HGov: Public Opinion


Public opinion can be defined as those opinions held by ordinary citizens that they openly express. There are three ways that public opinion is shaped. First, public opinion is shaped by special interest groups. Public opinion is less about what individuals think and more about what the special interest groups they belong to advocate. Second, public opinion is shaped by journalists, politicians, and other opinion makers. Most of us don’t have time to become informed on every issue. Therefore, we look to influential opinion makers, such as journalists, public officials, business leaders, or activists, for information and advice. “Their” opinions often become “our” opinions. Third, public opinion is shaped by what politicians say it is. Politicians often talk about what the people think without evidence to back up their claims. They may sincerely believe that they have their fingers on the pulse of the public. Or they may hope that by claiming that the public agrees with them loudly enough, they will convince the American people that it must be true.

Public officials have many ways of assessing public opinion, such as the outcomes of elections, but they have increasingly come to rely on public opinion polls. Public opinion serves our democratic system of government in three key ways. First, it guides leaders as they make decisions about public policy. Whether conveyed through opinion polls, town hall meetings, letters, or e-mails, public opinion helps politicians know what their constituents are thinking. Public opinion also serves as guard against hasty or poorly understood decisions. Lastly, public opinion serves as a kind of glue in a diverse society like ours. Widespread agreement on basic political beliefs holds our society together, even in times of intense partisan conflict.

There are many possible sources of error in polls, and surveys sometimes present a misleading portrayal of the public’s views. However, a properly conducted poll can be an accurate indication of what the public is thinking.

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