In a non-democratic polity opinion is mere acquiescence, a quiet consent or submission due to either respect for authority, habit of obedience or fear of tyranny. It is neither spontaneous nor the expression of individual’s free and considered judgement. In authoritarian regimes it is tailor-made, regimented and ideological.
A free expression of opinion emerging from the clash of opinions and representing the will of the people directed towards the welfare of the community is essentially a democratic process. It assumes the role of popular opinion and as MacIver says, “This incessant activity of popular opinion is the dynamic of democracy.”
It cannot be said with precision how did the concept of public opinion originate, although the idea behind it had existed always and it commanded great prestige. The Greeks held that there was divinity in the voice of the people and the Romans used the term consensus populi, consent of the people, though they applied it only in the juridical sense.
During the middle Ages the dictum Vox populi, Vox dei, the voice of the people was the voice of god, was the common belief and formed the norm of political behaviour. Niccolo Machiavel, in the Discourses, compared the voice of the people with the voice of god.
But it took a tangible shape and political content at the hands of Jean Jacquess Rousseau on the eve of the French Revolution. He distinguished his doctrine of the general will from the will of all and declared that the former must be disinterested and concern the general welfare.
The general will being the compound of the best wills of all citizens willing the best interests of the community and its lasting welfare, it must always be followed. Here are the germs of public opinion for what it stands in essence today.
The idea underlying the concept of public opinion matured after the French Revolution and it became a democratic process and a working measure of common agreement and a driving force of governmental actions and policies.
During recent times the concept of public opinion has acquired a fresh significance at the hands of some eminent intellectuals who have made it an area of specialised study. They question the validity of the assumptions on which the concept of public opinion was based and call it a traditional approach which is devoid of realities of life.