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Public Opinion in the United States

How Public Opinion Is Expressed

People can express their opinions through polls, letter writing, e-mail and social media messages and responses, and participation in town halls and other public events such as demonstrations or marches.

There are many ways in which Americans can express their opinions, both directly and indirectly. A major method of determining citizens' positions is a public opinion poll, an instrument that questions selected respondents to assess their views about candidates, a public official's job performance, or issues. Of course, no poll can represent the feelings of every single person. In fact, the percentage of the national population surveyed in most polls is tiny, but publication of those surveys may influence the opinions of the larger population. Polls give a glimpse into how a segment of the U.S. population feels about a person, policy, or issue and can be highly influential.

Individuals can communicate their views to public officials directly in many ways. Letter writing is an effective tool that gives the individual an opportunity to communicate fully and clearly on a particular issue. Groups can employ this method as well to add weight to a shared position. These might be form letters provided by an organization, with individuals simply signing a copy to show support for a particular position. Letter-writing parties have been a popular instrument for producing several letters at once. At these events, a person committed to an issue hosts a group that spends the duration of the party writing letters to key officials about the issue.

Hard-copy letters are only one means of direct written communication today. The public can send government officials e-mails, and social media is now an important tool for constituent communications. These electronic methods can have a significant impact on an official's attention to an issue. One survey of congressional staffers revealed that it takes fewer than 30 replies to an elected official's social media update for the official to seriously consider the views being expressed.

Town hall meetings, a centuries-old form of opinion expression, continue to be important. A town hall is a meeting at which members of the public can ask questions to or share opinions with a politician about certain issues. These are often organized by elected officials as a way of interacting with constituents. While some officials now opt for holding these meetings by phone, in-person events continue to take place. Town halls often attract the most vocal and passionate supporters or opponents of an issue, revealing opinions on both ends of the spectrum. While town halls give individuals an opportunity to speak directly to a public official and hear an immediate response, they have some disadvantages. Attendance is not a guarantee of getting an opportunity to speak, and the abundance of questions generally precludes the possibility of engaging in a dialogue with the public official.

There are several other forms of large-scale, in-person expression of public opinion. Protest marches, sit-ins, rallies, and picket lines have been successful in furthering or creating policy. In 1963, for example, more than 200,000 people marched on Washington, D.C., demanding civil rights for African Americans. The march and many other protests of the civil rights era eventually helped lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Marches and demonstrations on hot-button issues continue to attract widespread participation in both Washington, D.C., and across the country.
The 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, helped spur Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, securing voting rights for African Americans.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-08102