Karl Jaspers On The ‘Phantom’ Public

In Man In The Modern Age (Routledge, New York, 1959), Karl Jaspers writes:

The term ‘masses’ is ambiguous….If we use the word ‘masses’ as a synonym for the ‘public,’ this denotes a group of persons mentally interlinked by their common reception of certain opinions, but a group vague in its limits and its stratification, though at times a typical historical product….The ‘public’ is a phantom, the phantom of an opinion supposed to exist in a vast number of persons who have no effective interrelation and though the opinion is not effectively present in the units. Such an opinion is spoken of as ‘public opinion,’ a fiction which is appealed to by individuals and by groups as supporting their special views. It is impalpable, illusory, transient: ”tis here, ’tis there, ’tis gone; a nullity which can nevertheless for a moment endow the multitude with power to uplift and enjoy.

These are useful–and wise–words to remember during an election season in which voters will constantly be bombarded with invocations of ‘the American people’ and ‘some say.’ The former apparently have a clearly articulated consistent opinion on every single subject under the sun whereas the latter can be reliably expected to express some intuition useful for making a rhetorical point. Candidates will employ these terms to establish their case, while forgetting that it is the results of the election that will establish–with some measure of uncertainty–of what ‘the American people’ want and what ‘some’ will ‘say’ about its predilections. There are many American peoples; they have many opinions; composites of these views are hard to determine and articulate. Even the supposedly clearly articulated group this election season–‘Trump supporters,’ ‘Clintonistas,’ ‘Berners,’ ‘Republicans,’ ‘Democrats,’ take your pick–showcases diversity in many dimensions, making facile generalizations a particularly risky business. (It may also suggest some clues to why polling goes wrong–as it did during the Michigan Democratic primary, which had Bernie Sanders losing all the way up to the day of the actual voting.)

This diversity that is found in an entity all too often supposed to be monolithic perhaps serves as adequate warning against the kind of reckless invocations of the ‘public’ and the ‘masses’ that we will see this election season. So is there no such thing as a ‘public opinion’? What are polls–the ones that tell us that forty-five percent of those polled on topic X would like to see resolution Y–informing us of then? They do, with some measure of accuracy, register and report a visible and palpable uniformity of a kind–but we would do well to remember that to poke the surface of that apparent uniformity is all too likely to introduce turbulence in a previously quiescent state. Changing the manner of phrasing the question or the time of its asking, for instance, as referendums find out all the time, can radically change the results of the poll.

Somewhere out there is the ‘public,’ the masses. No shadow is harder to identify even as it is leaned on and invoked with reckless abandon.

 

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