A Theory of Public Opinion and Public Discourse

Note: My dear readers, this is an unhinged ramblerant pulled directly from the pages of my personal journal, posted publicly only for reference to send around to friends and colleagues. It should not be interpreted as anything other than the delusions of one man’s mind. You will note that the prose style is dense, florid, didactic, and otherwise not fit for general consumption; that is how I write to myself. Again, this is a personal memo I share only for general interest, and not an attempt at polemic or persuasion, nor a statement of policy. -LNP

Part of the task of political leadership in media democracy—not just government, but also press, parties, education, civil society, major industries, science, religion, and everything that can possibly have public valence, and that can possibly be polarized—is not only to advise and advocate and formulate and administer policy and action, nor simply to balance interests and factions (those being classic tasks of government in general and representative government in particular) but also, per Publius’s dictum, to maintain and manage public opinion, specifically, to channel the passions of public opinion properly, in accordance with the most prudent maintenance of the political hearth.

As they manage and channel opinion they must not indulge any set of opinion too much, for when a set of opinion is too far indulged, it grows bloated and decadent and tyrannical, a lazy knee-jerk consensus whose insipidity is matched by the poshness of those who cultivate it, and the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of which grow ever clearer and more juxtaposed to the realities of the world the longer and more desperately it is clung to by those who have forgotten how to think.

On the other side, those who manage and channel opinion must not suppress any set of opinion too much, for when a set of opinion is too far suppressed, it grows unhinged and resentful and revolting, all the more compelling for its forbidden allure, and all the more deranged for its lack of responsibility and sanity, thus more dangerous and otherwise more pathetic, and always a distortion of truth and utility, not their encapsulation as its adherents will often believe.

Indulged and suppressed opinions might animate the same bodies of opinion at the same times; public opinion is never unified, but always as fractious and divers’ as the body politick in general no matter what; and so this ought not be seen as a spectrum which opinion might be thought to inhabit, but qualities which ebb and flow constantly throughout the same opinions, and all opinions, in the public discourse.

They who manage the public discourse—and this applies to everyone, for every institution and faction, and in a degree every individual, is a component actor in the public discourse—must play the part of channeling these passions productively, neither indulging favored ones nor suppressing opposing ones, but channeling the expressions of all, in relation to each other, toward a well-mannered hearth of a public discourse where all parts have their place and acknowledge it, and each other. This is not “free speech” although free speech is a general characteristic of this done competently. It is neither an assault on human freedom, so much as it is an accurate assumption, that human freedom takes place in the context of systems of power—we live in a society—requiring some general prudential ordering habits such that freedom might not destroy itself. Pessimistic about plebiscites, optimistic about representation.

And of course, the deepest problem remains that most who pretend to be impartial or responsible arbiters of public discourse, tend to simply indulge some opinions and suppress others, and so many different institutions and factions do this in so many contrary and contradictory ways, that the feared [and in my personal opinion, simplistic and misinterpreted] “post-Babel” world is in fact magnified by our broader discursive sphere, and the decadents and the unhingeds bemoan the end of the republic as they indulge their own fantasies and are suppressed by the acolytes of other fantasies. A little bit of internal self-regulation would fix this among every institution, but most are insufficiently sentient unto themselves to realize it.

So the management of public opinion’s passions—mark, we already do it, we just do it so pathetically badly—is not just an intellectual role, but is as much a political role. It requires personable leadership and all qualities of empathy, charisma, rhetoric, etc., for in some sense the leader in this sphere shouts and harangues their own crowd, calming its flames and redirecting its shouts; and, it requires stately and strategic qualities of grand vision, genius for assessing the parts of the whole, general sense of ends and means, aims and principles, the swathe of history. Beyond these it demands intellectual depth, honesty, and insight, and most of all it requires a sense of measure, an ability and a willingness to see beyond one’s institution’s and audience’s nose, and to speak as frankly as might be done, on the realities of things. Even while such roles are not always political or governmental, they are always public, and so the social ministers of the public discourse are a diverse and crucial lot, who do not even know their task. But it is a task that, if done better, would deeply leaven our society, politics, and whole practice of public life.

This sort of leadership is in some ways open only to the elect few, but in more ways is truly open to all, a requirement of the aristocratic best of citizenship in a democracy. All who would be leaders ought cultivate it. They must assume objectivity and rationality are not independently possible, that subjective feeling and interest and passion cloud and guide all thought, no matter how clear; that public opinion is based not on fact nor on reason, but upon feeling and interest and passion etc., and thus must be “reasoned” with on its own terms, not on others’ terms; that it will not and cannot change, but with deep respect for it and its hearthy sources; that working through and with this reality, vigorous and fair and charitable and spirited places of public discourse, of all dispensations and for all communities and by all interested parties, ought be maintained by strictly applied practice and ruthlessly enforced habit; that dignity, of dissent and of consent alike, and all the rest, is the most important thing to protect in these spaces; that this opinion being the essential basis of all politics, all government, and all sovereign legitimacy, it is the duty of they who would manage it, to hold themselves to the highest standards aforementioned, and beyond; and that this does matter, for here is one of those otherworldly trysts where the purest habits of personal intellectual life and social discourse, and the highest standards of public discourse and common life, despite all their other contradictions, just happen to intersect, and kiss. Here is where honest men and women in public life may perhaps prove themselves; there are vanishing few spots with such prospect.

So for both preservation of one’s own personal virtue and protection of the public good, ye mighty, ponder well the habits and convictions of a decent public discourse.

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