Theme: Society & Culture | Content Type: Digested Read

Moody Times: From ‘I Think’ to ‘I Feel’ in Public Opinion

Stephen Coleman



| 7 mins read

When pollsters, journalists and politicians mean refer to the ‘mood’ of a nation, population or community, to what extent does it resemble and differ from the notion of ‘public opinion’? We are living in moody times in which attention to the public zeitgeist may be more important than polling responses to discrete issues.

Political statements that used to begin with the words ‘I think’ or ‘I believe’ increasingly start with the words ‘I feel’. For example, in an analysis of that seismic shock to the British economy, Brexit, the journalist Jonathan Freedland explained that it was ‘more of a mood than a policy’. Writing in The Guardian newspaper, the political journalist, Andy Beckett, observed that ‘Britain seems in a strange mood as 2023 blearily begins’.3 YouGov conducts a weekly ‘mood tracker’. The polling organisation, Britain Thinks, publishes an annual Mood of the Nation report. Politicians, too, have picked up on mood-talk. For example, last year the Conservative MP John Redwood declared that “foreign courts that do not understand the mood of the British people and what they expect of their legislators?

However, when asked to explain what they mean by political mood, most politicians, pollsters and journalists are somewhat hesitant to state what it means.

In psychological theory, mood comprises subjective dispositional qualities and traits that are empirically observable. In recent years, variables such as fearfulness, bitterness, hopefulness and fatigue are sometimes extended to describe the political psyche of an entire population; an ordering of affect underlying collective political motivation and action.

Some political scientists have sought to produce a quasi-empirical definition of political mood as ‘an aggregate measure of the public's preferences as expressed through opinion polls’. It can be derived, they argue, through profiles of public inclinations as stated in response to cognitively framed preference and attitude questions.

In a society that is increasingly conscious of and governed by waves of public emotion, political mood is regarded by cultural theorists as an affectively diffuse and fleeting phenomenon that resists articulation.

Are the journalists, pollsters and politicians who seek to describe, measure or promote political mood drawing on all or any of these theories, or do they have something else in mind when they employ the term? Between 17 May and 16 June 2022, I conducted in-depth semi-structured interviews with four Members of the UK House of Commons, one Member of the Scottish Parliament, four political broadcasters and three leading pollsters. Each interviewee was selected because they had recently publicly referred to ‘political mood’.

Each interviewee was asked how they would explain to an ‘outsider’ the meaning of the term ‘political mood’. The first was to invoke suggestive metaphors, which can make something seem more meaningful seen from the viewpoint of something else. For example, a BBC journalist talked about “the general flavour… a vibe”.

In similar ways, pollsters spoke about how they sought to ‘penetrate beyond the Westminster bubble’ and politicians spoke about their desire to ‘get a feel for the real world’. It was as if the concept of political mood was so complex that it could only be approached by poetically reframing it.

A second response entailed attempts to define political mood in terms of what it is not. The most common contradistinction was to public opinion. Curiosity about political mood was explained as a need to drill beneath the flatness of data. The implication here is that mood is somehow deeper and inherently elusive; accessing its meaning requires a mode of sensibility that has yet to be fully refined. The unrepresentative noises off from social media should also be regarded as a distraction. These conventional techniques were shunned by some, while holding on to the idea of public feeling as a phenomenon that is worth talking about and tracking.

My interviews were conducted during the heat of the ongoing ‘partygate’ scandal. Several interviewees alluded to the intense public feelings aroused by ‘partygate’ – expressed during phone-ins, for example – as illustrations of something more than an expression of ephemeral preferences. These interviewees were suggesting that people sense, mediate and act upon moods, regardless of whether they are able to articulate what it is to which they are responding.

Of course, there are sceptics who doubt whether political mood is more than an alluring delusion. One Conservative MP thought that the search for political mood of the moment was a delusion encouraged by journalists and lazily bought into by politicians.

Granted, several of my interviewees confessed to a kind of methodological inadequacy in their frequent references to political mood. As one BBC journalist put it, “I am constantly conscious that I cannot measure the political mood. I have no method to do that and there is no science behind that”.

From what mood means to what mood does

Perhaps we should be focussing rather less upon the abstract meaning of political mood as a definable phenomenon and more upon the practical ways in which mood-talk frames public action. I want to suggest that attention to political mood responds to three elements that are re-shaping the ways in which people think, feel and act in the contemporary public sphere.

The first is an increasing acknowledgement of the force and legitimacy of public emotions within the public sphere. Opinion polling was established in an era that took for granted distinctive contrasts between reason and emotion. Poll respondents were invited to state what they thought, not how they felt. In recent decades, this dualism has been called into question by neuroscientists.

Political communication depends increasingly upon the mobilisation of affect. Politicians have become experts in dispositional priming: making people conscious of new anxieties and desirous of ends that they had not previously cared about. So how can a discursive code that has for so long prided itself upon truth claims, however spurious, translate its appeal?

Living in moody times

To live in an era of populist politics is to live in distinctly moody times. Driven by mood, political actors are operating at some distance from settled intentionality. To speak of political mood can seem like a failure to grasp clear perspectives—to enter a zone of uncertainty. But that, I would argue, is the strength of the concept, for is it not precisely such uncertainty and disorientation that characterises most of us most of the time?