Book Notes The Media and the Public

The Media and the Public Hot

One of the primary tensions within every democracy has been between the very idea of vesting sovereignty and power in the hands of the "people" and the distrust among elites of the "mob". I don't think there has ever been a democracy where debates over how to reign in and control the "mob" — what changes is how the mob is dealt with. The earliest democracies were more overt in their attempts to control and suppress; modern democracies find ways to get people to control themselves.

Stephen Coleman and Karen Ross write in The Media and The Public: "Them" and "Us" in Media Discourse

The image of the crowd as united by unarticulated emotions, intolerant of individual thought, prone to manipulation by demagogic rabblerousers, and incapable of distinguishing between collective fantasy and reality has prevailed in modern times as a source of elitist fear as well as a justification for authoritarian control of public gatherings.

Nineteenth-century legislation was dedicated to maintaining order by preventing the gathering of crowds. In 1817 the British Parliament passed the Six Acts which required the organizer of any public meeting to notify the local magistrate at least five days before it was held; forbade non-local people from attending such gatherings; and threatened those assembling without permission with a penalty of seven years’ transportation.

These sound an awful lot like the "reasonable" restrictions placed today on public protests — restrictions which the American Supreme Court has consistently upheld as constitutional.

But control isn't just about legal restrictions on behavior and movement... modern public opinion polls are used by politicians to gauge whether and when any controls are even needed.

The motivation for measuring public opinion, we would argue, is anxiety within governing elites. When those who exercise political authority know what they want to do and how to do it, and when they believe that they can do as they wish without provoking the presence of disruptive crowds, there is no need to solicit public opinion. On settled issues of normalized and routinized social practice (companies making profits, children being educated in schools, animals being killed for human consumption), there is no need to resort to the court of public opinion. The jury is brought in when issues are unsettled.

To quote Rose once again, “where mistrust of authority flourishes, where experts are the target of suspicion and their claims are greeted with scepticism by politicians, disputed by professional rivals, distrusted by public opinion, where decisions are contested and discretion is criticized, the allure of numbers increases.” In short, the counting of the public serves as a court of appeal, whereby unsettled socio-political claims are tested.

The mob has to be controlled, but the mob can also be used. Indeed, one of the primary fears about the mob is how and whether someone might use it to achieve undemocratic ends — or at least ends that are contrary to the preferences of the elite. So the next time you see politicians using or relying upon public opinion polls, consider the possibility that they aren't genuinely concerned with what people think and are, instead, more concerned with what they can most easily get away with.

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