Political Science at Huntingdon College
Huntingdon College | Political Science | Courses
PSC 201: American Government

Serow (ed) Lanahan Readings in the American Polity, 3/e

Part 10: Public Opinion, Student Outlines

compiled from student contributions (thanks) by Jeremy Lewis.  Last revised 2 Dec. 2009.
59: Bryce, "American Commonwealth"
60: Walter Lippman, "The Phantom Public."
61. V.O. Key, "Public Opinion"
63: Thomas Cronin, "Direct Democracy."
#59: Bryce, "American Commonwealth -- Public Opinion"
(Lindsey Langston, 2001)

? Bryce believes that public opinion in the U.S. is the opinion of the whole, with little distinction of social classes.

? He believes the politicians may not be below, but are certainly not above the average level of their constituents.

? There is not one certain group of people or “social layer” that the majority of ideas and political doctrine originate.

? Although Americans are an educated people, the education of the masses is nevertheless a “superficial” education. This education is sufficient enough to enable them to think they  know something about the great problems of politics. However, this education is insufficient to show them how little they know.

? Opinion secures full discussion of issues of policy and of the characters of men. “It suffers nothing to be concealed, and listens patiently to all the arguments that are addressed to it.”

? “A democracy governing itself through a constantly active public opinion, and not solely by its intermittent mechanism of elections, tends to become patient, tolerant, reasonable, and is more likely to be unembittered and unvexed by class divisions.”

Top of page



56: V.O. Key, Public Opinion and American Democracy
by Russ Barnwell, Fall 2009

V.O. Key was born in 1908 and died in 1963.


In Public Opinion and American Democracy, written in 1961, he analyzes the link between public opinion and governmental rule.

He says that this ruling stratum of politically influential people is almost invisible because it is easy for the masses to become one of them. There are different groups of ruling elites, each with their own followers and social base, creating a balance. He discusses “opinion dikes” that channel public action, set acceptable grounds for government intervention, and provide the basis for issues to be debated.


61: V.O. Key, "Public Opinion"
Rob Gaiotti, 2001

       - V.O. Key is a Russian born Professor or modern American Politics. He was a pioneer in the study of Public Opinion and American Democracy. His life work went into the explaination of  the people’s opinion and it’s relationship to the opinions of political leaders and their work.

      - Key stated that not all Political leaders share similar beliefs. Some refer to the majority as “the beast.”  However the higher concentration lean toward one fundamental belief. This belief is their regard for public opinion that the masses should prevail. Key states that even leaders with radical beliefs show partialness to the majority.

- The Government needs broad structural or organizational characteristics to keep system up and functioning properly. Generalizing activists into groups that are dedicated to the management of public affairs and public opinion promotes stability. Key states that diversity creates the best possible conditions for democracy. A stable democracy needs a series of diverse independent social bases to create a solid foundation for the state. He also stresses on the idea that highly active political persons should be distributed in diverse income-occupational groups. These groups make participation and sharing in public affairs simpler.

- Key’s most influential theory was his “Opinion Dike” theory. It states that public opinion should form a system of “dikes.” Where the public opinion prohibits political leaders from straying too far from those opinions. This places the blame for “indecision, decay and disaster” in the laps of the political leaders.

Top of page



60: Walter Lippman, "The Phantom Public."
by Meghan Thomas, 2001.
  Author's Life and Times:
       Lived 1889-1974
       Co-founder of Harvard Socialist Club
       Helped draw up the covenant of the League of Nations
       Wrote for several nationally recognized newspapers, including the New York World, the
       New Rupublic, and the Herald Tribune.

  Nature of the author's writings:
       Considered himself a Socialist while in college
       supported Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Party in 1912
       Drifted toward more democratic views in the late 1910s
       His approach became more pragmatic in the 30s and 40s supporting both Republican
       and Democratic presidential candidates
       Returned to more liberal views after WWII

  Main points:

       The private citizen is neither well-informed, continually interested, nor unbiased.

       He only becomes interested when there is a crisis or a conflict, and is interested
       then only long enough to decide what they support and what they are against.

       Asking him to be familiar with up-to-date information and have knowledgeable
       opinions on all public affairs is an "unattainable ideal."

       Since general opinions of a large group are certain to be vague and confusing,
       these opinions must be compressed and made uniform, leaving the general public
       with as few choices as possible.

       This choice is usually made based on emotions rather than ideals, because
       emotions are much less specific.

       The most we can ask of public opinion is to distinguish those governing officials
       who will act on their will from the ones who will only assert thier will.

       The selected few must then be asked to deal with the substance of the problems.

       This is why a direct democracy could never work.

  Conclusion:

       "Instead of describing government as an expression of the people's will, it would
       seem better to say that government consists of a body of officials, some elected,
       some appointed, who handle professionally, and in the first instance, problems
       which come to the public opinion spasmodically and on appeal."

       Public opinion should only be an attempt "to create an equilibrium in which
       settlemetns can be reached directly and by consent."

       "It is the function of public opinion to check the use of force in a crisis..."

Top of page




63: Thomas Cronin-Direct Democracy
Tiffany Holley, 2002

-Although the U.S. is a representative system of gov't, elements of direct democracy have been introduced on the state and local levels over time.
    -Initiative, referendum, and recall give citizens an immediate and direct voice in their gov't.
        -Says these will neither destroy American gov't nor save it.
-Political reformers contend that more democracy is needed and that the American people are mature enough and deserve the right to vote on critical issues facing their states and the nation.
-Populist democracy in America has produced conspicuous assets and conspicuous liabilities.
-The threat, it not the reality, of the initiative, referendum, and recall helped to encourage a more responsible, civic-minded breed of state legislator.
    -Intention was to restore, not to destroy, representative gov't
-The initiative
    -Allows voters to propose a legislative measure or a constitutional amendment by filing a petition bearing a required number of valid citizen signatures.
-The Referendum
    -refers a proposed or existing law or statute to voters for their approval or their rejection.
    -Popular or petition referendum-refers an already enacted measure to the voters before it can go into effect.
-The recall
    -Allows voters to remove or discharge a public official from office by filing a petition bearing a specified number of valid signatures demanding a vote on the official's continued tenure in office.
-Skeptics worry about tyranny by the majority and fear voters are seldom well enough informed to cast votes on complicated, technical national laws.
-Although in theory Americans are politically equal, in practice there remain enormous disparities in individual's and groups' capacities to influence the direction of government.
-Americans seldom abide quietly the failings and deficiencies of capitalism, the welfare state, or the political decision rules by which we live.
-Six benefits from the reforms of populist democracy
    -citizen initiatives will promote gov't responsiveness and accountability
    -initiatives are freer from special interest domination than the legislative branches of most states.
    -the initiative and referendum will produce open, educational debate on critical issues that otherwise might be inadequately discussed.
    -referendum, initiative, and recall are nonviolent means of political participation that fulfill a citizen's right to petition the gov't for redress or grievances.
    -direct democracy increases voter interest and election-day turnout
        -lessen alienation and apathy
    -citizen initiatives are needed because legislators often evade the tough issues.
-For every claim put forward on behalf of direct democracy, however there is almost equally compelling criticism.
-Some critics of direct democracy contend the best way to restore faith in representative institution is to find better people to run for office.
-Representative government is always in the process of developing and decay.
    -its fortunes rise and fall depending upon various factors, not least the quality of people involved and the resources devoted to making it work effectively.
-The American experience with direct democracy has fulfilled neither the dreams and expectations of its proponents nor the fears of its opponents.
-The initiative and referendum have not undermined or weakened representative government.
-All these devices of popular democracy, so vulnerable to apathy, ignorance, and prejudice, not only have worked, but also have generally been used in a reasonable and constructive manner.
-Short comings of initiative, referendum, and recall
    -voters are sometimes confused.
    -on occasion, an ill-considered or undesirable measure wins approval.
    -large and organized groups and those who can raise vast sums of money are in a better position either to win, or especially to block approval of ballot measures.
    -recall campaigns can stir up unnecessary and undesirable conflict in community
-Direct democracy devices haven't been a cure-all for most political, social, or economical ills; yet they have been an occasional remedy, and generally a moderate remedy for legislative lethargy and the misuse and non-use of legislative power.

Top of page