In this seminal essay, Robert Nisbet explains how our contemporary obsession with popular opinion constitutes a deadly distortion of the logic of genuine republican government.
Though good government rests on the consent of the governed, and public policy ought to be based on a refinement of public views, this does not mean that rulers ought to mandate whatever seems “popular” at the moment.
The reasons for distrusting “popular opinion” are clearly articulated in The Federalist Papers. Since the purpose of government is to secure justice (#51), and justice is ascertained by right reason (#10), the foundation of good government is deliberation, or sound reasoning. By contrast, the essence of tyranny is the abuse of reason to secure the objects of unregulated passion (#48).
Republican government does not fall into the trap of assuming that what people desire must be good, recognizing instead that “it is the reason, alone, of the public, that ought to control and regulate the government,” whereas their “passions ought to be controlled and regulated by the government” (#49).
Popularity is the cleverest of all disguises despotism can wear. Still, we might kid ourselves, even if the people can be carried away by passions, truly tyrannical policies will seldom achieve lasting popularity. How then could a genuinely popular government get away with being seriously oppressive?
Here is where Nisbet shines, by distinguishing between genuine public opinion, and desultory popular opinion.
Public opinion represents what people actually think about things they actually understand. It is the result of genuine deliberation, which takes place in the institutions of civil society: in families, townhalls, churches, active associations, serious schools, and substantive media.
Public opinion is characterized by awareness of the complexity of human affairs, and the willingness of those who truly want something to pay for it, with money, sweat, or other necessary sacrifices.
Popular opinion, on the other hand, is based on nothing more than superficial streams of “information” and our momentary or conditioned response to them.
An honest response to a survey about a policy I’ve barely heard of would be “no opinion.” Not wanting to admit ignorance, however, I base my reply on cues in the wording of the question, or (better yet) the heavy spin with which mainstream and social media have “reported” the issue.
The fact is that popular opinion does not constitute opinion in any meaningful sense. It fails to measure our considered thoughts on a subject, nor does it require us to take responsibility for our views. Instead, it dresses up our ignorance and apathy to make them appear serious and significant.
Last but not least, popular opinion is uniquely susceptible to manipulation by those who control the streams of information and emotional stimuli with which modern citizens are inundated. In effect, popular opinion is manufactured by those who claim to obey it, allowing them to make us want what they want us to want, before giving us what we wrongly think we want.
This helps to explain why, in the name of popular opinion, so many sound views and practices, firmly rooted in genuine public opinion and the deliberation it entails, are currently being “cancelled” from our culture.
What price are we prepared to pay to reassert the sovereignty of public opinion over popular opinion and the propaganda it slavishly serves?
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