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In Politics, what is Public Opinion?

By Ken Black
Updated Feb 06, 2024
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In politics, public opinion is a phrase that is used to convey the intent and desire of the general population on issues of political importance. It may be used to convey thoughts and feelings both on fiscal and social issues. One of the main ways it is determined is through polls, commissioned by various groups to determine what the ultimate will of the people is. The opinion of the public is often a hotly-debated topic among various political parties and politicians.

The importance of public opinion to politicians cannot be overstated. It helps them win elections, and then, once elected, to get their priorities through the political process. While it may be possible to pass legislation without the favor of the majority of the public’s assent, having that makes the job much easier. Further, passing legislation contrary to the will of the public could create problems when the representative comes up for re-election.

Polls are important when it comes to determining public opinion, but it is not the only way that it is derived. Constituents often contact their elected officials to let them know their thoughts and feelings. Groups may organize call-in campaigns to various politicians when legislation of concern is being debated. These personal contacts may or may not express the overall opinion of the majority of the public, and therefore are often taken into account along with other sources of information.

Politicians may go against public opinion for a number of reasons. One, they may have a hard time judging what the public’s opinion is. Two, they may feel that what they are doing is of such importance that they must go against public opinion for the good of the country or region. Three, they may feel they owe their political party something, and therefore do not want to go against the will of the party. Lastly, they may feel the polls are worded in such a way that is not reflective of the true opinion of the people.

Like many things in a democracy, public opinion is likely to change from time to time. For example, during times of high energy prices, the public may be interested in expanding the drilling for oil and other fossil fuels. If a disaster takes place or if energy prices decrease, the pressure may change and the public may focus more on environmental issues.

If public opinion changes too much, politicians that once found themselves enjoying the mandate of the public and widespread support could be caught off guard. Thus, many politicians tend to study public opinion, keeping a close eye on polls and other measures. At the same time, those politicians who are perceived as being too reliant on opinion polls may be labeled as weak or without core values.

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Discussion Comments
By ysmina — On Jan 28, 2014

The public definitely doesn't always know what's right. People in government have access to much more information than the public. It's such a balancing act for politicians to manage facts and public opinion.

By fBoyle — On Jan 27, 2014

@bythewell-- I agree with you. I'm torn on the issue of public opinion in America as well.

I think it goes both ways. When the public elects an official, the public is giving that person to take the initiative and decide what's best. But those decisions need to be mostly in line with the voter's opinions. It's not right for a politician to say "I'm elected, so I can do whatever I want." It doesn't work that way.

By literally45 — On Jan 27, 2014

A politician who intends to get re-elected should not go against public opinion. Otherwise, he or she might lose a lot of votes when election rolls around.

I'm not saying that politicians shouldn't do what they feel is right. After all, that's why we elect them, so that they can make decisions for us. But a smart politician will first convince the public about an issue before acting on it. Because if the public is convinced, public opinion will stay positive.

I think that George W. Bush did a great job with this for the Iraq war. He convinced the majority of the public that the Iraq war was necessary. That's why public opinion data was in his favor for most of his time in office. He did the convincing first and then took action. He didn't announce the war and then try to convince people.

By umbra21 — On Jan 26, 2014

@KoiwiGal - On the one hand, you're right that sometimes public opinion is wrong. I do think it's dangerous for the government to start going against it though. I mean, there's nothing to say that the government is going to go against public opinion for their own good. More likely they will do it for the politicians' good.

Public opinion surveys are an instrument of democracy and should not be entirely disregarded.

By KoiwiGal — On Jan 26, 2014

@bythewell - Science plays a big part in this as well. An example might be the way that a lot of places are dealing with the homeless. I'd imagine almost every public opinion poll about the homeless would reveal that people want the problem to go away, but they might be divided on whether to treat the people concerned compassionately or without concern.

This has led a lot of places to follow public opinion of how to "clean up the streets" by throwing the homeless in jail, or simply banning them from certain places.

Most research indicates, however, that the best and cheapest way to get the homeless off the street is to actually give them homes. It's cheaper to provide apartments and welfare than it is to compensate for homeless crime and health issues. Giving them homes isn't something that public opinion will generally call for. But it ultimately does what the public wants. A good politician will take that into consideration.

By bythewell — On Jan 25, 2014

I'm a little bit torn on this. I do think that politicians should serve the will of the people, but I also think that sometimes the people are objectively wrong.

I mean, a couple of hundred years ago, public opinion might have been in favor of slavery, which doesn't mean that slavery is right. I think, if a country is founded or governed on particular principles, including those pertaining to human rights, then the politicians should be trying to uphold those principles, while keeping as much as possible to public opinion.

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