contemporary culture; he explores how the media report on polls and, in turn, how publicized results influence the way people respond to polls. Lewis argues that the media tend to exclude the more progressive side of popular opinion from public debate. While the media's influence is limited, it works strategically to maintain the power of pro-corporate political elites.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-52906-8
    Subjects: Political Science, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VI)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  4. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. IX-XVI)

    Let me begin with a confession. As an academic, I have spent a great deal of time and energy exploring what people think and why. Although I have used quantitative surveys periodically during the past fifteen years, I have always found qualitative forms of research more illuminating. Opinion surveys, it seemed to me, were like the faces plastered on the side of advertising billboards—obvious and yet enigmatic, loud without depth. The expression on each face was a tiny moment in someone’s life, chosen by someone else as a form of demonstration or display. If the three-dimensional complexity of social...

  5. PART ONE: THE REPRESENTATION OF PUBLIC OPINION

    • CHAPTER 1 WHY NUMBERS MATTER AND WHY WE SHOULD BE SUSPICIOUS OF THEM
      (pp. 3-20)

      In Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, there are two competing kingdoms: Dictionopolis, the kingdom of words, and Digitopolis, the kingdom of numbers. The two kingdoms are divided by a philosophical squabble. Words, according to King Azaz of Dictionopolis, are indisputably more important than numbers. Numbers, argues the Mathemagician of Digitopolis, are measurably more significant than words. The dispute is, of course, irresolvable: a fact that only feeds the intransigence of the two positions.

      If this argument has not exactly been replicated in the weightier tomes of academic writing, there are moments when it is possible to catch a whiff of...

    • CHAPTER 2 WHO’S IN AND WHO’S OUT: PUBLIC OPINION POLLS AS A CULTURAL FORM
      (pp. 21-43)

      Writing about the history of public opinion, Carroll Glynn, Susan Herbst, Garrett O’Keefe, and Robert Shapiro reflect on the point that “Who is a member of the public is always shifting, depending upon historical context and the agendas of those measuring public opinion” (Glynn et al. 1999, 56). Their remark is made in the context of the prehistory of opinion polling, but it might equally be extended to contemporary scientific polling techniques. In this chapter I consider issues of inclusion and exclusion as a preface to the more general argument that we understand opinion polls as cultural rather than scientific...

    • CHAPTER 3 SUPPRESSING DISSENT: THE MEDIA REPRESENTATION OF PUBLIC OPINION
      (pp. 44-74)

      If opinion polls themselves are often limited, they nonetheless reveal ideological possibilities. Amid a swath of contradictions, we can identify strong or majority support for ideas spanning a wide range of ideological positions, from left to right. Particularly notable in the United States and elsewhere is the degree of support for a variety of political positions on the left—from gun control to social justice issues.Majorities consistently support increased government spending in traditionally “liberal” areas such as healthcare, education, environmental protection, and even—when the word “welfare” is not used—programs for assisting the poor. This has been well documented...

  6. PART TWO: THE FORMATION OF PUBLIC OPINION

    • CHAPTER 4 GETTING THE RIGHT RESPONSE? MEDIA INFLUENCE ON PUBLIC OPINION
      (pp. 77-97)

      I have, thus far, focused on an analysis of public opinion polls as a cultural form, on the politics of inclusion and exclusion involved in various representations of public opinion. The rest of the book retains this conception of public opinion but turns to the difficult question of the media’s role in influencing the answers people give in response to opinion questionnaires. Or, to put it in the language of cultural theory, while the first part of this book looked at the construction of public opinion as a discourse, the second will look at the construction of public opinion as...

    • CHAPTER 5 WHAT ARE OPINIONS AND WHERE DO THEY COME FROM?
      (pp. 98-117)

      In democratic countries, the notion of turning words into numbers is well ensconced in traditions of voting. The technology of opinion survey research has been strongly influenced by electoral polls: what counts in these measures are clearly formed attitudes that allow people to make certain choices—the arena generally referred to as “opinion.” This raises two questions: what, exactly is an opinion, and why do polls focus on opinions rather than on many other forms of public discourse?

      If there are obvious answers to these questions, they are often tautological. It might be said, for example, that we focus on...

    • CHAPTER 6 THE IDEOLOGY OF ASSUMPTIONS
      (pp. 118-137)

      Although this is not their conventional use, surveys that explore public knowledge not only test what one might call “civic competence” but also tap into elements of popular discourse. My interest in developing this line of research stems from the desire to explore those discourses that sustain or resist systems of power. In the remaining chapters, I will use survey responses that allow us a glimpse at what people know, believe, or assume about politics—as it is expressed in the discourse of the opinion poll—in an attempt to explore ways in which these discursive clusters are linked to...

    • CHAPTER 7 FLICKERING THE EMBERS OF CONSENT: PUBLIC OPINION AND THE MILITARY INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX
      (pp. 138-166)

      In the previous chapter, I argued that consent for U.S. foreign policy is predicated on a moral narrative that has little to do with the facts or objectives of that policy. In this chapter, I develop this point by asking how it is that the United States is able to maintain a cold-war military budget—at the expense of various other programs—when public opinion polls generally suggest support for quite different priorities. Part of the answer, I will argue, is that in the post–cold war era, a global military gains much of its credence from creating the conditions...

    • CHAPTER 8 SELLING UNREPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY
      (pp. 167-197)

      In what follows, I shall explore a pivotal political question: How is a procorporate, center-right hegemony sustained in the U.S. political system? If this question evokes the beginning of Louis Althusser’s famous essay on ideology—namely, how are capitalist relations of production reproduced ideologically (Althusser 1971)—my aim is not to provide a grand, functionalist model. The purpose of this endeavor is to look for connections rather than assume them, and thereby examine specific ideological mechanisms in media representations that support or are connected to forms of political power in contemporary society (e.g., Hall 1996; Laclau and Mouffe 1985).

      In...

  7. CONCLUSION: HEGEMONY AND ITS DISCONTENTS
    (pp. 198-204)

    There are occasions when a dominant culture reveals itself most clearly in moments of critical reflection. In an article on polling on the front page of its Sunday Review section (November 21, 1999), the New York Times made a series of well-rehearsed gestures. It began:

    President Clinton is such a devoted student of public opinion polls that his aides say he can recite, from memory, the American people’s double digit tastes on a wide variety of issues. Besides using survey data to help shape some of the most important decisions of his presidency, Mr. Clinton has also consulted polls before...

  8. APPENDIX
    (pp. 205-220)
  9. REFERENCES
    (pp. 221-234)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 235-250)