Opinion Control in the Democracies by Terence H. Qualter (auth.)

By Terence H. Qualter (auth.)

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By Terence H. Qualter (auth.)

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We need to know more precisely what a public is, and what an opinion is. The 'public' is the more flexible of the two terms and it seems largely a matter of individual inclination whether it is to be defined narrowly or broadly. That is to say, one may think of ' the public' as being something much smaller than the total population, perhaps possessing some special character or quality, or one may conceive of the total population being divided among several specialised publics. As an alternative, one may treat 'the public' and 'the population' as near synonymous, accepting that in this sense the public may have all manner of divisions or conflicting characteristics.

The public's judgements, generalised to the handling of a large number of problems, could not be applied to The Birth of Public Opinion 23 the specific or the technical. Most public issues of significance were beyond the capacity of ordinary individuals without access to specialised information. ' The public's involvement was thus largely directed to procedures and to the 'overt external forms of behavior', and not to the intrinsic merits of concrete issues. 63 Public opinion could not be expected to do much more than grant legitimacy to those who make decisions and to the rules under which they operate.

They had failed, but their values did not disappear. Among many others in the twentieth century, Ortega y Gassett, having assumed that the masses were now in fact in command, expressed the intellectual's contempt for them. Like his precursors, he saw society divided into superior and inferior classes. 54 One widely read critic of the inter-war years, friendly to the idea of a democratic public opinion, but critical of the sillier assumptions of its capacities, Norman Angell, regarded as 'an astonishing fallacy' the notion that those who believe in democracy must also believe in 'the innate, "natural", political capacity of the ordinary man'.

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