Public opinion consists of the desires, wants, and thinking of the majority of the people; it is the collective opinion of the people of a society or state on an issue or problem. This concept came about through the process of urbanization and other political and social forces. For the first time, it became important what people thought, as forms of political contention changed.
Public opinion can be defined as the sum total of all the views held by the public on a particular issue at a particular time. The term public opinion was derived from the French opinion publique which was first used in 1588 by Michel de Montaigne in the second edition of his Essays (ch. XXII). The French term also appears in the 1761 work Julie, or the New Heloise by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Public opinion seems to be much more effective in influencing policy making at the local level than at the state or national levels. One reason for this is that issues of concern to local governments—such as the condition of roads, schools, and hospitals—are less complex than those dealt with by governments at higher levels; another is that at the local level there are fewer institutional or bureaucratic barriers between policy makers and voters. Representative government itself, however, tends to limit the power of public opinion to influence specific government decisions, since ordinarily the only choice the public is given is that of approving or disapproving the election of a given official.
Brief History of the Concept of Public Opinion
The emergence of public opinion as a significant force in the political realm can be dated to the late 17th century. However, opinion had been regarded as having singular importance since far earlier. Medieval fama publica or vox et fama communis had great legal and social importance from the 12th and 13th centuries onward. Later, William Shakespeare called public opinion the ‘mistress of success’ and Blaise Pascal thought it was ‘the queen of the world.’
John Locke in his treatise An Essay Concerning Human Understanding considered that man was subject to three laws: the divine law, the civil law, and most importantly in Locke’s judgement, the law of opinionor reputation. He regarded the latter as of the highest importance because dislike and ill opinion force people to conform in their behaviour to social norms, however he didn’t consider public opinion as a suitable influence for governments.
William Temple in his essay of 1672, On the Original and Nature of Government gave an early formulation of the importance of public opinion. He observed that “…when vast numbers of men submit their lives and fortunes absolutely to the will of one, it…must be force of custom, or opinion…which subjects power to authority.”
Temple disagreed with the prevalent opinion that the basis of government lay in a social contract and thought that government was merely allowed to exist due to the favour of public opinion.
The prerequisites for the emergence of a public sphere were increasing levels of literacy which was spurred on by the Reformation, which encouraged individuals to read the Bible in the vernacular, and the rapidly expanding printing presses. During the 18th century religious literature was replaced with secular literature, novels and pamphlets. In parallel to this was the growth in reading societies and clubs. At the turn of the century the first circulating library opened in London and the public library became widespread and available to the public.