Breda O’Brien: ‘The spiral of silence’ in European and Irish politics

While people may remain silent in public on controversial issues, in the polling booth things may be different

People in polling booths before voting for the European Parliament elections in Lyon. Photograph: Olivier Chassignole/AFP via Getty Images

In the 1970s Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, a German polling and communications expert, developed a theory that she dubbed the spiral of silence.

It remains relevant today, as illustrated by the recent European Parliament elections and, to a lesser extent, by our local elections.

The spiral of silence suggests that we all have an acute if unconscious sense of what direction public opinion is moving. If we sense the majority view is different from our own, we will self-silence, thereby reinforcing the majority view.

There are some exceptions, for example, what Noelle-Neumann calls the hard core, that is, those who continue to hold and express their unpopular view. They may eventually become so influential that a new spiral starts and their opinions once again become those of the majority.


It is not so much that people change their views as they become less willing to express them. Noelle-Neumann believed that was why opinion polls were so often wrong.

For example, in 1965, when polls asked about voting intentions, the governing Christian Democratic Union-Christian Social Union (CDU-CSU) and the opposing Social Democratic Party of Germany (SDP) appeared to be neck and neck right until the last weeks.

Noelle-Neumann’s Allenbach Institute, however, was also asking people to leave their own opinions aside when predicting which side the public would vote for. As early as July, people said they thought the CDU-CSU would win comfortably, which they did.

She saw this as evidence that while people may remain silent in public, in the polling booth things may be different.

Noelle-Neumann’s life was not without controversy, having briefly worked as a young journalist for the weekly publication, Das Reich, and writing anti-Semitic articles. She claimed she had to write in an anti-Semitic vein to survive but had never agreed with the dehumanising and murderous treatment of Jewish people by the Nazis. She also claimed that she was later fired and blacklisted by Goebbels.

Whatever Noelle-Neumann’s past, she was haunted by the question of how Hitler could have risen to power in her beloved Germany. As the far-right Alternative For Germany (AfD) celebrates winning more votes than German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s centre-left SPD in the European Parliament elections, and the far-right National Rally gained 30 per cent of the French vote, her theories appear more important than ever.

Ideas that were once considered repugnant are again becoming acceptable. The Guardian quotes Céline, a French civil servant, who was once afraid to say at work that she supported Marine Le Pen’s party. Now, in the comfortable suburb where she resides, it will no longer lead to being accused of being a Fascist. National Rally pointed to the increase in teachers voting for them as evidence that they have become mainstream.

Noelle-Neumann’s most influential writings date from a simpler time before the advent of social media. No one could have predicted that TikTok would be the driver of political popularity for Jordan Bardella, 28-year-old president of National Rally, who has 1.5 million followers on the platform. The fact that his TikToks are not cringe-making, unlike those of other politicians, was probably a significant factor in capturing one-third of the youngest voters.

Bardella has a carefully cultivated image of being the son of an immigrant lone mother raised in an impoverished Parisian banlieue but, in fact, his divorced father paid for him to go to a private Catholic school, where the majority of students in 2014 were Muslim and/or children of ambitious immigrant parents.

Today, he is the smooth, acceptable face of far-right politics, declaring Islamisation and immigration are destroying France.

In Ireland, the far right is disorganised and too busy infighting and splitting to be a real threat – for now.

The real danger is that mainstream parties feel they have to steal the far-right’s clothes, for example, by becoming tougher on immigration. Centrist parties moving to the right on issues such as immigration just speeds up the normalisation of anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Yet this country’s economy would collapse without immigration.

Asylum seekers are a subset of migrants, and our failures to treat them humanely are well documented. But if we had a fair, speedy process, and a functioning housing system, it would not be the problem that it is.

Equally importantly, the fact that many voters who are anti-abortion have been politically homeless in mainstream parties, aside from Aontú, has meant that a gap opened up as centrist people felt alienated from politics.

Anti-abortion voters were also patronised as a basket of deplorables by mainstream media. This probably led to many people who would have been staunch Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael grassroots members being more open to people with radical views.

Similarly, if every legitimate concern about immigration is characterised as racist, some moderate people will inevitably be pushed closer to the far right.

In the age of social media with its power to accelerate change, spirals evolve with alarming speed. Face-to-face respectful conversation is still important in countering that acceleration but if Noelle-Neumann is right, we are most reluctant to express our real views when we fear negative social consequences. Yet the alternative, that noxious attitudes are normalised, should worry us far more.