Below you’ll find some words of wisdom from Abraham Lincoln, 16th U.S. president and familiar $5 facade man. The basic gist: The American government is designed so that popular opinion rules the day. We see this in play during campaign season when politicians who wish to keep their jobs attempt to align themselves with the values and beliefs of their constituents. Ostensibly, the country’s direction is dictated by the will of the people.
But Lincoln acknowledges a flaw. Public opinion is not firm and resolute; it’s malleable. Whoever can control what the public thinks can swoop in and take control of the American government. Good ol’ Abe never experienced the 24-hour news cycle or viral videos or any of the other tools at the disposal of deep-pocketed influencers, but he was certainly familiar with the power of propaganda and misinformation.
In a way, this ties into another Words of Wisdom post from last week: FDR’s argument that democracy cannot thrive without a well-educated voting populace. The somewhat obvious defense against the saboteurs of public opinion is to steel oneself against their influence. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.
“Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much.”
Quote source: Speech at a Republican Banquet, Chicago, Illinois, December 10, 1856; see Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 2 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953), p. 532.