The Public as Bystander: Its Political Influence

  • Kurt Lang
  • Gladys Engel Lang


Political leaders, advocates of reform proposals, persons speaking for special constituencies, and even “the man or woman in the street” continually invoke public opinion to legitimate positions they themselves favor. The press nowadays gives big play to opinion trends. Governments track these carefully and often commission polls tailored to their own needs. What the public thinks is judged important, since responsiveness to the popular will remains, after all, the cornerstone on which the edifice of popular government rests. Just what is ‘public opinion” and how does it influence the decisions of government? Was it more than rhetoric when Gerald Ford, on assuming the office of President of the United States, declared that “here the people rule”? Traditional doctrines of popular government start from the single premise, stated in one form or another, that sovereign authority resides with the people; their will is supreme. But if sovereignty is vested in so vague a collectivity as an “entire people”, the concept of public opinion loses much of its utility.1 For, if the will of the people is only what everyone agrees to, such unanimity is rare, and the supposed mandate the people hand to their government amounts to nothing more than a willingness to be ruled in accordance with custom and law. And even here people often disagree on which customary or legal practices they believe to be workable and of some benefit to all. If, then, public opinion as the will of the people refers to nothing more than an underlying consensus, the concept is of little use in explaining how it influences the particular laws passed, the actual decisions made, and the concrete policies pursued by the government faced with several options.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Carl J. Friedrich, The New Belief in the Common Man, Little, Brown & Co., Boston 1942.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, The Clarendon Press, Oxford 1967.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Richard Ben-Veniste and George Frampton, Jr., Stonewall, Simon & Schuster, New York 1971.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    J.M. Edelman, The Symbolic Uses of Politics, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Ill. 1967.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    A. Lawrence Lowell, Public Opinion and Popular Government, Longman’s Green & Co., New York 1913.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Herbert Blumer, „Collective Behavior“, in A. M. Lee (ed.), Priciples of Sociology, Barnes & Noble, New York 1951, pp. 189–194.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    Henry Maine, Popular Government, Henry Holt and Co., New York 1977, p. 184.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    Walter Lippmann, The Phantom Public, Harcourt, Brace and Co., New York, 1925, p. 106.Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    Gladys Engel Lang and Kurt Lang, „Polling on Watergate: The Battle for Public Opinion“, in Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 44, 1980, pp. 530–547.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 11.
    Albert H. Cantril, „The Press and the Pollsters“, in Annals o f the American Academy of Political and Social Science., Vol. 247, September 1976, p. 50.Google Scholar
  11. 13.
    Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, Die Schweigespirale, R. Piper & Co., München 1980.Google Scholar
  12. 14.
    Kurt Lang and Gladys Engel Lang, „Mass Media and Voting“, in E. Burdick and A. J. Brodbeck, Jr. (eds.), American Voting Behavior, Free Press, Glencoe, Ill. 1959, pp. 217–235.Google Scholar
  13. 15.
    Philip Converse, “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics”, in D. E. Apter (ed.), Ideology and Discontent, Free Press, New York 1964, pp. 206–264.Google Scholar
  14. 16.
    Hugh Heclo, „Issue Networks and the Executive Establishment“, in A. King (ed.), The New American Political System, American Enterprise Institute, Wahington, D.C. 1978, pp. 87–124.Google Scholar
  15. 18.
    Gabriel A. Almond, „Comperative Study of Interest Groups and the Political Process“, in American Political Science Review, Vol. 52, March 1958, 370–383.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Westdeutscher Verlag GmbH, Opladen 1981

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kurt Lang
  • Gladys Engel Lang

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations