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Public Opinion and Democracy

Written by: Varun Shivhare, II Year, National Law Institute University (NLIU), Bhopal
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The origin of term 'public opinion' is shrouded in obscurity. The Greeks and the Romans used parallel expressions. The Romans, however, treated consensus populi in juridical sense as distinguish from present political context. Also, the proverb "Vox populi, vox dei" had gained currency during the middle Ages. In the Discourses Machiavelli, too, compared the voice of the people to the voice of God. The phrase public opinion in its present meaning as the agency for the conditioning of public policy was introduced later into the vocabulary of the European politics through France. Jean Jacques Rousseau was perhaps first to use it on the eve of French Revolution. Today, the literature of democracy symbolizes in fact the rationalization of political behavior in terms of public opinion. To quote MacIver, "This incessant activity of popular opinion is the dynamic of democracy."

Nature of Public Opinion

In the field of political theory the concept of public opinion has been subjected to a through analysis in recent years. Still, there is no general agreement as to its meaning or function and in the absence of analytical clarity, the discussion on its nature, to quote Sait, have "often introduce confusion rather than enlightment."
The concept of public opinion came to limelight in the wake of democracy. The governmental policies gradually became the function of opinion rather than of force, and the means for the expressions of opinion like constitutionally guaranteed liberties, elections, political parties etc., were at hand, the role of public opinion in the government came to be generally recognized. The theory of public opinion is thus a derivative from democracy as a form of government.
The broad assumption on which the theory is built are:
1. that the public is interested in government;
2. that the public knows what it wants;
3. that the public has the ability to express what it wants;
4. that the public's will would be enacted into law.

Granting those conditions how should public opinion be defined? To follow Finer, most definitions of public opinion are intended to mean one of the three things:
1. A Record Of Facts. As a record of fact, opinion means such a simple statement as ' the Soviet Union has exploded a super-bomb'.

2. A Belief. As a belief, opinion implies not only a record of facts but also their valuation. It also involves a prophecy about the future course of events. The sentence, 'There shall not be a war on the Berlin issue', illustrate the point.

3. A Will. As a will, opinion is not is not merely a record and valuation of facts; it also asserts a course of action. For example, when we inquire, 'India should go to war with Pakistan over the question of the azad Kashmir-yes or no?' we mean that it is worthwhile to pursue a course of action. In the field of political dynamics, public opinion is intended to produce a concrete governmental policy. Hence, as Finer observes "Politics is most concrete with public opinion as will which, typically eventuates in a statue and in administration."

Meaning of Public Opinion

The role of opinion in government is generally agreed. As Bryce puts it, "Opinion has really been the chief and ultimate power in nearly all time… Governments have always rested and, special cases apart, must rest, if not on the affection, then on the silent acquiescence, of the numerical majority." In non-democratic governments, the people acquiesce in or give passive consent to authority out of respect, habit of obedience or fear of repression. But the distinguishing feature of democracy is that governmental authority is built, controlled and conditioned by the force of an active public opinion.

On the nature of public opinion, however, writers in their opinion. Even if the theory of democracy is accepted and the role of opinion in the determination of public policy is taken for granted, the debatable points are: "What public?" and "Whose opinion?" A political "public" may mean anything ranging from an undisciplined mob to an articulated minority. Again, "opinion" may be rationally or irrationally formed, or expressed. These are similar other problems relating to the concept of public opinion have produced an important controversies.

Traditional Concept of Public Opinion

In the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th centuries the traditional concept of public opinion come to be widely accepted. It was built on the easy generalization that some million individuals could achieve a consensus and form a public opinion on various issues such as taxation, labour legislation, and foreign policy etc. the power of public opinion, as Lieber defined it, is "the sense and sentiments of the community, necessarily irresistible showing its power everywhere," which "gives sense to the letter and life of law; without the written law is a mere husk." Thus conceived, public opinion assumes in the background the existence of the solidity unified, homogenous public. Such was Rousseau's idea; he assumed a society of men, generally enlightened on honest, active in their own political interests and free from fractional associations. Obviously, he considered popular opinion as one and indivisible. Somewhat similar conceptions are found in the writings of number of modern writers. Thus, E.M. Sait observed, "there should be no question about what we mean by calling opinion 'public'; we mean, in the light long established usage, that it is the opinion of the community, the opinion of the people."

A public opinion might be said to have emerged, when any set of views was entertained by an apparent majority of citizens. To quote Bryce, "the term (public opinion) is commonly used to denote the aggregates of the views men hold regarding matters that effect or interest the community. The opinion of a whole nation as made up of different currents of sentiments, each embodying or supporting a view or a doctrine or a practical proposal. Some currents develop more strength than others, because they have behind them larger numbers or more intensity of convections; and when one is evidently the strongest, it began to be called public opinion par excellence, being taken to embody the views supposed to be held by the bulk of people."

According to A. Lawrence Lowell, the opinion of the community is never unanimous. It is normally much divided. Opinion can be characterized as public, only when the majority of citizens accept it. The majority view must be accepted by any dissident minority voluntarily as a manner of convictions rather than coercion. According to Lowell, if any minority withholds consent, or gives it grudgingly or unwillingly, the prevailing opinion cannot be called public.

Contemporary View
The criticisms leveled against the traditional idea of public opinion have paved the way for a redefinition of the concept. Any collection of individual opinions is now designated as public opinion. "such a public need not represent a majority, need not coincide with the electrode, and may not be well advised, depending upon observer's standards or point of view" the modern analysis of public opinion is not concerned with the hypothetical homogeneous public expressing a collective will on matters of public policy.

The term 'public' is now supposed to mean essentially a segment of society. Obviously, therefore, there, may be different kinds of public. A particular type of public may be distinguished by referring to the interests shared in common by the group involved. Accordingly, the labour unions, business organizations etc. fall in this category. Again publics may be geographically identified on the basis of village, city etc. as professor Kimball young observers. "as we see it, the term public refers not to one great mass of persons living in a community, a state, or a nation, but rather to various groups of secondary contact... we use it to indicate various interest groups, especially those marked by the secondary group characteristics. Therefore we shall speak of publics rather than a public." of these publics some, like the political party members, are relatively permanent. Others may be temporarily formed through short duration contacts like the audience in a meeting. A public becomes politically significant when its influence is brought to bear on matters of public policy. Public opinion, as William Albig defines it, "is the expression of all those members of a group who are giving attention in any way to a given issue."
In demonstrate state public policy is function of opinion.

As 'hospitality to a plurality of ideas' is the essence of democracy, a democratic state, in fact, lives by the free organization of opposing opinions. To quote said, "under a democracy, public opinion becomes an active, propelling factor. The people regard the government as a mere agency to which they have delegated power without releasing it from the obligation to obey orders."

The role of public opinion in a democracy is of particular significance on two grounds. In the first place, when free play of opinion is assured, the whole process acts as a check on the overgrowth of power. A government, whatever be its structure, is, after all, an organization of power. Democracy is distinguished from other forms of government by the fact that it is built on the assumption of diffusion of power rather than its concentration in one centre. It functions best when, as Mannheim expresses, a balance in the structure of the community is secured, by allowing opinions to complete peacefully and freely, a democratic structure strives, as it were, to set a thief to catch a thief. It ensures an interlocking system in which no power group can seize an opportunity to outbid others and exert undue pressure on the government. Where through coercion or callousness, opinion becomes paralyzed, the condition spells a danger for democracy. Here, 'eternal vigilance is the price of liberty'; the watchful citizen would speak, following burke 'while I will obey punctually, I will censure freely.'

This brings us to the second important function discharged by public opinion in a democracy. When law becomes a reflection of public opinion, it offers an easy solution to the problem of political obligation. The citizens obey the law, as it rests on their will to obey. The whole process of lawmaking serves to obliterate the distinction between the law-giver and the law- receiver. To quote Macler, "when opinion is free to determine government, policy is not of the acquiescence that submits to force, but of active consent. The level of strength is thereby raised and other goals than those that depend on force are given a higher valuation. To make opinion the basis of government is to appeal to reason- whether you win or lose. It is to assume a common good - whether or not your conception of it prevails."

It the field of political dynamics, the significance of public opinion lies in its ability to influence government, here, as Maciver observes, "we are referring to the modes by which variant opinions find political expression, to the systems under which conflicting opinions are elicited, registered, channeled, and brought to bear on government, and to the devices by which government is made responsive to the trends and tides of opinion." The essential problem is to translate popular thought into political action. As democracy postulates free organization of opposing opinions, the struggle of ideas and the conflict of opinions unravel important spheres of disagreement, agreement and ignorance. These are of the utmost important in a democracy under which government is constantly to adjust itself, for the sake of stability, to the shifting "parallelogram of forces."

Opinions may be reflected in an election, a policy decision, or formal legislative enactment. Once it is accepted that opinion determines political action, the opinion conductors may be found in formal as well as informal agencies. The formal role is played by the governmental agencies like the legislative, executive, judicial and administrative machineries, while the latter may be illustrated by the role of political parties and interest groups.

It is important to point out, in this connection that the rule of public opinion in a democracy is built on one significant assumption. The underlying idea is that opinions are always directed towards the attainment of public interest as distinguished from sectional advantages. This lead us to the problem of propagation of opinion; and in view of the control exercised over the media of opinion in modern times by select groups of interested minorities, there is ample truth in Finer's remark that, "it is clear that between ourselves and the facts occur a number of processes which may distort our reception of them. Therefore, the process of distortion may not solve the problem that we wish to see solved."

The role of public opinion in a democracy is ultimately decided by the result of the struggle between belief and fact. Owing to subtle manipulation of the opinion-forming processes by interested groups, a fundamental distinction has taken place in recent times between what is and what people believe to be. Facts are misrepresented without scruple, and appeals are made frequently to the blind emotions and prejudices of the people. The process of corruption of facts becomes complete when exclusively a powerful group or a capitalist controls the major opinion-forming agencies like newspaper and radio. If government is to be really responsible to the value- preferences of the governed, "MacIver observes, that no opinion-group lacks reasonable opportunity to find avenues through which it can without prejudice, reach the public ear."

Agencies for the Formation of Public Opinion

Opinions on political matters are slowly formed. The common people, as Bryce pointed out, have hardly any interest in the affairs of the state. Some agencies are needed to excite them. Of these agencies, the following are of special importance;

1. Press

For the facts relevant to the formation of public opinion, almost everyone has to depend on the newspaper. As the newspapers are available at a very cheap price, their influence in moulding opinion, with the spread of mass education, has increased by leaps and bounds. Most of the newspapers publish the details of legislative debates, speeches of eminent personalities, announcements of governments and parties and various other news. Not all of them are political; but still political facts are certainly the best for consumption. So, every newspaper takes pains to collect political news and make delicious dishes out of them. The representation of facts is not the only function; their interpretation and systematization into a particular view point are also undertaken by the newspapers. Almost every paper has 'a tendency and dogma'. These are highlighted in the editorial columns. Even the manner of news flashing in headlines or elsewhere on the columns betrays the peculiar character of a newspaper. The readers avidly read the news and come to align themselves with a particular paper. Grievances are ventilated and views expressed by the public through the newspapers. For this purpose most papers earmark a few columns for its general readers. The news and views do not always go unheeded. The government takes note of them and carefully studies pubic reaction against its measures through the mirror of the newspapers play a vital part.

The press is, however, not immune from defects. In fact, it is frequently observed that now-a-days the newspapers have only one function. They are engaged in the ceaseless task of holding a particular type of readers on whom they are dependent for patronage. All possible ways and means are adopted to win the favour of the readers. Thus, every newspaper creates its own devotes who worship it on the supposed belief that it delivers the goods for them. Another significant criticism leveled against the newspapers is that their publishing has become big business; and they are mostly owned and controlled by the 'capitalist class,' the manifestation of an 'uneasy relation between big business and democracy itself. As finer points out, "the amount of objectively true information and balanced opinion is, on the whole, small, and the press has acquired an extraordinary dominance over opinion, aggravating rather than correcting its defects".
A free press is certainly an indispensable agency fro the formulation of public opinion and maintenance of democracy. But as it ceases to become an open forum fro the ventilation of all shades of opinion and is transformed into a tool of big business, it spells real danger. The remedy However, does not lie in governmental interference. For, as sorry rightly observes, " to give a government agency power to censor fact and opinion would draw all the power hungry elements in the community into a struggle to get control of the government. Democracy needs press, but it cannot be found through governmental regulation of the press." That, is fact, would pave the way for the rise of dictatorship. Hence, the solution, if any, can only be found in the inculcation of sound education that will enable the people to select the goods and reject the bad.

2. Cinema And Radio

For communicating ideas the motion picture and the radio are important agencies. Only educated people may be influenced by the newspapers. But, owing to the audio-visual method the cinema and the radio can influence even the illiterate. In the developing countries such as India where illiteracy is widespread, these media are very helpful in spreading mass education. Their potentialities are, however, not fully tapped. The cinema, for instance, has remained almost exclusively a means of entertainment. As it is privately owned, it usually serves commercial rather than educational purposes. Still, however, with the production of good documentaries and other educational films, the cinema may well be used as a means of education and opinion-formation.

The radio, too, is primarily concerned with the function of entertainment. Yet, it is a valuable aid to dissemination of information and formulation of opinion. "some observers have even gone so far as to suggest that radio has re-established that direct contact between political leaders and followers that characteristics Athenian democracy. In most countries as India the radio is however, under government control. Hence, it has frequently been criticized that the radio has served only the party in power. But, as finer points out, "on the whole, no country - whether, as in England, broadcasting by private enterprise, is really exploiting the educative potentialities of radio on the grand scale which is possible."

3. Political Parties

The most important agency for opinion formation is the political parties. To use Lowell's oft-quoted phrase, parties are brokers of ideas. Day in and day out they feed the people with the facts and ideas. Their sole purpose is to rally the people to their side. For, they want to get the majority in the legislature and hold the reins of government. Accordingly, parties 'arrange the issue upon which the people are to vote.' Canvass their point of view, nurse the constituencies, and set up candidates. The people farm the back bone of democracy. The valuable service rendered by parties is that they organize the people and amble them to choose between alternatives. Various indictments have been made against political parties. Their honesty and utility have often been questioned. Still, without them public opinion, which is the prime mover representative democracy, can never be formulated and put to its proper use.

4. Platform.
For educating people and formulating opinion platform speeches are very useful means. Hence, every democratic government guarantees the right to freedom of assembly. The speeches delivered in public gathering sometimes leave indelible impression in the minds of the listeners. All sorts of oratorical skills are employed to influence the public mind. A Brututs may win temporary admiration, and an Antony, a durable fame. Nevertheless, eminent political leaders do set in motion the process of public thinking on important political issues.

5. Educational Institutions

In the creation of public opinion the educational institutions are of considerable importance. The way in which students are trained up in schools, collages and universities greatly influences the future course of their life. The ideas developed in the early ages condition a student's outlook. These educations are intended to stimulate and increase curiosity. But a method of education that robs students of their open mindedness and drugs them with the number of political half-truths is certainly injurious.

This paper throws light on the concept of public opinion came to limelight in the wake of democracy. The governmental policies gradually became the function of opinion rather than of force, and the means for the expressions of opinion like constitutionally guaranteed liberties, elections, political parties etc., were at hand, the role of public opinion in the government came to be generally recognized. The theory of public opinion is thus a derivative from democracy as a form of government. It the field of political dynamics, the significance of public opinion lies in its ability to influence government.

The role of public opinion in a democracy is ultimately decided by the result of the struggle between belief and fact. Owing to subtle manipulation of the opinion-forming processes by interested groups, a fundamental distinction has taken place in recent times between what is and what people believe to be. Facts are misrepresented without scruple, and appeals are made frequently to the blind emotions and prejudices of the people. The process of corruption of facts becomes complete when exclusively a powerful group or a capitalist controls the major opinion-forming agencies like newspaper and radio. Thus public opinion helps to make the democracy and government to, for and by the people.

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