Public Opinion

What, exactly, is that "public opinion" that every poll claims to know? Prof. Eidelberg explains.

Prof. Paul Eidelberg

OpEds Paul Eidelberg
Paul Eidelberg

A waggish commentator defined public opinion polls as foolish persons asking stupid questions of ignorant people.  Nevertheless, it’s commonly believed that public opinion should influence the laws and policies of any democratic government. Leaving our waggish commentator aside, what is “public opinion” and how is it manifested?

There are four distinct types of public opinion. Each may be related to Israel, whose elites—politicians and judges, academics and journalists—would have us believe Israel is a democracy.

The first and most familiar type of public opinion is what I call “media-generated” or “statistical” public opinion. This type of public opinion is known by the one-word responses which a sample of the population gives to questions asked by pollsters.

Media-generated public opinion is therefore superficial and transient. Such opinions do not require much thought or inquiry. When Joe or Jane is asked the mindless question—”Do you believe Prime Minister ‘X’ is doing a good job?”—what can a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ reveal about the competence of that prime minister or about the respondent’s understanding of the vast array of problems confronting a prime minister?  Consider, too, how easy it is for a prime minister to confuse or manipulate public opinion. Here’s an example concerning Ariel Sharon whose election as Israel’s prime minister in February 2001 was hailed by “right-wingers” as an end to the disastrous Oslo agreement of September 1993 and the Arab terror that preceded his election.

Eighteen months after his installation in office, a Dahaf poll of August 9, 2002 asked various questions about the performance of his Government:

First question: “Is Ariel Sharon a reliable prime minister?”—63% of Israelis said Yes. 

Second question: “Do you count on Sharon to successfully lead the nation?”—57% said Yes.

Third question: “What grade do you give to the performance of Sharon as prime minister?”—63% said “Good.”    

Fourth question: “Does Sharon have a diplomatic program?”—only 36% said Yes, while 55% said No!  This unfavorable response places in question the favorable responses to the first three questions.

Fifth question: “Does the Sharon Government know how to wipe out terrorism?”—only 36% said Yes, while 60% said No! 

Sixth question: “Since the establishment of the Sharon Government, who has been winning the struggle?”—30% said “Israel,” 33% said the “Palestinians,” while 33% said “Neither”!

From this response one may conclude (a) Sharon is NOT a reliable prime minister; (b) he CAN’T be counted upon to successfully lead the nation; and (c) his performance as prime minister is BAD!

To clinch the point, when asked, “Will the frequency of terror attacks change in the near future?”—67% said it will Increase! And when asked, “Do you fear being hurt in a terror attack?”—77% said Yes!

So much for what I have termed “media-generated” or “statistical” public opinion—which is clearly indicative of the public’s confused state of mind, but a confusion for which one must blame the Government’s lack of moral clarity if not downright prevarication.

A second type of public opinion is “electoral” and “party-generated.” This type of public opinion is manifested during election campaigns, when diverse political parties discuss various public issues and offer the public alternative party programs. Although such debates and programs are usually stated in general terms, still, the program of the winning party can be said to approximate public opinion.  

Consider, however, Israel’s January 2003 election.  The paramount issue was Labor’s policy of unilateral disengagement from Gaza. The Likud and six other parties campaigned against that policy and won 84 seats in Israel’s 120-member Knesset. Even though a vast majority of the electorate had rejected Labor’s policy, it was subsequently adopt by Prime Minister Sharon in December 2003.  What is more, the following year, the Knesset enacted that policy into law by a vote of 67 to 45! Clearly, the Knesset” made a mockery of public opinion.   

A third type of public opinion is “deliberative” and “institution-generated.” It emerges from the kind of public inquiry and discussion occurring in legislative committees and executive agencies. This type of public opinion is embodied in public law and may be said to reflect the “deliberate sense of the community.” It is subject to change, but not as rapidly or as readily as those previously mentioned. But here again Israel, despite its democratic reputation, is an exception.

First of all, since members of the Knesset are not individually accountable to the voters in constituency elections, they can ignore the voters with impunity, as most MKs did when they voted for disengagement. Moreover, they voted for disengagement contrary to the testimony of Israel’s highest military and intelligence officials before the Knesset Committee on Defense and Foreign Affairs. And so, what I have termed “deliberative” public opinion hardly functions in Israel—at least in the domain of Defense and Foreign Affairs.

Thus, after National Security Adviser Maj.-Gen. Giora Eiland resigned from office in 2004, he revealed that every Israeli Prime Minister in the past generation who had initiated a foreign policy move was swept into a process with unexpected results. For example, Menachem Begin never imagined he would cede all of Sinai and "establish" a Palestinian homeland; Yitzhak Rabin never imagined he would effectively create a PLO-led terrorist state; Ariel Sharon never imagined unilateral withdrawal from Gaza would lead to the Second Lebanon War.

One reason for this abysmal record is Israel’s unknown system of prime ministerial government, a non-visible dictatorship. To this add the government’s as well as the Knesset’s indifference to public opinion between elections.

A fourth type of public opinion is “immemorial” or “constitution-generated.” It consists of a nation’s fundamental moral convictions and political principles. These may be regarded as most resistant to change. For example, prohibitions against murder and robbery are not subject, in any direct way, to opinion polls and public debate, nor are such values as due process of law and political freedom. But once again Israel is an exception primarily because its Supreme Court scorns the heritage of the Jewish people.  Here are a few of countless examples:

·         The Court has sanctified homosexuality and same sex marriages.

·         The Court nullified a ban on pornographic movies by ruling that nothing can actually be declared por­nog­raphy, as one man’s pornography is another man’s art.

·         The Court ruled that land purchased by the Jewish National Fund for the purpose of Jewish settlement must be sold to Arabs on an equal footing.

·         The Court has quashed indictments against Arabs and Arab parties which incite violence against Jews or negate the Jewish character of the State.

·         The Court ruled that Judea, Samaria and Gaza are “belligerent occupied territory.”

Since a large majority of Israel’s Jewish population identifies with the Jewish heritage—roughly 25% are Orthodox and 50% are traditional, any candid observer would accuse Israel’s Supreme Court of judicial despotism. 

Far from upholding the rule of law, the Court has imposed on Israel the rule of the judge, or what Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin has called a “gang” of the rule of law, a gang headed by the Court’s Chief Justice and Israel’s Prime Minister.

(For more by the writer, whose basic theme is “How to make Israel more democratic by means of Jewish principles, and how to make Israel more Jewishby means of democratic principles", see Israel-America Renaissance Institute