DEMOCRACY AND PUBLIC OPINION
Democracy, commonly interpreted to mean the rule of the people by the people, is in effect an institutional arrangement, which ensures free participation of the people in the process of controlling ultimate political power. But rule by all the people is neither a political myth; nor can we discover the essence of democracy by merely counting heads. Political parties, an extra-constitutional growth in almost all democracies, are the vehicles of ideas, and plurality of ideas involves multiple parties. In fad, parties act as the bridge between social thoughts and political decisions in a democracy. But there are certain vital conditions on which democracy and the democratic method of government depend. These are: coexistence of ideas and also of political parties; universal adult suffrage (a limited or selective electorate inhibits a democratic order and hence must not be allowed; and, what is equally important, the right to free discussion and periodic elections without which the people cannot indicate their political opinions and preferences).
Public opinion, therefore, is vital to every democracy. Maclver, the famous political scientist, said the “incessant activity of popular opinion is the dynamics of democracy.” Governmental decisions in a democracy are the function and outcome of public opinion rather than of force; and just as the means for the expression of opinion, like constitutionally guaranteed liberties, elections, political parties, etc., are available, the role of public opinion in government comes to be recognized.
But what is public opinion? What concrete form does it take as a determinant of Government policy? And how is it formed, articulated and effectively expressed? Most definitions of public opinions imply a record of facts, a belief and a will; opinion postulates valuation; it also asserts a course of action. In the field of politics, public opinion is intended to produce a concrete governmental policy. In short, public opinion is the opinion of the community and of the people. The views of a section of society in a democratic set-up cannot be described as “public opinion”; that is the view only of a minority. The theory of public opinion, derived from democracy as a form of government, and the broad assumptions of this theory, are that the public is interested in government (the interest increases and takes adequate shape with the spread of education and enlightenment), that the public knows what it wants, that it has the ability to express its wishes (this, again, is ensured by education) and, lastly, that the public’s will would be enacted into law. There are obstacles in the implementation of these processes, and what is more, conditions differ from region to region. But, broadly, these principles are applicable to all democratic societies, irrespective of size, quality or standard of living.
It has also to be noted that democracy in most cases is government by the majority, and, therefore it can be said that public opinion is the opinion of the majority in such a setup. Bryce, the famous author of works on democracy, said: “The term public opinion is commonly used to denote the aggregates of the views men (and women) hold regarding matters that affect or interest the community. Rarely is there unanimity on every issue, or even on most issues, in a democracy, whether direct or indirect. Hence, it is correct to say that public opinion is seldom unanimous; actually, democracy implies dissent, which in turn, means that opinions will continue to differ. But there must be tolerance of dissent and all differences of opinion, otherwise democracy becomes meaningless. So we can say mat opinion can be described as public when it is accepted by a majority, if not by most of the citizens. Then everyone must accept the majority view this makes democracy practicable.
In the modern world, however, certain changes have been noticed in the concepts of majority opinion and public opinion. Since in most cases it is indirect democracy that prevails, and since the people elect their representatives to act and frame laws on their behalf, to all intents and purposes the final decisions are taken not by the people or the public as a whole, not even by the duly elected representatives of the people in a legislature, however large, but by the Ministry, a small team led by the Prime Minister, the “First Among Equals”. In fact, on many occasions it is the Prime Minister who acts according to his/her own judgement without consulting the legislature, or even all his or her Ministers. Thus, modern democracy has come to mean government by a small number of persons, the Ministers or the Cabinet. Of course, the leaders who take the final decisions in a democracy must continue to command the confidence of the majority; otherwise they would be thrown out, or rattier voted out of power, because the use of force for a switchover of the rulers from one to another is ruled out in a democratic order.
So the position can be summed up thus: Democracy is based on public opinion; an enlightened, educated electorate is necessary for proper and faithful implementation of public opinion, and that it is, in effect, the opinion of the majority commanding the confidence of the community.