The Public as Bystander: Its Political Influence
Political leaders, advocates of reform proposals, persons speaking for special constituencies, and even “the man or woman in the street” continually invoke public opinion to legitimate positions they themselves favor. The press nowadays gives big play to opinion trends. Governments track these carefully and often commission polls tailored to their own needs. What the public thinks is judged important, since responsiveness to the popular will remains, after all, the cornerstone on which the edifice of popular government rests. Just what is ‘public opinion” and how does it influence the decisions of government? Was it more than rhetoric when Gerald Ford, on assuming the office of President of the United States, declared that “here the people rule”? Traditional doctrines of popular government start from the single premise, stated in one form or another, that sovereign authority resides with the people; their will is supreme. But if sovereignty is vested in so vague a collectivity as an “entire people”, the concept of public opinion loses much of its utility.1 For, if the will of the people is only what everyone agrees to, such unanimity is rare, and the supposed mandate the people hand to their government amounts to nothing more than a willingness to be ruled in accordance with custom and law. And even here people often disagree on which customary or legal practices they believe to be workable and of some benefit to all. If, then, public opinion as the will of the people refers to nothing more than an underlying consensus, the concept is of little use in explaining how it influences the particular laws passed, the actual decisions made, and the concrete policies pursued by the government faced with several options.
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