I suppose that this noise is, to some degree, the product of the modern global culture (fetish?) of democracy. It’s not enough that the masses should choose the President, but now they should also tell us what is true or good.
Looking across the world, it’s striking how much the mantra of “public opinion” seems to count, even in countries with considerably less “democracy” than the Western model. Since relatively few countries experience popular revolutions (as compared with military coups), the substantive weight of the “people” in such countries wouldn’t seem to matter much. Does anyone expect marches in Beijing, Moscow, or half of Africa to topple the existing power structure? Popular unrest might prompt insiders to launch a coup, but that aint democracy. So, what does it matter? In other words, “public opinion” (as mediated/defined/invented?) by the press represent anything real or is it just a construct for the chattering classes/politicos?
From a historical perspective, it is hard to find countries where democracy was more than an aspiration before the 20C. Thus, it has always been intriguing to me to see references to “public opinion” in the19C, even in Britain or France (which had as much of a claim to democracy as any (even with only small fractions of the population having a vote)). So, it’s important to read the phrase “public” as meaning “the powerful outside the formal governmental structure” rather than fall into the anachronistic trap of thinking of the subjects of a Gallup poll or the number of “re-tweets.”
Most modern historians would argue that there wasn’t even such a thing as the “public” until the late 17C (England, France, Netherlands, US). The 20C German writer Jurgen Habermas articulated the concept of the “public sphere” to describe the emergence of a group of people who developed and debated opinions on the political and cultural issues of the day, often in the context of salons, newspapers, and newfangled coffeehouses, they were outside the scope of official discussions within the royal court, but including an open-ended group of people, beyond a private dinner party; thus: “public.” It’s hard to imagine the birth of modern democracy without such a space and so, the “public” and its opinion became an essential part of the model.
Very often, pre-20C (indeed, pre-WWII) “public opinion” really meant whatever the leading media of the day said it did, sometimes based on their own views, sometimes based on (the very limited range of) the people they talked to. Sometimes, “public opinion” was a shorthand, used by leading public figures to project their own views and clothe them in the garb of popular support (when it really was just the views of three fellows at the club last night). All-in-all, not worth very much except to create the impression of democracy.
Now, we have polls—lots of polls—which tell us with apparent statistical validation what it is that “the people” think. For many reasons, they can be (at best) a coarse diagnostic tool for understanding our society and its politics. Certainly, they provide fodder for breathless news reports (e.g., “exit polls” for those who can’t wait a few hours for the actual election results) or for the apparently more considered question of whether “the people” have a “favorable opinion of______.” Such questions conflate people’s feelings (i.e., whether they are happy about the state of their lives) with something more objective and analytic (i.e., whether the President is effectively addressing the issues of the day or implementing his promised agenda). It’s all part of the commodification/marketing of politics.
The extent to which we now commonly take polls for politics is symptomatic of the superficiality of modern democracy (both a bug and a feature). The specialization/division of labor inherent in periodically-chosen representative democracy is based on the complexity of modern life and the inherent limited education and short-attention-span of most of the electorate. At best, polls can only provide a directional indication for policy (another reason why California’s law-by-referendum process is so cockamamie).
“Public opinion” is a great concept—in theory. But it is redolent, in Shakespeare’s phrasing, of “sound and fury, signifying nothing” or, to paraphrase the famous line about the effectiveness of advertising: “half of it is meaningful; we just don’t know which half.” It provides news filler, rationalizations, and a substitute for sound thinking. Whenever someone cites it to persuade you of something, makes sure your wallet is secure