College of Liberal Arts Dean Susan Herbst didn’t dance around the subject of public opinion during Friday’s Teach-In in Professor Ralph Young’s Dissent in America class. Titled “Media and Public Opinion in American Politics,” Herbst got straight to the point and told her audience why the issue is so pertinent.
“I study public opinion because I’m interested in democracy,” she said. “Public opinion girths everything in democracy. It is the basis of it all.”
Historically, public opinion originated in the 18th century during the French Enlightenment. Jacques Necker, who is credited with coining the term public opinion, said, “This public opinion strengthens or weakens all public institutions.” Necker believed developed opinion was formed during gatherings called “salons” where social and intellectual elites exchanged ideas on a consistent basis.
“There was an evolving exchange of ideas, a dialogue [during the 18th century]. We have really departed from that,” Herbst said. “It was a community networked together, and their opinions evolved in intimate settings. There’s something essential about personal dialogue.”
In an era of technological revolution and media homogeneity, Herbst expressed fear that people may have grown into isolationists who are cuddling up with Web logs and cable news channels for reassurance. She questioned the willingness of people to get dressed, go out and challenge themselves intellectually, and she reiterated the benefits of personal interaction when formulating an opinion.
“When you don’t articulate your opinion with someone in the workplace [for example] your opinion isn’t fully crystallized,” she said. “It’s not fully developed.”
Herbst explained that the contemporary view of public opinion is more quantitative and simply acts to aggregate individual opinion for a total answer. Those in attendance expressed concern over categorizing opinion during polling, as well as polarization in the media.
Amy Krivda, a senior anthropology major who attends all of the Teach-Ins, mentioned the issue of public opinion is extremely significant.
“This issue is more interesting, more pertinent,” Krivda said. “The media shapes politics and how we perceive things.”
Herbst asserted that the media and dominant political parties place stability over engagement in discussion and are fearful of insecurity. She referred to the lack of legitimacy third parties are able to secure in the political arena, as well as the tendency for people to use media as security blankets to support their political views, something that has extended to important political actors.
When researching public opinion, she interviewed state legislators to gain insight on how their opinions are formed. Herbst explained she was “appalled” by a reoccurring answer of “It’s what the media say.”
Herbst also mentioned that the phenomenon of media formulating public opinion was explained in part by famous American sociologists Robert K. Merton and Paul Lazarsfeld in their extensive studies on the effects of the mass media. Merton, a Temple graduate, theorized that with an overabundance of media maintaining the social status quo, people would develop indifferences to active engagement.
This dreaded “narcotizing dysfunction” theory, created in 1948 in regard to the advance of radio, was forecasted to stifle personal discussion and debate. Herbst pointed out that it has continued the replacement of doing with knowing.
“[Mass media] is not always a stimulus to action,” she said. “If anything, it’s a stimulus to more media consumption … that’s not what we had planned for political activity.”
Brandon Lausch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.