A Troubled Birth
The 1930s and American Public Opinion
Susan Herbst discusses her book, A Troubled Birth: The 1930s and American Public Opinion.
Pollsters and pundits armed with the best public opinion polls failed to predict the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Is this because we no longer understand what the American public is? In A Troubled Birth, Susan Herbst argues that we need to return to earlier meanings of “public opinion” to understand our current climate.
Herbst contends that the idea that there was a public—whose opinions mattered—emerged during the Great Depression, with the diffusion of radio, the devastating impact of the economic collapse on so many people, the appearance of professional pollsters, and Franklin Roosevelt’s powerful rhetoric. She argues that public opinion about issues can only be seen as a messy mixture of culture, politics, and economics—in short, all the things that influence how people live. Herbst deftly pins down contours of public opinion in new ways and explores what endures and what doesn’t in the extraordinarily troubled, polarized, and hyper-mediated present. Before we can ask the most important questions about public opinion in American democracy today, we must reckon yet again with the politics and culture of the 1930s.
Jan 25, 2022