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.”
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.”
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.