One symptom of decline and confusion at the end of an age is the prevalent misuse of terms, of designations that have been losing their meanings and are thus no longer real.  One such term is public opinion.  Used still by political thinkers, newspapers, articles, institutes, research centers, college and university courses and their professors, it has worn thin.

Wikipedia says, “the desires, wants, and thinking of the majority of the people . . . is called public opinion.”


Public opinions are elements of democracy.  So are popular sentiments.  But these two are not the same.  Public is not necessarily popular; it differs from private.  And opinions amount to more than sentiments.  Their categorical definitions will not do.  One reason for this is their occasional overlapping.  Opinions may contain sentiments.  Their influences may be reciprocal; but identical they are not.

Tocqueville had an abiding interest in public opinions.  Often, he used the word mentalities for opinions, and manières—habits and behaviors—when describing masses of peoples.  It is instructive to consider what he wrote in his immortal book about 1789, The Old Regime and the French Revolution.  He wrote that the storming of the Bastille and what was coming thereafter had been preceded by an almost ceaseless agitation of public opinions against what still remained something like an absolute monarchy, evident and readable in thousands of writings in France, well before 1789.  They were there, recognizable in hundreds of France’s provincial archives (cahiers), which he read incessantly before he began to write his book.  To him they preceded, indeed led to, the revolutions of 1789 (and even of 1830).  In other words, the climate of opinions influenced popular sentiments.  By 1848 their reciprocal influences and presences were less and less separable.

Tocqueville had come to the United States at the right time (1831-32).  He knew and saw that democracy in America meant something more than a new chapter in the history of nations.  It meant that a rule of majorities had come to supersede rule of minorities.  In the history of American democracy, 1828 was a turning point.  John Quincy Adams, the last of the founding generation (who almost never used the word democracy, preferring the designation republic) was defeated in the presidential election of 1828 by Andrew Jackson.  That was a rather evident triumph of popular sentiments over what were still, more or less, public opinions.  Thereafter, the functions of public opinions and the powers of popular sentiments coexisted, at times willingly, at times unwillingly.  Tocqueville understood that.  Especially in the second volume of Democracy in America he wrote—indeed, he insisted—that the most important counterbalance to unlimited majority rule was and had to be the continued existence of responsible minorities in America, represented by people for whom the preservation, maintenance, and defense of liberties were primary.  He saw and hoped for this in American judicial institutions, by judges and lawyers forming something like public opinions in America.  (For Jefferson such guarantees were the responsibility of educated Americans.)

Something akin to public opinion and even of popular sentiments has existed throughout history, but our evidences of them are not substantial enough to identify them clearly or to separate them.  But during the last two or three centuries their relationships cannot be ignored.  Their influences and evidences have been difficult and complex.  With this in mind let me refer to a few examples in the political history of the United States in which differences and distinctions of public opinions and popular sentiments may be arguable.

On at least three occasions following the election of 1828, the differences in the mass of popular votes were so minute, so close, that the final decision regarding the presidency had to be decided by the Supreme Court (in 1876, Hayes over Tilden; in 1888, Harrison over Cleveland; in 2000, Bush over Gore).  Nonetheless, it is remarkable how quickly popular excitement about such close decisions subsided; none of these elections represented a national division between public opinions and popular sentiments.  Kentucky in 1860 is an interesting case: Most of that state’s public opinion was against leaving the Union, while majority sentiments indicated the popular desire to maintain slavery.  (And Kentucky remained on the Northern side of the Civil War.)  An opposite example may be 1932-45, when it is arguable that most American public opinion as well as most of the American people favored Franklin Roosevelt.  It is also arguable that in the 1920’s American popular sentiment favored the legal restriction of immigration, when most public opinion did not.  (I chose the word arguable—not more than that.)  In 2016 Donald Trump claimed to represent popular sentiments, while dismissing what he called organized public opinion.  In her book In Trump We Trust, Ann Coulter notes that Trump’s wealth and celebrity enabled him to reach the people directly by bypassing the gatekeepers of the news media and the political class.

The golden age of public opinions was the last two centuries, when often, though not always, these opinions were the province of those minorities whom Tocqueville saw as necessary counterbalances to unlimited majority rule.  Of course the compositions and the functions of such minorities varied from country to country and from time to time.  But they were present within the history of the United States, and in some fields, especially in foreign policy, we may at least note instances when the influences of certain Americans, more concerned and knowledgeable than most of their contemporaries, existed.  (Think, for example, of such men as a House or a Harriman or a Stimson or an Acheson, as advisors to their presidents.)  We ought also to recognize that, about crucial matters involving the United States and other countries, public opinions and popular sentiments were divided—for example, at the American acquisition of a very large territory from Mexico in 1848, or about the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867.  In 1940-41, most of American public opinion favored U.S. participation on the side of Britain in a war against Hitler’s Germany, while popular sentiments were not definite about that.  Today, more than 70 years after that war, the formative functions and even the presence of American public opinions have largely ceased to exist, and the images of public figures have become as important as (if not more important than) their words.  (One example: The choice of celebrities for presidential candidates.)

Political histories are mostly concerned with accounts of public opinion, rather than with evidences of public sentiments.  National languages and national habits have reflected this.  The reticence of the English to express their sentiments, especially publicly, is an example.  One result in England, even now, is that public means something more than statements of spokesmen; at times it even means “people.”  Thus, something like a paradox: In England, wherefrom so many of our liberties had come, it is easier to recognize the existence of public opinions than to identify popular sentiments.  They often coexisted: Both the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 were the result of English (though not necessarily Scottish) public opinions and popular sentiments.  For the following 200 years the history of English politics was governed mostly by public opinions, with public as a telling adjective.  Of course, British popular sentiments were not often identical with public opinions.  Still, champions of traditional English liberties such as Edmund Burke stated that “the people must never be regarded as incurable.”  An example of the relative accord between public opinion and popular sentiment in a time of great danger was when, in 1938, most English people as well as their elected representatives supported Neville Chamberlain’s policy of seeking an accommodation with Hitler’s Germany; but less than two years later, the great mass of the people as well as their elected representatives rallied to and agreed with Churchill.  Today, it is at least arguable that, while English public opinion by and large preferred to remain within the European Union, the majority of the English (though not the Scottish) voted for Brexit.

In the democratic and largely homogeneous nations of Western Europe, important differences between their public opinions and their popular sentiments have been few (and brief).  But we must also consider Adolf Hitler, the great revolutionary of the 20th century, whose creation of a formidable national unity makes the very distinctions of this essay useless.  There are many evidences that popular sentiments in Germany responded to Hitler’s amazing successes at home and abroad.  But about public opinions in Germany from 1933 to 1945 we can ascertain nothing.  From a lifetime interest in the Hitler era (including my relationships with many Germans during those years), I am inclined to argue that among educated Germans Hitler was not entirely popular—but then, he did not need (or want) public opinions.  He had all the popular support he wanted.  It may also be noteworthy that, in the German language, public opinion is “open” (öffentlich).  Popular was Hitler’s favorite term.  His newspaper was the Volkischer Beobachter (Popular Observer).  For him, popular was national, and national was popular.

In much of the world, public opinion by and large meant something like liberal opinions.  Now, after two or more centuries, a change has come.  The appeal of liberalism has faded.  (One indication of this is the sinking appreciation of the adjective liberal, together with the rise of conservative, an adjective eschewed by many Americans in the past.)  And this is a widespread phenomenon now.  Will public opinion itself disappear?  I am an historian, not a prophet.  But I am concerned with the looming difficulties for future historians.  While many evidences of public opinions are ascertainable, many evidences of popular sentiments are less so.  What were and are the sources, the expressions, the manifestations, the evidences of popular sentiments?  They are full of large superficialities, manipulable, falsifiable, inflatable.  It was and still is possible to reconstruct much of the history of even relatively recent times from divers records, private or public; but popular sentiments are often fluid, ephemeral, and unrecorded.  The task of conscientious historians will be very great.

The structures of societies and of their records have changed.  I can see two elements of this.  One is the disappearance of an American upper class—“upper” not merely because of its wealth but in relation to the culture and civilization of a people, including some of the so-called middle classes, who formed and expressed public opinions in America at times not quite in accord with popular sentiments.  The other element may be more profound and disturbing: the transformation of information from words to pictures.  For at least 500 years public opinions—not always, but often—were the results of words, and at least for two centuries, those words were presented to the people through the medium of print.  The developments of public opinions and the history of the press, including newspapers, were almost inseparable.  The daily press had its own shortcomings and corruptions, but that is not my present concern.  Rather, it is that the fantastic technical extension of all kinds of communications does not and did not improve the intelligence of most people, while popular sentiments have swallowed up much of what once were, more or less, public opinions.  In a dictatorship such as Putin’s Russia—and elsewhere, too—free, independent newspapers are still allowed to exist, because their influences no longer matter.

Tocqueville’s counterbalances against unlimited majority rule may no longer exist.  Nonetheless, images may replace but never put an end to the importance of words.  Still, the rising influence of images suggests the declining importance not only of public opinions but probably of an entire age, which we still call Western civilization after about half a millennium.  But again, people are not incurable.  History shows us that there have been many times when popular sentiments were better than contemporary public opinions—and history was, and remains, unpredictable.