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A Troubled Birth

The 1930s and American Public Opinion

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.

296 pages | 31 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2021

Chicago Studies in American Politics

Political Science: Political Behavior and Public Opinion


“Anyone looking to understand how US democracy ended up in its current troubled state of affairs will benefit from reading A Troubled Birth. Herbst has long been teaching us to reconsider what we mean by public opinion better than anyone, and she’s done it again masterfully here.”

Katherine Cramer, University of Wisconsin–Madison

“In this engaging and wide-ranging book, Herbst emphasizes the importance of broader cultural history in showing that the advent of scientific polling and pollsters in the 1930s did not merely offer a way to measure public opinion for the pursuit of American democracy.  For better or ill, they along with the mass media (radio and newspapers), economic crisis (and how individuals cope with it), President Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership and communication style, political divisions (including on race and immigration), debates in the academic world, entertainment and early “infotainment,” and other visible developments in the United States (and worldwide), that have their counterparts today, turned public opinion which had been relatively amorphous concept into a tangible, multifaceted, and contentious one. This is an illuminating and impressive work.”

Robert Y. Shapiro, Columbia University

"Herbst explores the forces that shape the amorphous thing known as “public opinion,” concerning herself with its quality more than its specific content."

Foreign Affairs

Table of Contents

1                Introduction: Birth of a Public
2                President in the Maelstrom: FDR as Public Opinion Theorist
3                Twisted Populism: Pollsters and Delusions of Citizenship
4                A Consuming Public: The Strange and Magnificent New York World’s Fair
5                Radio Embraces Race and Immigration, Awkwardly
6                Interlude: A Depression Needn’t Be So Depressing
7                Public Opinion and Its Problems: Some Ways Forward
Selected Bibliography

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