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Michael TaubeIt was a restful Thanksgiving weekend spent with family, food, nice weather, and the Montreal Alouettes-Ottawa Redblacks game on television.

What would a longtime columnist be doing during this brief albeit splendid interlude? Engaged in deep thoughts about the nature of public opinion, of course!

In all seriousness, my line of work is largely dependent on and determined by the opinions of the general public, potentially involving anything from perceptions of a party leader to an ideological position that’s either in ascension or descent. If the political winds are shifting in one direction or another, so too will public opinion.

In Act 1, Scene 3 of William Shakespeare’s Othello (1603-4), the Duke of Venice tells Brabanzio that “[o]pinion, a more sovereign mistress of effects, throws a more safer voice on you,” In theory, there’s plenty of truth to this statement. In practice, society’s interpretation of what should be regarded as good or bad opinion can push intellectual discourse in one direction or another.

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That’s not always the case, however.

Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion (1922) remains as relevant a source of information on this subject as it did exactly a century ago. “For the most part we do not first see and then define; we define first and then see,” the respected political columnist wrote. He went on to define stereotypes as “pictures in our head.”

Lippmann also delved into public opinion as an environment. “Looking back, we can see how indirectly we know the environment in which nevertheless we live. We can see that the news of it comes to us now fast, now slowly; but that whatever we believe to be a true picture, we treat as if it were the environment itself.”

This perception is quite logical. Public opinion is often driven by a unique set of circumstances, values and beliefs. What we perceive as valid or invalid information can be acquired from our environment, which can include the influence of parents, families, communities, geography, neighbours, workmates, etc. This perception, in turn, helps explain the urban-rural divide, conservative vs. liberal thought, red state vs. blue state and, as the popular book title goes, why men are from Mars and women are from Venus.

As we know, not everyone fits into these categories. Some individuals go against the grain and think outside the box. They may choose to reject positions and perceived stereotypes that exist in a particular environment. That’s why some people who grow up in a rural environment may end up with opinions more closely aligned to an urban environment, for instance – and vice versa.

What about politics and public opinion?

One of the most obvious connections is with opinion polling. The public’s views on parties, leaders and policies often profoundly affect which way the political winds are blowing. People are more fickle today when it comes to politics and more cynical about the political process than ever before. Distrust of politicians escalates on an annual basis. Voter participation has dropped significantly, although some elections have witnessed marginal increases if something piques their interest (i.e. policy issue, controversy, strong desire to turf out a government, etc.)

Living vicariously through opinion polls isn’t the wisest of strategies in a volatile modern political environment. Ignoring polling data altogether is even more so.

Meanwhile, U.S. political analyst Douglas Schoen’s The Power of the Vote: Electing Presidents, Overthrowing Dictators, and Promoting Democracy Around the World (2007) showed how political parties use public opinion to achieve political change, reform and upheaval.

During the 1997 South Korean election, he boldly suggested merging Lee Hoi Chang’s New Korea Party with Cho Soon’s Democratic Party to shore up political and economic support. The result was the creation of the Grand National Party and near-victory in the election. Schoen also played a crucial role in bringing down Slobodan Miloŝević in Serbia. He did so by recommending a campaign that supported political change, economic revitalization, European reintegration, democratic reform and a united opposition against Miloŝević. It worked, and he learned that public opinion, as “a tool for orchestrating and/or securing regime change,” is “simply too powerful to ignore.”

In a speech at the University of Oxford on Nov. 25, 1864, then-British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli said, “Party is organized opinion.” While there have always been unique voices in a political tent, the tradition of party discipline used in the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy pushes select opinions in a particular direction.

Political leaders have a particular agenda they wish to accomplish in office. They set a position arbitrarily or in conjunction with caucus members, and party whips are supposed to ensure that everyone will toe the line. Those who choose to oppose or vote against a leader’s position risk the distinct possibility of being alienated, sent to the backbench or tossed out of the party. It’s up to each politician to make that choice.

There are more aspects to public opinion that I could mention. But those are more than enough deep thoughts on a full belly during a laid-back Canadian Thanksgiving!

Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.

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