The Public Interest

Public opinion versus popular opinion

Robert Nisbet

Fall 1975

OF all the heresies afloat in modern democracy, none is greater, more steeped in intellectual confusion, and potentially more destructive of proper governmental funetion than that which declares the legitimacy of government to be directly proportional to its roots in public opinion-or, more accurately, in what the daily polls and surveys assure us is public opinion. It is this heresy that accounts for the constantly augmenting propaganda that issues forth from all government agencies today-the inevitable effort to shape the very opinion that is being so assiduously courted-and for the frequent craven abdication of the responsibilities of office in the face of some real or imagined expression of opinion by the electorate.

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