Public opinion is, therefore, not the result of the considered judgment, of the rational man and his appraisal of the issues involved. It is a manufactured pattern of opinions and there are as many opinions as there are groups of men. Opinions are of publics and for political purposes. There can be no single opinion.
James Bryce was the first to revolt against the traditional concept of public opinion. “The term (public opinion),” he maintained, “is commonly used to denote the aggregates of the views men hold regarding matters that affect or interest the community.
Thus understood, it is a congeries of all sorts of discrepant notions, beliefs, fancies, prejudices, aspirations. It is confused, incoherent, amorphous, varying from day to day and week to week.
But in the midst of this diversity and confusion every question as it rises into importance is subjected to a process of consolidation and clarification until there emerge and take definite shape certain views, or set of disconnected views, each held and advocated in common by bodies of citizens.
It is to the power exerted by any such view, or set of views, when held by an apparent majority of citizens, that we refer when we talk of public opinion as approving or disapproving a certain doctrine or proposal, and thereby becoming a guiding or ruling power.
Or we may think of the opinion of the whole nation as made up of different currents of sentiment, each embodying or supporting a view or a doctrine or a practical proposal.
Some currents develop more strength than others because they have behind them larger numbers or more intensity of conviction, and when one is evidently the strongest it begins to be called public opinion par excellence, being taken to embody the views supposed to be held by the bulk of the people.”
Bryce made an empirical study by moving among the unbiased persons in order to find out their views on public questions. He came to the conclusion, as a result of his investigation, that not all persons are interested in politics. Nor have they any knowledge and capacity to judge and form views on matters that affect the interest of the community.
It is only a small section of society, educated, intellectually alive and well-informed, who evinces keen interest on the problems of the nation, go deep into the issues involved, sort out the complexities bristling such problems and suggest ways and means to solve them.
This small segment of society comprising different groups does not think alike on the same problems. They differ in their approach and analysis in accordance with their own way of thinking and offer solutions in conformity to the views they form on the subject. They present their views to the public at large either by pen or word.
A comparatively larger section of the society, who are passive in politics but understand the intricacies of the issues involved, listen and read what the elite has to say, and present their own views and suggestions through various channels of communication.
The elite think and judge the views so expressed and correct and modify their own, if the critics are sufficiently articulate and their arguments are well-meaning. In this process definiteness is achieved and opinion is crystallised.
If the majority of the people are convinced that the opinion that had taken a final shape is for the good of the community or the intensity of the opinion, even if it is a minority opinion, is so great that there is no way out but to accept it, it becomes public opinion. But the criterion of such an opinion must be the general welfare of the community.
Alfred Lowell and Walter Lippmann were two other notable critics of the traditional concept of public opinion and both together paved the way for the development of the contemporary view about the meaning and nature of public opinion. Lowell argued that public opinion can never be unanimous.
It is always divided and different opinions are held by different groups of people on the same problem or problems. When a particular opinion is accepted by a huge majority of the people and the minority is convinced, after full and thorough discussion of its pros and cons, that it aims at public good, it is a public opinion.
Lowell explained that if the minority does not give free and full support or gives it grudgingly or unwillingly, it cannot be called public, though majority may be at the back of the prevailing opinion.
Walter Lippmann introduced the concept of ‘Stereotypes’ in his analysis of public opinion. He investigated into the inter-connection between man and his environments in the opinion forming process.
He pointed out that our world being beyond the reach, the sight, and the mind of the ordinary “shut in man” has to be explored, reported and imagined, and that he really responds not to facts, but to pseudo-environments, a most inadequate picture of the “great society.”
Generally speaking, he argued, man’s political ideas are moulded by the surroundings in which he lives and the information he gathers from such environments. It is not based on facts of which he may himself be the author through the evidence collected or seen by him.
His source of information is secondary coming to him from the people living in his vicinity or emanating from various channels of communication, like the newspapers and the radio. He, thus, sees the world largely through the eyes of others and relies upon the information communicated to him and this, too, may be distorted and very often it is.
The result is that he forms “a picture in his head” which it is not possible to efface. This fixed pattern of thought Lippmann calls “Stereotypes,” that is, thought process in formation of opinion which is not the result of individual’s own perception and judgement and lacks objectivity.
The notion of rationality of man has also been questioned on the ground of inequality of men in their intellectual capacity to understand the complexities of politics, national and international. Then, there are day-to-day compulsions of life in which men are so inextricably enmeshed that they have no time for politics even if they are inclined to find interest.
From those two disabilities from which men generally suffer Lippmann concludes that the general public is as it were “led by the nose” by a small minority of those individuals who have the intellectual capacity to know and understand the political problems and offer their solutions.
The trend of opinion is created by this small segment of society and public is drugged with the opinions of this elite divided into different groups of opinion. They accept one opinion or the other which is the conscious creation of a handful of opinion-creating individuals.