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Public Opinion: Political Communication

Public Opinion: Political Communication

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Published by phunkstar
An essay on Public Opinion in a political communication context.
An essay on Public Opinion in a political communication context.

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Published by: phunkstar on Nov 04, 2009
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KCB 311Jon-Eric MelsaeterN 4243579
Week 7: Public Opinion
Question 1:
Interpretations of the political sophistication of publics have been many and variedsince the accomplishment of democracy. This essay will firstly discuss the earlytheorisations about ideological sophistication, and then it will secondly criticize theconclusions contemporary political science has reached. As a final point, it willilluminate some of the issues it will face in the current environment. As a whole, thisessay will argue that political science has been too quantitative and has aconsequence become out of touch with the dynamics of the micro- and macroenvironments in today’s society. To understand how interpretations of westernpolitical sophistication has developed, it perhaps wise to look at the ideal from whichit sprung.The classical conceptualisations of democracy are very much ideological. Early on,the political philosophers and scholars of The Enlightenment like Rousseau, Lockeand Tocqueville theorised that one of the key features of democracy is
by an informed electorate. Habermas (1979) introduced the notion of the publicsphere, where involved, rational citizens would meet and discuss politics. Theauthoritarian view that an elite should dictate what is rational and what is not, istruly modernist. The modernists sought to encapsulate in one theory anunderstanding of the hard, non-human world that would allow us to predict (in thevein of science) how everything worked as a system which could be grasped. This isnever more evident than in the benchmark study
The American Voter 
. Mirroring theepitome of liberal, authoritative and materialist democracy, it quite unflatteringlyconcluded that the American citizen was no more than an uninformed, ignorantdupe, and that the job of running the country is best left to the knowledgeable,enlightened elite (in other words, the educated, male and rational bourgeois). PhillipConverse, another materialist-modernist drove the nail further in the coffin byconcluding that most of the electorate had no meaningful beliefs, even on issues thatthe elites had intensely debated (McAllister, p. 174). Ultimately, what politicalscientists like McAllister forget and seem totally blindsided by, is the influence of critical theory.
KCB 311Jon-Eric MelsaeterN 4243579
Dalton outlines the development of what he calls ‘the unsophisticated citizen (Dalton1996, p. 189) and does argue that ‘the elitist theory overlooks the complexities of the democratic process and takes an unsophisticated view of the evidence (ibid, p193),’ as well as implicitly showing the effect of a post modern influence when hefurther explains how the conditions for political sophistication has changed. But,Dalton makes a huge mistake when he tries to explain increased politicalsophistication by using television as an example. Although I believe he is right toargue that television has been a huge influence, he is far from competent enough totake on the influence of mass media and include it in his discussion. The complexitiesand the distance between the theoretical foundations are too great. McAllister provesthis beyond what I can even begin to attempt by stating ‘what appears to havehappened is that ideological sophistication did increase in the 1960s and 1970’s, butthe increase was small, and was at least partly the consequence of the politicalactivity generated by the anti-Vietnam war movement (McAllister 1992, p 175).’ What about a little something called feminism, and the enormous rise of socialismthroughout Europe and America (1968 student-revolt ring a bell?)?
[i]t probably was inevitable that early empirical studies would reach negative conclusions about the public political sophistication. Analysts judged citizens against the lofty ideals of classisdemocratic theory, and reality fell short of the theoretical ideals.When this occurred, analysts stressed the shortfall.
(Dalton 1996, p. 203)When Dalton admits that political science has fallen short and concurringly (and quiteunknowingly to him,
) exclaims: ‘[t]o the surprise of some political scienceprofessors, politics is only one part of people’s lives (ibid, p. 203), he also explainsthe sad status quo of political science’s conceptual understanding of the total politicaland socio-economic environment. Dalton and McAllister are used here to exemplifythe understanding of a larger political science surrounding. They have both (longoverdue) concluded that things are a little more complicated than they thought. Theadvancement of new media technologies and the convergent nature of mass mediachange our culture and perceptions and the way we communicate. MarshallMcLuhan, a noted communication-scholar, believed that our culture is moving away
KCB 311Jon-Eric MelsaeterN 4243579
from customs and beliefs based on books, and adopting approaches more suited tothe new media:
Complex circular (feedback) flows, rather than simple linear designs.
Holistic thinking, rather than fragmented ideas.
Multidimensional perspectives on things.
 An acceptance of discontinuity in experience and ideas.
Communication strategies based on appeal to emotion rather than rationality.
McLuhan (1964)The elitist notion of the ‘public-sphere’ has been outdated for some time, and haslong been replaced by what John Hartley theorises as the ‘media-sphere (Hartley1999). When theorising Hartley, Cunningham in
Mobilising the Audience
argues thatthis way of viewing public communication is more useful than ‘Habermas modernistunderstanding of the public sphere standing outside of and even over and against its “mediatisation” (Cunningham in Balnaves et. Al 2002, p. 268).’ One implication onecan draw from this, is that a fragmented media- / political- / socio-economicenvironment creates fragmented audiences with specialised interests. An example of this development is civilian- and commercial lobbyist groups.From a very modernistic starting point, blankly stating that the profession of politicsshould be left over to the elite, reality has finally dawned on analysts that publics aremore sophisticated than they initially thought, the total environment which they haveanalysed has been more complex than their research designs and that it is they thathave had to catch up.
BIBLIOGRAPHYMcLuhan, M (1964),
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
, Mentor books, New York.
Habermas, J.
Communication and the evolution of society 
, Boston, Beacon
McAllister, I. (1992),
"Public opinion",
Political Behaviour: Citizens, Parties and Elites in Australia
,Melbourne: Longman Chehsire, Chapter 4.
Dalton, R. (1996),
"The nature of mass beliefs",
Citizen Politics: Public Opinion and Political Parties in Advanced Western Democracies
, 2nd Ed., Chatham, New Jersey: Chatham House Publishers, Chapter 2.
Hartley, J. (1999),
Uses of Television
, London & New York, Routledge.
Cunningham, S. (2002),
“Theorising the Diasporic Audience,” in Balnaves, O’Regan & Sternberg
Mobilising the Audience
, University of Queensland Press, Chapter 12.

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