Susan Herbst’s Reading Public Opinion: Further notes from a reading group

by Matthew Powers

By Matthew Powers, Dave Karpf, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen and Chris Anderson

 In politics, “public opinion” represents something of a catchall term: politicians claim responsiveness to it; journalists assert a professional duty to help shape it; and activists often profess acting on behalf of it. Yet as Susan Herbst shows in her important book, Reading Public Opinion, no single “public” lay behind the claims of these various parties. Instead, the term means different things to different participants in the political process – and the social spaces and communication environments that actors occupy shape these differences in important ways. A key task for scholars of political communication, therefore, is not simply to understand “public opinion” on a given issue (e.g., via opinion polling) but to understand how different participants construct and understand what public opinion is and what role it ought to play in the democratic process.

At the heart of Herbst’s book is a call for taking seriously the “lay theories” of participants in political process. By lay theory, she refers to the experientially based ideas actors hold about what public opinion is, how it operates and why it matters. She acknowledges that such theories have no scientific basis (in terms of external validity), yet argues that they nonetheless exert important effects on the political process by shaping political actors’ views of whose opinions count as public. Reading Public Opinion is thus an attempt to gather these various lay theories together, show how they interact and analyze what they mean for the democratic process.  

The book takes the Illinois capitol of Springfield as its site of empirical inquiry. Herbst conducts interviews with over 40 policymakers, journalists and activists to learn what they understand public opinion to be. She finds that policymakers – concerned as they are with crafting legislation – first look to lobbyists and interest groups for views on what is required in their constituencies. At the same time, policymakers also use the news media as proxies for a citizenry to which they have little direct access: they try to anticipate and respond to news coverage, as that coverage serves as a stand-in for the public opinion of the citizenry at-large. By contrast, journalists reporting on legislative affairs understand something different by the term. To them, public opinion refers to the news audience. The reporter’s task is to provide that audience with the information they need in order to form opinions about legislation. In Herbst’s analysis, policymakers and journalists conflict with one another precisely over questions of which party best represents “the public”: journalists express skepticism of the “spin” policymakers and communication directors put on news, while policymakers see journalists as biased against government. Both views, she suggests, stem more or less directly from their lay theories of public opinion.

Herbst’s chapter on how activists view public opinion shifts away from the state-level and draws on national survey data of party delegates to the national Republican and Democratic conventions. Unlike policymakers and journalists, she finds activists more likely to see public opinion as aggregate-level individual views rather media coverage or interest groups. Much more than the other two groups, activists are likely to see opinion polling as a legitimate expression of public opinion. It’s worth noting that her definition of activist here refers primarily to party activists – it would be interesting and useful to expand the inquiry to include groups with an interest in shaping the political process but without any clear party affiliation.

The book’s final chapter aims to tease out the normative implications of the various lay theories her research unearths. Drawing on her interview data, she shows how different actors maintain different views on democratic theory – some more elitist, others more representative and still others more participatory. She then connects these views with long-standing scholarly debates – stretching back as far as classical antiquity – on what the political process ought to entail.

Reading Public Opinion stands out as an important piece of political communication scholarship and its qualitative research design is key to its importance. Rather than assuming public opinion to have a fixed meaning, Herbst begins from the premise that the concept is essentially contingent. As such, public opinion is not so much a fact awaiting discovery so much as a fact that must be built, maintained and contested. The book offers a key account of some of the ways that happens at a key level of politics. At the same time, transformations to our contemporary communication environments raise interesting questions about whether the lay theories of actors are changing. The emergence of new techniques – audience metrics, consumer data, etc. – that bring “public opinion” into being raise important questions how political actors view the democratic process today and how they go about reading public opinion into it. Written more than 15 years ago, Reading Public Opinion provides an important exploration of the construction of public opinion at a specific point time. The time now is perhaps ripe for further empirical exploration.


Herbst, Susan. 1998. Reading Public Opinion: How Political Actors View the Democratic Process. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.