Polls and Public Opinion: Democracy in Dewey

polls democracy
‘Democracy of opinion’: what role for public opinion?

It is often said that public opinion does not exist (in Bourdieu‘s sociology for example). This is a subtle way to say that the masses, the public should not participate in public affairs. Given this thesis of  public incompetence, some advocate the contrary thesis, i.e. the omnicompetent public theory: the public knows everything about everything. The abuse is the common point of the debate on the participative democracy.

Dewey, a american pragmatist who thought early in the twentieth century, tried to think differently. In The Public and its Problems, Dewey argued for the formation of judgments of the masses. According to Dewey, the competence of the public is not a natural aptitude, inscribed in human nature. Rather it is directly correlated to the social conditions that favor or disadvantage. The irrationality and ignorance of the public are neither definitive nor irreversible. To summarize, individuals are not omnicompetent or naturally apt to judge in all things. Discernment and lucidity are not innate properties, but acquired throughout the life of the citizen, they constitute intellectual habits.

What role for public opinion polls in a democracy? Dewey’s response

Given this, it is necessary, according to Dewey, as people become aware of their belonging to the public citizens, to “reconstruct”, rebuild the public. Here comes the concept of “social survey“, the ancestor of our polls. This is to collect opinions and thoughts of individuals, then publish them in order to complete the general public. The survey, which must be “modern, everyday, and conducted by experts, will, according to Dewey, transform the isolated opinion and individual public opinion and make continuing and lasting the public:

Only an investigation continues – continues in the sense of persistent and connected to the conditions of a situation – can provide the equipment of a lasting opinion on public affairs.”

Thus defined, the polls are not an enemy of the democracy : they serve a real citizenship function, far from the society of experts or the conspiracy theory. In conclusion, the polls are not the democracy of opinion, on the contrary, it can build a public participatory reverse “pollsy” public opinion. Dewey’s lessons should inspire major political parties.

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