We see that the creation of one’s own opinions is to a large degree a community affair. According to James Bryce, the individual has a powerful role in crafting a nation’s political discourse, but can only be involved in doing so if they act in concert with others. This neither denies the possibility of conflicting beliefs within one person, nor that one cannot have a set of bedrock beliefs, but to say that we do not exist in a vacuum…
The sections on public opinion from James Bryce’s The American Commonwealth are one hundred and thirty years old, yet they contain a valuable reminder for contemporary America—work together! Bryce intended this to serve not as a threat, but simply as a description of what he hoped would become the status quo, and this is true of both his day and ours. Bryce’s fascination with the role of public opinion in American life is evinced by his giving over an entire part of The American Commonwealth to consider its role in government; he discusses its creation, direction, and execution, all with a point to demonstrate that it is a crucial part of any democratic system of government that actually works to bind groups together. Further, Bryce also views public opinion as holding a particularly central position in America because it gives life, meaning, motive force, and authority to her political institutions.
Public opinion is a nebulous concept that Bryce works to tease out, first by focusing on its creation within an increasingly growing population. Bryce describes the first step of one’s initial foray into any topic as beginning with a set of vaguely related impressions that are formed as one learns about the issue at hand. These are essentially created on the spur of the moment and are fleeting notions put together as our mind struggles to make connections between the incomplete data we are presented with and the thoughts we have concerning a variety of other issues.
Next, as we gather more details and are permitted the time to reflect upon these, what was at first fluid and ill-defined comes to be more determined and concrete. One is better able to fit the given issues into a broader context as time and further analysis of details allow for more definite connections, both within our own minds and in the wider social framework in which we operate. This stage also includes interactions with others and a crystallization of one’s own opinion.
Bryce’s third stage in the formation of public opinion is characterized by wider interaction with others—as one is in the process of forming their opinions on an issue, it is likely that many others are doing so as well. The internal debate takes on new shapes externally as a more or less widespread discussion in the public sphere. This continues as battle lines are drawn and adherents pick their sides. Despite the more solidly defined positions on an argument, the debate still maintains some fluidity as still further details are discovered and insights are produced.
Bryce describes something of a definite end to the process when a citizen votes on a given issue (be it a law, a politician, an amendment, etc.). Election day may be a somewhat arbitrary breaking point, especially with newer issues and the increasing use of polling techniques, but by this day, the individual citizen is to have taken stock of all they have gathered on the topic, studied how each side impacts other issues he cares about, and undertakes a definite action to support one particular point of view over all the others. There is a finality of sorts in the fourth stage: “When a man has voted, he is committed; he has thereafter an interest in backing the view which he sought to make prevail. Moreover, opinion, which may have been manifold till the polling, is thereafter generally twofold only. There is a view which has triumphed and a view which has been vanquished.” A tally of votes produces a winner and a loser in definite, recognizable terms. Put another way, the individual has a powerful role in crafting a nation’s political discourse, but can only be involved in doing so if they act in concert with others. This is certainly neither a new nor a moot point—one can find proponents of this idea ranging from ancient Greece up through contemporary protest movements.
Readers should not see this as Bryce’s attempt to fully empower the popular forces of a given society or as reducing politics to a game of aggregate numbers. Elites of various stripes, including political, social, religious, and popular figures, play an integral role in creating the parameters of discussion insofar as they are able to function as a unifying figure. Their visibility and central role in American life serves to amplify their viewpoints, thereby giving these individuals a greater relative weight than those of the average citizen. Again, however, we see an argument that emphasizes interconnections between people and groups: non-elites are influenced and guided by the various elites they listen to. Rather than place the full onus of direction on a very small section of the population, Bryce is careful to again argue that opinion is formed in a circular manner. While it may be the case that terms of debate are largely set by elites, they are in turn informed by the types of response they receive from the general population. That which decides whether a speaker stands on a stage or a soapbox is the size of their audience.
This interaction between elites and non-elites is ongoing. As an issue gains attention, individuals work to understand it in relation to their circumstances and world-view. Once beyond the first stage in the formation of public opinion, elites and non-elites work with one another to better comprehend the issue, its context, possible responses, and their ramifications. This is a conversation that, to happen well, must take place over time and across a wide variety of groups. Losing either of these elements increases the potential that flaws will be missed and important considerations will not be given a full hearing (if they are heard at all).
In gathering materials for his three-volume The American Commonwealth, Bryce traveled from his native England to every state that was part of contemporaneous United States to gain as wide a swath of information as was available to him. This work was the most in-depth study of America to be written up to his lifetime, in many cases surpassing even that of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (especially regarding the emphasis and level of detail Bryce places on state and local politics in America). Given his ambitious scope of study, Bryce clearly saw the importance that time and variety of perspective would bring to his inquiry.
Returning to public opinion, Bryce understands this to be in a state of flux, a state of becoming in which it is constantly present but never in its full and final form. Bryce is too historically conscious to not be aware of such a phenomenon, and his presentation of and focus on the overall process of public opinion demonstrates this. It would be too simplistic if public opinion were to come about in a straightforward process, and overly complex and time consuming if it were followed to completion for each issue. The state of one’s opinions is such that all our opinions operate in conjunction with one another. This neither denies the possibility of conflicting beliefs within one person, nor that one cannot have a set of bedrock beliefs, but to say that we do not exist in a vacuum. Individuals constantly reevaluate their opinions in light of the changing circumstances, experiences, and insights. Even elections, which Bryce offers as capable of providing some finality to a debate, will often spawn a host of unforeseen results when, for example, further details are revealed or the victorious side works to bring their ideas to fruition.
The process by which public opinion is formed is a very fluid one, and such a description fits neatly within Bryce’s overall concept of the American political system in general. Human interaction is not governed by a strict set of rules (knowable or otherwise) as in the case of Mathematics or Meteorology, but by countless factors that are too diverse and circumstantial to offer those who study it much certainty beyond the level of generalizations. Given the fluidity of life and the importance of circumstance within Bryce’s arguments, one could charge him with being a moral relativist. Bryce believes that tendencies do exist and that it is possible to generalize about people but cautions that these cannot be done with certainty. One cannot rest on a set of unchanging, eternal principles as a sufficient guide when making decisions because, even if we do know what these principles are, we cannot know all the circumstances present and the individuals involved, let alone how these will interact with one another. One’s historical location is the result of an infinite number of events and decisions, both known and unknown. Each of these contribute to one’s reaction to a given stimulus. Further clouding prediction is the fact that individuals are not bound to act rationally or even act at all. In this manner we are all relativists, and Bryce is no exception save perhaps for his self-awareness and active integration of this conclusion into his general point of view.
We are so beholden to events outside of our control that one cannot even say that they are the sole originator of their own thought. “Everyone is of course predisposed to see things in some one particular light by his previous education, habits of mind, accepted dogmas, religious or social affinities, notions of his own personal interest. No event, no speech or article, ever falls upon perfectly virgin soil: the reader or listener is always more or less biased already.” Actual spontaneity and originality are truly rare occurrences in humans because in a very real way, one’s opinions belong to others who have helped to shape the context in which one first hears about a news story or event, those with whom one discusses the item, the particular editorials run in the local paper, etc. We see that the creation of one’s own opinions and their belief structure more generally is to a large degree a community affair. Indeed, the less a person knows about a given issue, the more they must rely on outside sources for insight.
Bryce sees the need for an “elite” or “upper” class of individuals who have the time and talents to serve as a source for the distillation of opinions and insights as described above. He sees merit on the part of the general population who looks to those with greater abilities to understand the parameters of a given issue for guidance and advice because each group, regardless of their degree of comprehension on a given issue, is nonetheless given equal worth when called upon to voice their opinion during an election. Lest Bryce be misunderstood here, some qualifications should be made. First and foremost, these “elites” are not noted for their technical expertise or knowledge (although these are necessary to some degree), but for their ability to relate the particular issue to the broader historical context out of which it arose and to offer sound, considered, and experientially based advice on how best to approach the issue. Nor are these individuals simply bureaucratic in nature, following a set of pre-determined guidelines that are to be implemented in situations as applicable. The nature of the relationship that Bryce is describing means that these individuals tend to exercise their influence prior to a decision being made by the wider populace (i.e. an election). However, once a decision has been made, it is not a stretch to think that they will also be involved in executing it. The modern president, for example, is looked to for guidance by large portions of the population on a wide array of issues. Once the public “has spoken” (in whatever manner that may be), he also works to carry out the decision.
Everything about this process defies simple routinization. “Opinion makes opinion… every weighty voice… is at once the disclosure of an existing force and a further force influencing others.” Both individuals and opinion leaders at the local and national level work in circular concert with one another. Bryce provides an example that demonstrates the degree of interconnection regarding the creation of opinion when he describes regional types of opinion prevalent in the Eastern, Western, and Southern parts of the country. Each of these are said to be distinct from one another yet none are shown to be fully apart from the American experience as a whole. Bryce recognizes the parts, works to better understand the psyche and circumstances behind them, and only then is he able to relate each to a commonly shared tradition and history. Circumstances differ between individuals and groups, and these differences contribute to the variety of character types found across America. Although Bryce foresees a future America as a more homogenous America (as his contemporary America was more so than that of the revolutionary generation), it is nonetheless a nation of disparate parts each experiencing a variety of circumstances that impacts the decision-making process which forms in response to a given experience. While similar issues can arise in some or all areas of the United States, different experiences and sets of priorities result in varying responses. As this is the case at a regional level, so too is it at the individual level. For Bryce, everything is colored by its historical circumstances.
National, regional, and local characteristics can manifest themselves in unique combinations within a given person or group, and rather than being understood as a limiting factor, Bryce celebrates this as an important human trait. To do otherwise fails to take an adequate view of persons and human nature. This allows Bryce to offer these differences as a source of compromise rather than a divisive factor, a conversation rather than an argument. Division and polarization of the type which tends to characterize todays political system works to remove the concept of public opinion as something built upon the insights of a variety of individuals in conversation with one another and replaces it with a view that one’s own opinion is (or ought to be) the whole. Even though public opinion is, in Bryce’s understanding, a fickle thing that is largely the result of people and forces beyond the control of the average citizen, it nevertheless holds an important educative position and functions prominently in the decision-making process. Actively working to quiet the voices of large swaths of the population solely on the basis that they disagree with you likewise removes a large source of insight and experience from which citizens can draw upon when making decisions. It reduces the amount of common ground between groups, thereby reducing the chances of compromise and trust. Indeed, forgetting Bryce’s advice to ‘work together’ may produce short-term gains for the ruling group, but will simultaneously undercut the core of America’s republican principle to a great degree.
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1 Bryce, James. The American Commonwealth. 1888. Edited by Gary L. McDowell, Liberty Fund, 1995, 2 vols. p. 911.
2 Bryce, p. 911.
3 The various political parties work to maintain this role for themselves and still today party leaders in America claim a large portion of authority in both deciding which issues will be opened before the public and the terms in which they will be debated.
4 The ability to at least discern between good and bad ideas, or honest and malevolent intentions is crucial to this point. Education and practice are key to good decision-making, and a strong political science has a central role in fostering a citizenry with these abilities.
5 Bryce, p. 929-930.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail from “War News From Mexico” (1848) by Richard Caton Woodville, Sr. (1825-1855), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.