In This Review

A Troubled Birth: The 1930s and American Public Opinion
A Troubled Birth: The 1930s and American Public Opinion
By Susan Herbst
University of Chicago Press, 2021, 296 pp

Herbst explores the forces that shape the amorphous thing known as “public opinion,” concerning herself with its quality more than its specific content. Drawing on political science, cultural studies, and media analysis, she concludes that the “astonishingly dark” decade of the 1930s is the most important time for understanding what American public opinion is today. The cultural cauldron of that period saw the catastrophe of the Great Depression, the omnipresence of President Franklin Roosevelt, the swift diffusion of radio (the first national broadcast medium), and the rise of fearsome totalitarianism abroad on the heels of what had seemed like a solid victory in World War I. The brands of populism that arose in the 1930s, along with the racism, anti-intellectualism, and burgeoning consumer culture fueled by the new national media, produced a public that was and remains less engaged and rational than it is able to be “blown around like a feather by professional persuaders.” The art of polling, another product of this decade, wrongly assumes that interviewees share the perspective behind the questions. Herbst describes polling as a “crude, authoritarian and extraordinarily rigid” way to measure public opinion that cannot hope to discern the forces at work. Other, less rigid types of measurement are not much better (the televised focus group “uses the worst of all methods . . . simultaneously”).