It is common for references to ‘the public’, and public opinion, to be used by political actors such as politicians, policymakers and activists to justify and add legitimacy to legislature and policy changes. The difficulty, however, faced by political actors is understanding what ‘the public’ is and why it matters. Acknowledging these varying perspectives matters because it is common for references to ‘the public’ and subsequently public opinion, to be used when demonstrating the legitimacy of conflicting views. Using semi- structured interviews, our recent paper in Politics developed a multi-level framework to further our understanding of why political actors value public opinion and subsequently, how this value then influences the way in which they apply public opinion.
In our study, we define political actors as those who hold political authority (formally or informally) to influence decisions, policies and outcomes. We then categorised these actors into three tiers:
- Top Tier – Those who are formally elected to serve and represent the public, as it is these political actors whose interpretations of the public inform decision-making on behalf of the public. Examples of these include Members of Parliament and local councillors.
- Middle Tier – those who are a part of an established organisation whose role includes producing and promoting public opinion in order to feed this into their work, such as researchers from polling organisations or think tank organisations.
- Bottom Tier – Members of the public who try to encapsulate public opinion via their own work. These are individuals who attempt to construct a political narrative through their own activism and interpretations. These include grassroots activists and community artists.
Building upon S. Herbst’s (1998) concept of ‘reified public opinion’, our three-tiered framework furthers our understanding of how political elites interpret public opinion, and how public opinion is used and moved through political actors to eventually affect policy and legislature change.
In adopting this approach, our findings suggest that the use and value of public opinion differed according to which tier the political actor belonged to. In the top tier, political actors were unsurprisingly concerned how the public and their views affected their re-election, and so influenced how they applied public views. Often, these political actors were more confident and willing to use their own judgement, or that of experts, to override public views. The middle tier aimed to fairly represent all views and then summarise them clearly for the tier above, playing the role of ‘conduit’. Our study found that minority views were especially important to the bottom tier and this aim was especially apparent with issues of class, race and LGTBQ+.
Our interviews demonstrated that public opinion moved through these levels of political actors to inform policy and legislature, where the middle tier often functioned as a conduit for the public and bottom tier for the top tier of political elites. We also found that the middle and lower tier played a crucial role to the public, in that the public at times desires to engage with these types of political actors rather than with political elites directly. Notably, all three levels of political actors were vocal in their support of minority views, and understood that the loudest voices do not necessarily constitute the majority.
Our study and three-tiered framework allows us to conceptualise and understand a more nuanced way of examining the ways in which public opinion is interpreted, offering an innovative approach for future studies.