We’re all hypocrites when it comes to “public opinion”

It’s always telling when someone points to public opinion to back-up an argument. “This is what people want!” They only do it when the public agrees with them.

And what if the public doesn’t agree with you? Well, there is no shortage of evidence that, actually, people are so prone to bias, manipulation, and self-contradiction, their opinions probably aren’t worth very much. Besides, when it comes to questions of right and wrong, pointing to the beliefs of others isn’t really an argument.

We are all familiar and, probably, guilty of this form of hypocrisy. Public opinion is everywhere evoked as a normative principle, even though it is rarely clear what exactly it is, or why it should command our respect.

Public opinion always takes the form of an answer, and so needs a question. In democratic elections, where issues are bundled together into manifestos, and all kinds of unarticulated motivations and judgments come into play, no one really knows what question is being answered. Conversely, public attitude surveys don’t tell us how people would respond if a particular issue appeared, together with its wider ramifications, in a real policy programme.

As Jürgen Habermas argued in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, public opinion was by the mid-20th century a simulacrum of an older ideal, the conditions for which had already disappeared. It implies that there exists a body of private citizens whose beliefs are formed in rational debate with one another, and then brought into a public sphere to guide and challenge the state. In a modern society, the process is reversed; private citizens learn their beliefs from the public sphere, which is now a media landscape dominated by commercial interests and PR narratives. In this situation, according to Habermas, public opinion is cultivated by those in a position to do so, and then referred to as justification.

There was a hope that the internet would allow a new public sphere to take shape, but really it has shown that private individuals can also play their part in “manufacturing consent.” The normative logic of social media seems to be that the more people who agree with something, the more valid it must be. But everyone can see how popularity is marshalled not for the sake of discussion, but to promote a certain narrative against others.

This is where we seem to be with the concept of public opinion today: adept as we are at deconstructing it in its various manifestations, it is almost the last shared principle around which we can structure our discourse – a form of authority that our opponents are obliged, at least nominally, to accept – so we keep summoning it, like some empty prayer.

There is no room here to go into the many controversies surrounding the Brexit referendum and subsequent events. But suffice to say, even those who consider the result of that vote both illegitimate and reprehensible still see the prospect of a new, contrary manifestation of public opinion as their best chance of reversing it. Of course this new outcome, were it to appear, would be open to the same challenges as the one we already have.

None of this means, of course, that democracy is in some sense empty or illusory. Democracy does not require there to be such a thing as a public opinion which pulls itself up by its own bootstraps to act as supreme moral arbiter. Democracy merely requires that we consider certain institutional arrangements – most notably, voting – as the most peaceful way of managing political conflict. This means that we should respect the outcomes of the democratic process, but not that those outcomes describe a coherent collective opinion.

The question is whether we can accept this pragmatic way of looking at things, or whether we need to maintain the fiction of a volonté générale, a general will, which may someday arise and make good that which it desires, simply by desiring it. This is really what is implied by the worship of public opinion for its own sake, though luckily it is only a fiction.