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11. Public Opinion: Voice of the People, Critical Thinking Activity
Topic Overview Using the Video Readings Critical Thinking Activity Web-Based Resources




Readings Unit 11

The Readings for Democracy in America unit 11 are available here for download as a PDF file. You'll need a copy of Adobe Acrobat Reader to read the files. Acrobat Reader is available free for download from adobe.com.

Download Unit 11 Readings, Public Opinion: Voice of the People

  • Introduction—Public Opinion: Voice of the People

  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America: “Political Associations in the United States”

  • Paine, “Common Sense”

  • Federalist Papers: “Federalist No. 10”

  • Hahn, “Student Views of Democracy: The Good News and Bad News”


  1. What did Tocqueville suggest was the constitutive element of liberty?

  2. How did Paine distinguish between society and government?

  3. Within whom does the freedom of the state reside in a republic, according to Paine? In what way is it determined?

  4. How did Tocqueville explain the prominence of social organizations within the United States?

Introduction—Public Opinion: Voice of the People

President George Bush derisively dismissed President William Clinton’s administration as governing by polls. While there is no evidence that the Bush administration was any less interested in the polls than previous administrations were, this claim does reveal a public perception of the use and abuse of polls. While everyone would agree that government should do what citizens want it to do, if administrations follow the dictates of the polls too slavishly they appear to lack leadership. Tocqueville explained that above the government’s institutions, “and beyond all these characteristic forms, there is a sovereign power, that of the people, which may destroy or modify them at its pleasure.” The many ways that the sovereign people influenced the government was a central concern for Tocqueville. “It remains to be shown in what manner this power, superior to the laws, acts; what are its instincts and its passions, what the secret springs that retard, accelerate, or direct its irresistible course, what the effects of its unbounded authority, and what the destiny that is reserved for it” (179). Here at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the power and presence of public opinion polls challenges constitutional government and, in connection with the growth of mass culture, threatens individualism and difference.

The Constitution creates and limits the institutions of government. The reliance by the government on opinion polls for support and legitimacy undermines the role of the Constitution in creating governmental legitimacy by giving the branches the power to do whatever the people will allow. For example, in the twentieth century, the executive branch has become the branch of government most involved in war-making. This flies in the face of the constitutional grants of war-making power, most explicitly the power of Congress to declare war. This function is now routinely performed by the presidency. This fundamental constitutional change occurred without a change in the actual document.

Tocqueville noticed that in America there was a tendency for people to look to mass culture for opinion. The pressures of equality, Tocqueville believed, would make authority less appealing to Americans to such a degree that that they would be less willing to take direction from local authorities. He believed, similarly to Madison’s account in “Federalist No. 10,” that local communities and differences would become less important and less valued as the attention of American citizens was commanded by the national public. This identification with the national government, Tocqueville and Madison believed, would reduce the power and saliency of local identifications and reduce the political activity of American citizens. The production of national polls can emphasize this tendency to look to an abstract national identification for guidance and authority.

The readings for this chapter cover several aspects of this problem. The central challenge to democracy foreseen by Tocqueville and institutionalized by Madison constitutes the core reading. Caroline Hahn’s article on the surveys of school children reveals some interesting opinions and beliefs of school children in an example of an interesting opinion survey. These readings contribute to any attempt to understand the destiny of the people.


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