Political Problems, Torah Solutions: Public Opinion

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Public Opinion
02 Aug 2011

Any hashkafic, halachic or political opinions are personal and do not reflect the official psak or policy of the OU.


“How far would Moses have gone if he had taken a poll in Egypt?” – Harry S. Truman

The Political Problem:

Public opinion is either for or against you, your position, or your project. In political life, public opinion is often measured by polling or defined by what the aggregate social space thinks of you. In other arenas of life, public opinion can take the shape of murmurings within a community, opinionated blogs, listservs or mass emails. All of these formats have the ability to influence attitudes about individuals, institutions, or ideas and develop collective perceptions regarding what is universally popular or universally contemptible. What are some options for dealing with public opinion?

The Political Approach:

Typically, there are two political approaches with regard to public opinion – treat it as an authority or completely ignore it.

Many politicians facilitate public opinion as evidenced by the fact that their own positions shift depending on polling results. This was the criticism that former Vice President Dick Cheney lobbed at John Kerry and John Edwards when he claimed at at 2004 debate “These are two individuals who have been for the war when the headlines were good and against it when their poll ratings were bad”.

Politicians often claim that they don’t take polling seriously, but that’s not generally true. They may not take polling seriously when it doesn’t fit their agenda, but the idea of public opinion and the “latest” poll has significant impact more often than not. A cursory search of recent Congressional records revealed over 500 separate speeches which referenced polling; clearly this relates to a politician’s interest at any given moment. Obviously, as Dick Cheney noted, politicians who care too much about the latest polling tend to be fickle in their set of beliefs.

Some politicians, however, do choose to ignore public opinion entirely. Why focus on public opinion that one believes is wrong or misleading? Marie Antoinette presents an excellent example of this perspective. Historians largely criticize the last French Queen for ignoring years of political propaganda, some of it authentic and based on legitimate complaints and some of it fabricated. The Queen’s decision to lump all of it as nonsense and ignore the growing negative public opinion of her monarchy contributed to her fall. So much so, that her famous “let them eat cake” was something she never actually said but was viewed as the pinnacle of her disregard for the French people’s real concerns.

The Torah Approach:

Kohelet offers a phenomenal approach to dealing with gossip in general and it has value for our discussion on public opinion.

The pesukim state “take no heed of all the words that they speak, lest you hear your servant curse you. For often your heart knows you also cursed others.”

This is obviously a practical lesson in not being oversensitive to what is said about you; what is fascinating is the addition of the word “all” when discussing the words to ignore. Obviously there is a level of fabrication and nonsense when public opinion is being disseminated – Kohelet offers the advice that one should not become insecure or focus on all public gossip. Don’t give relevance to the minutiae of personal attack and falsehood which so often find their way find into idle talk, rumor, or public opinion.

When, however, it comes to public opinion which isn’t false or a “curse” of some sort, it would only be prudent to give credence to collective perceptions and certainly a response when warranted. That seems to be the lesson learned from Rechavam, who inherited the monarchy from the author of Kohelet and was faced with very real public opinion – not aimed at him personally – but aimed at the crushing tax burden which the Jewish people felt at the time. Both older and younger advisers offered a “plan of action” to confront these complaints. Rechavam chose the wrong approach when confronting public opinion, but the wise advisers of multiple generations agreed some response was required. To ignore a real issue of public opinion isn’t an option. However….when faced with unfounded complaints or personal attacks disguised as public opinion, this seems to be worth the advice of Kohelet.

Maury Litwack is deputy director of federal affairs for the OU’s IPA | Institute for Public Affairs. A recognized advocacy expert, he has worked with elected officials and municipalities on major aspects of their federal and state agenda. Author of The Capitol Plan, a comprehensive Washington advocacy strategy, he was also published in Business Insider, Fox News, The Hill among others and his commentary has been featured in Forbes and Politico.

To learn more about the IPA, please visit their homepage: OU’s Institute for Public Affairs

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.