Public Sentiment and Its Powers, Part II, Mariam Thalos

Walter Lippman, an American critic of democracy, wrote:

What then are the true boundaries of the people’s power? …[F]or a rough beginning let us say that the people are able to give and withhold their consent to be governed — their consent to what the government asks of them, proposes to them, and has done in the conduct of their affairs. They can elect the government. They can remove it. They can approve or disapprove its performance. But they cannot administer the government. They cannot themselves perform. They cannot normally initiate and propose necessary legislation. A mass cannot govern (1955, 14).

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Article Citation:

Thalos, Mariam. 2023. “Public Sentiment and Its Powers.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (6): 1-20.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

Editor’s Note: Mariam Thalos’s “Public Sentiment and Its Powers” will be presented in two parts. Please find below Part II. Please refer to Part I. The PDF of the entire article is linked above in the Article Citation.

This point of view shortchanges the power of the citizenry—for example through public sentiment—to exert pressure on everyday activities of government. Lippman concedes that the people can “approve or disapprove”, but he is skeptical of this as having much of an effect on governance, on the “performance of government”. And this is, apparently, because the people do not “initiate and propose … legislation.” Perhaps Lippman never saw a successful public protest movement.

Homing In: On the Power for Social Change

Lippman’s skepticism is at one end of a spectrum as to the power of The People. And it could not be more wrong—the fear of public sentiment is felt even by legislators in democratic societies—a fear that is palpable to the public itself. The fear of public sentiment impacts on how legislators vote, on the legislation they put forward, what they say in public, and whether/when to run for office. In fact, public sentiment is impactful even when the regime on which it bears is far from democratic. This where my argument will begin.

Fear, as we’ve already seen, creates sentiment falsification. This is the fear created by the tyrant. But what is the tyrant himself afraid of, that causes him to work to manufacture even more powerful fear in his subjects, fear enough to falsify?

From the beginning of history there has been the idea that the tyrant is afraid of truth. This isn’t quite right—tyrants employ spies so that they aren’t surprised by truth—surely Kim Jung Un had his informants. And tyrants typically aren’t all that afraid of the truth of their own misdeeds getting out—and maybe shouted from the rooftops by a dissident. After all—and this is true of Kim—that is the point of power theatre. True report on that theatre is on his side. It does the work of creating fear. And even when a truth is inconvenient, the tyrant is in possession of tools that battle it—a tyrant, with the power to broadcast can have his preferred falsehoods broadcast from the rooftops. So what is the tyrant afraid of?

He’s afraid that the message he is spreading won’t actually have the desired effect of fear and sentiment falsification. The tyrant is afraid of your knowing that I know that you know that all your neighbors know that the average person on the street disapproves of him, the tyrant. He’s afraid that this is sufficient for us to rise up against him. Because, in spite of all the guns he’s got, we have power too, even if we have no weapons of any kind. We have People Power. And at least sometimes, that’s enough. He’s afraid that we will come to know this fact too. That it will be shared as public sentiment among us. In other words, the tyrant is afraid that we will overcome fear and begin communicating amongst ourselves. The tyrant is afraid of People Power.

What happens when we talk amongst ourselves? That is when we threaten uprising—when we threaten the tyrant’s removal from power. The People, even if enslaved and terrorized, can never be forcibly parted from their prerogative to rise up using whatever threat of force they can muster, or even more ominously, none at all—which is absolutely terrifying power to the tyrant. This is the social DNA of humanity. More importantly still, the people can never waive or be forcibly parted from the power to threaten revolt—through irrepressible public sentiment.

The power to threaten is even more potent than the power actually to rise up, curbing—at a distance, if you will—tyrant action even when The People do nothing. (Tyrants frequently fear the appearance of being unwanted even more than they fear ouster—ouster can mean anything from simple removal and loss of the benefits of tyranny to death, but being unwanted, especially as marked by a popular uprising, means a negative legacy.) Thus the specter of popular uprising maintains a tyrant’s behavior within certain bounds, even in a repressive regime, and even when not a single member of the public ever thinks about rising up. That is serious power, exercised without the lift of a finger by individuals who never even give the prospect any thought.

It is something like the quality of dominance that biologists ascribe to certain so-called “alpha” organisms, an advantage they enjoy over their conspecifics due to certain physical qualities; dominance, exercised without violence, has the effect of, for instance, suppressing reproduction in dominated individuals among our primate cousins. People power, by contrast, is a collective power exercised from a position of being the collectively dominated. It is power that a People exercise against their sovereign, whether that sovereign is tyrannical or not.

While the entire polling industry believe that what they are doing, by way of measuring public sentiment, is counting judgments/thoughts held privately, I instead suggest that what we need to do is focus on what is public and known to be held in common. I’m saying, in other words, that when you are trying to figure out the opinion of the “public”, what you have to do is look at public realities—signals of sentiment—because what you want to measure is the extent to which the public is ready to stand up for something—ready to act. And this has to be visible at grass-roots level—people have to be able to see one another’s readiness to act, if there’s to be any readiness to act.

The best argument for my position is as follows: if public opinion were merely the aggregation of private sentiments, as pollsters presuppose—if that’s all public sentiment amounted to—then it would make no sense that tyrants would be concerned about it or seek to repress it. After all, we have a hell of a time measuring that when we try with armies of polling agents and statisticians. That feature of the world is clear only in hindsight. And as we’ve already noted—private judgments can be counteracted with fear. Equally, suppression of dissidents is not the suppression of thought; it is the suppression of the expression of thought, especially its expression in ways that are sticky and brave, and therefore infectious—and that means, public.

This is why the tyrant manufactures their own polls, and why they put on election theatre: to create the impression of a public sentiment that favors them, whilst simultaneously working at inhibiting the rise of one. Tyrants play-act at being concerned with popular opinion, touting fictional approval ratings, manufactured ex nihilo, even as they prevent actual efforts at measurement of public sentiment. This is pure theatre; no one is taken in by sham elections. But for repressive regimes, approval must be the headlines, even when no one believes the headlines. What are the headlines doing? One might think that the tyrant wishes to shape public sentiment. This, by itself, is testament to the absolute power of sentiment. The trouble for the tyrant is that no one is taken in. But fictional polls and publicized high approval ratings can do something else—they can create distraction and fog. Their true function is to prevent a true public sentiment actually being stood up by the public. And they make it easier to paint dissidents as public enemies.

Public Sentiment: From Signals to Common Knowledge

The tyrant fears the emergence of true public sentiment, especially a dissenting sentiment. True public sentiment is a phenomenon related to what now goes by the label “common knowledge,” a concept first articulated by founder of game theory, Thomas Schelling in his magisterial book Strategy of Conflict wrote at the height of the cold war:

When a man loses his wife in a department store without any prior understanding on where to meet if they get separated, the chances are good that they will find each other. It is likely that each will think of some obvious place to meet, so obvious that each will be sure that it is “obvious” to both of them. One does not simply predict where the other will go, which is wherever the first predicts the second to predict the first to go, and so ad infinitum. Not “What would I do if I were she?” but “What would I do if I were she wondering what she would do if she were wondering what I would do if I were she … ?” (1960, 54).

Common knowledge, for Schelling, is a result of individuals coming to a conclusion, and so forming an expectation, NOT of what their own minds contain at the beginning of the exercise, or what is contained in the minds of their counterparts (in a kind of autonomous way), but of something that comes subsequently to be shared between them and known to be so shared. The latter is the more important criterion. How is it possible for something to be known to be shared? Here is my answer—which is not uncontroversial:

Common knowledge is not simply a settled body of facts or beliefs. As I read Schelling, I understand him to say that common knowledge is instead a body of experiences, potentially different for every person (given that they arrive with different prior knowledge, experience and context), but from which each is able to anticipate the judgment/behavior of the others, using a powerful but difficult to codify suite of strategic reasoning skills—they have to anticipate each other’s reactions to each anticipation of themselves, and so on ad infinitum.

Common knowledge isn’t merely a matter of reading a kind of snapshot of what’s currently in people’s minds. It’s instead a matter of working out what everyone else can work out AS anticipatively shared among us. This has a deeply aspirational quality, a kind of mind-melding magic. Common knowledge is a phenomenon of Reason itself, connecting individuals together as though with glue. And the reason why we focus upon it as the fundament of all public sentiment formation is this: it is not subject to a persuasive counterfeit. When the tyrant creates a report on a manufactured public sentiment, it fools no one; this is because the public instinctively knows that public sentiment is not created that way. What the counterfeit does is simply halt the formation of true public sentiment, by creating the fog we spoke of before. This may be enough to serve the tyrant’s ends. But frequently, that stay is temporary: The People often—not always, but often enough to be inspiring, and frequently because of the work of activists—work out ways to circumvent the block to formation of the sentiment required to take collective action against tyranny.

The logic by which the reasoning outlined in the quote by Schelling above converges has proven quite logically challenging to write down, as the history of philosophical writing on the topic will attest.[1] Still, we soldier on—this is the most promising lead on how to connect the unarmed dissident with the fearsome populace assembled against the tyrant. In the highest form of flattery, let us imitate Schelling thus:

Public sentiment: One does not simply try to guess others’ opinion or report on one’s own. It is not “What do I think?” or “What do the most people think?” but instead “What would a randomly picked person say that a randomly picked member of the public thinks that a randomly picked person would say that….?”

A thoughtful person, with some evidence and enough thought, might be able to work it out—especially if it is a unified thing. This being so, under the right conditions it will be available to a vast portion of the populace, and not subject to interference by any imitation that the tyrant can produce.

If this insight is accepted, we converge upon the idea that public sentiment isn’t simply a settled body of beliefs that one can look within oneself or (more impressively still, others) to report upon—in the case of the ideal pollster. Like common knowledge, public sentiment rests on a corpus of experiences, including signals sent and received, overt and otherwise, which corpus will be different for every relevant member of the public, but from which each of those who are in a position to form a judgment as to public sentiment will do so, by applying a powerful suite of social temperature-taking skills.

To say it differently: an appreciation of public sentiment isn’t merely a matter of being in possession of knowledge of what’s in one’s own mind or that of relevant other members of the public; it is rather an entire suite of skills put to work in service of working out what a randomly selected member of the relevant public would be able to work out as common among the members of that same public. And the term “public” (like the term “popular”) is one whose referent can shift—there is nothing to prevent it referring to a feature of a small group, even though it most frequently is employed as a term for referring to features of an entire national population.

The literature on common knowledge, and what it amounts to, is rich in elements of strategic reasoning connected with the logical and inferential apparatus of the assumedly typical rational agent. Public sentiment has to be connected up with this literature (and potentially more still, but that is a point for another time). What is quite clear is that public sentiment, like common knowledge, rests on a corpus of signals, mutually appreciated as signals, even when not every member of the public has knowledge of all the same public signals.[2]

The family member processes private inputs in order to devise its construals of the sentiment of close family, friends and colleagues. And when it comes to working out public sentiment, there is typically a larger quantity of signaling to work with—indeed there might also be some entire channels of communication, and nowadays there are a multitude of virtual channels (on electronic circuitry) on which communications of the relevant sort might arrive. Between the thin trickles (in some societies) and the deluges (in others), individuals need to learn how to employ whatsoever they are in receipt of for the sake of discerning their “local” public sentiment.

A glimmer of confirmation that this conception of public sentiment, how it is negotiated among individuals, and how it in turn shapes the sentiments of those who engage in trying to work it out, can be seen reflected in the work of Galesic and colleagues (2018). They show that polls asking people about how they think others (friends of relations) will vote, performed much better at predicting margins of victory in elections than the traditional own-intention question. What I think this show is that people understand what’s going on in other’s minds much better than what’s going on in their own; at any rate, they are paying attention to the right things in that connection, while their own minds are still not sufficiently clear to themselves—after all they might still making up their minds right up until they enter the ballot box.

How can it be that people grasp the workings of the minds of people around them better than they do their own (when asked, for instance, how they intend to vote in an upcoming election)? For several reasons.

First, an individual’s opinions are routinely in flux, at least when they are considering an issue; and it is genuinely hard to predict where any individual’s mind will land. To be sure this is true of all the individuals, but when one focuses on one’s own mind, one may be more inclined to be drawn to what is not yet settled.

Second, when looking out onto the landscape of signals, an individual will see only what others have “broadcast” to their community. Such signals will be much better guides to what the collective will do—indeed a signal from one individual is likely to influence the behavior of other individuals, and hence the signals as a whole are stabilizing factors, and consequently better predictors than other, more private (and more likely to be shifting) materials in a given individual’s corpus.

Third, since individuals mistakenly give too low a weight to the opinions of others in shaping their opinion, they rely less upon public signals to predict their own behavior. In some sense, this is rational—since one is engaged more in making up one’s mind rather than in predicting. Still, this renders one’s behavior less opaque to oneself.

There are also external forces trying to shape public sentiment—external to the process of negotiations we have been discussing, forces that act without being open to shaping. These are especially potent in repressive regimes. And these pose perhaps the greatest threat to discerning and/or taking the measure of that organically grown public sentiment. In exerting pressure on public sentiment from the outside, these forces undermine the very possibility of the existence of a public opinion. They do it by creating fear of expressing opinions non-aligned with those of the regime, or simply by rendering it simply much more prudent to falsify sentiment, as we have already noted.

Divided Sentiments

Let’s assume that sentiment falsification, at least on an array of subjects, is rare to nonexistent in a particular population on a particular topic at a particular point in time. Let’s also assume that there is a wide array of public signals on the topic; any large enough sample of the public materials is representative (in the statistical sense) of the entire mass. These are very favorable hypothetical conditions for the existence of a clearly discernible public opinion on that topic—let’s suppose it is the question whether or not the President is doing a good job. A random person will tell you that a random person believes that 2 out of 3 people approve of the President (and there’s good reason to suppose, under the circumstances, that formal surveys by reputably firms, would agree roughly with that estimate).

Is this a case of failure of public sentiment? I am inclined to think that this is rather case of success rather than failure of public sentiment. It is a case of a divided sentiment, but not of inscrutable or nonexistent public sentiment.

What do we say, supposing now a different hypothetical scenario, in which certain high-ranking figures in one political party privately acknowledge the winner of a free and fair election to be the opponent party candidate, but (cravenly) do not do so in public, despite a vast amount of public evidence in support of incontrovertible evidence made available for public consumption. Instead, they insist that they’re withholding judgment until a long slate of court challenges have been resolved? Can there exist such a thing as public sentiment in this instance? This is a much more difficult case. This is not only because the figures in question are sending public signals that are misaligned with their privately held judgments; they are to be sure engaging in a form of sentiment falsification, but something more besides.

Falsification by high-ranking political figures does something even more potent that falsification by rank-and-file citizens: it shifts opinion by great seismic action because such figures are indeed thought leaders, as it is often said. But their signals also have an outsize affect in terms of shaping the sentiment of others.

The example we posed in the previous paragraph does something intermediate between shifting public sentiment and having no effect. By withholding anticipated signals—anticipated due to the public evidence—anticipated signals that would otherwise stabilize public sentiment around actual poll results, they create conditions for de-stabilization, undermining (as perhaps intended) the normal movement of public sentiment towards convergence.

A Counterexample?

Here is an interesting test of my proposed analysis. Suppose that in yet another hypothetical scenario, people in their hearts feel one way about an issue, but—let’s assume due to fear—they’ve put on a theatre of public sentiment that is diametrically opposed to that sentiment. For example, they express disapproval of the election fraud that occurred during a certain presidential election, but secretly no one either inside or outside the government, in an official role or otherwise, believes in the slightest possibility of fraud because there is not a shred of evidence. This is altogether possible and might even be actual in certain States in the United States in 2021. Now, the analysis of public sentiment I have proffered pronounces that public sentiment disapproves of said fraud, assumed as actual.

My analysis thus posits that public sentiment is on the side of what people SAY, rather than what they THINK, even where there exists private knowledge that things in the public sphere may not be as they seem. I want to stand by that. Thus I do not take this case to be a counterexample, so much as a distinctive feature—it’s not a bug but a feature of my account. Thus I affirm that, even when people in their depths think one way, they can proceed on the surface so as to participate in standing up a public sentiment that represents them as thinking otherwise. I stand by this because I cannot but respect the autonomy of public sentiment, which can take on a life and political logic of its own.

Let’s go back to Georgia. There is a mountain of objective evidence testifying to the nonexistence of voter fraud in the recent presidential election there. This evidence has been made public. Still, there are thought leaders swearing baseless claims of election fraud. How can anyone privately believe there was fraud? In fact, it doesn’t matter what people believe in private. The logic of this circulating sentiment requires legislators associated with the party of the thought leaders to address the fake fraud—for how does it look when those who aver fraud do nothing about it—and don’t punish those who certified the allegedly fraudulent election? It’s no wonder the state legislators required to vote on the bill asked the original drafters not to bring a bill forward.

Clearly, public sentiment is a thing that moves and shakes, and changes the course of events, even when it truly represents nobody. Whereas the purely private has no chance of moving and shaking. What people SAY really does move the needle.

Public Sentiment and People Power

It will perhaps be clear by now that the notion of public sentiment, suitably re-engineered, is a fitting mate to that of People Power, with the latter understood as the power of (nonviolent) civil resistance. For if we appreciate that public sentiment is forged collectively, through a process that gives highest weight to implicit negotiation, and results in public sentiment and private sentiment in a relationship of mutual dependence, with the former capable of a life of its own; and if, furthermore, we appreciate that the forging of public sentiment is something that can be disrupted by injections from those who try to shape it especially for authoritarian purposes, then two things become immediately clear:

(1) Successful resistance to authoritarian regimes must counter the power to undermine the grass-roots route of forging public sentiment;

(2) Once that autonomy has been reclaimed, The People will have taken the first steps against the would-be-sovereign—and the latter will already be on the back foot; this is People Power!

(3) But when public sentiment is forged from the outside, damage will be done to the autonomy of public sentiment, and the logic of the unfolding narrative being will be unpredictable, depending on the number of angles of pressure being exerted upon it.

It thus becomes clear that the formation of public sentiment, specifically around approval of a government or its policies, is a fundamental resource for a civil resistance movement.


There is a reason why I have sought to shed light on, and in the process re-engineer together the two conceptions we have discussed. Understanding successful grassroots movements in a detailed way requires it. Indeed, so does understanding the lack of success enjoyed by unsuccessful movements: understanding lack of success requires saying what is missing. And this is the connection between connected individual activities, at ground level, with the higher-scale phenomenon of public sentiment, and consequent result on the political scene. If one is skeptical of the existence of that higher-scale phenomenon of public sentiment, one will miss out the phenomenon entirely.

Movements, as such, are macro things. But they are launched in the first instance by micro activities at ground level, that comprehend not only efforts at communication but also efforts at persuasion and ally-creation—some of the most important work of the powers of reasoning. We will not understand movements, or their chances of success, without understanding the interplay between what happens at ground level and what is visible to all at a macro scale. Moreover, the efforts to put down movements will remain invisible (movements like the Black Panthers, the multiple anti-police protests, and anti-Confederacy protests against “lost cause” narratives) so long as we allow the narratives that won the war against those movements are not understood for what they are, namely efforts to shape public sentiment.


Earlier versions of this paper were presented at University of Miami Philosophy Dept (2021), University of Tennessee, Knoxville, College of Arts and Sciences College Conversations series (2021), Union College Philosophy Department (2022), International Network of Economic Methodology Conference 2021, and PPE Society 2022 conference. I am grateful for helpful suggestions and comments from audience members at these presentations. I acknowledge the debt I owe to friends and colleagues who read and provided feedback, suggestions, and encouragements: Angie Batey, Nina Fefferman, Lije Millgram, and Leo Zaibert; as well as members of my family: Robert Richardson, Oliver Richardson, and Elijah Thalos. It is not always possible to remember the sources of help and inspiration, but I am uncommonly grateful for the many directions from which all these come, even if I cannot always pay them proper credit.

❧ Please refer to Part I of “Public Sentiment and Its Powers.”

Author Information:

Mariam Thalos, (PhD, University of Illinois/Chicago, 1993), is a distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She is a philosopher of science, first and foremost, focusing on physical, decisional, and human sciences, including formal decision and game theories. She is also active on philosophical topics around practical reasoning, including action theory, phenomenology, and theories of freedom. The author of two monographs and more than 100 articles and essays, she is currently working on a comprehensive philosophical study of human reasoning in the wild.


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[1] Cf.

[2] Signaling is a phenomenon found throughout the animal kingdom. A signal, by contrast with a sign, is a piece of communication between individuals, often conspecifics, but could also be transacted between members of different species. Honest signals constitute real evidence for the thing signaled about—it is like a sign; but unlike a sign, its evolutionary origins are communicative. The Wikipedia entry on signaling theory is actually a very fine survey of the topic:

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