Public opinion is defined as a collection of an individual’s view on issues of public interest, and these opinions exercises influence over individual behavior, group behavior and the policies of the government. The term has been used in an increasing frequency since the French revolution and the rule of King Louis XVI.Public opinion consists of the people’s reactions to worded statements, views and questions under interview conditions (Warner 1939 p.377)
Political scientists who study public opinion argues that there are two major types of opinions that the Americans have concerning public affairs and politics which are collective expressions and individual opinions. Collective expression is the public opinion expressed by the majority in a group and always counts as the common say of every member in the group. Some members in the group may be having a different opinion, but the fact that they belong to the group sways them to agree or support the majority. On the other hand, an individual’s opinion is dependent on different factors. The individual uses these factors to come up with a personal take about the situation in politics or public affairs. These factors are:
An individual can have an opinion depending on the current or past political affiliation. If he or she is a strong supporter of a certain political party then, his or her public opinion will be according to the party’s stand or opinion. On the other hand, an individual will have an opposing opinion of a political party he or she does not support. The individual will sway on the opposing side of that party, not because of the stand taken by the party but because he or she does not affiliate or opposes that party.
Ideology is a set of belief or opinion of a group; it is a set of political beliefs and ideas that characterizes a particular culture. An individual’s public opinion may be strongly influenced by ideology at any particular time
A person’s past or present experiences may cause the individual to have an expression of favor or disfavor towards a particular political idea or individual, therefore, influencing his or public opinion. An individual’s public opinions particularly those that are not well informed are always prone to being influenced by political campaigns, the media, and other factors to determine the method the individual is going to use to reach to a final decision or a conclusion on political issue.
Collective expressions are influenced by the media, charismatic leaders who can persuade the members of the members of the group to follow their path or the majority’s party affiliations. Every group that needs to have a collective expression must come up with mechanisms to deal with differences on opinions of different members on order to speak in one voice. Hence, these groups always need leaders that can find common ground among the varying views of different individuals.
Public opinion is very relevant to achieve a healthy democracy in America. Democracy can be simply defined as the governments by the people. Democratic government’s works best when the citizens are well informed and therefore should reflect public opinion, this system ensures that the people have a direct say of how they want to be governed and nothing is supposed to matter more than the will of the people. Therefore for a healthy democratic system in America, systems that uphold democracy must be supported to ensure that they are working efficiently. The people are the ultimate source of power in this kind of government, and the leaders are elected to represent the people. Therefore, government officials must take into account the people’s opinion when deciding how to act.
Harold Lasswell, a renowned political scientist, once noted “The open interplay of opinion and policy is the distinguishing mark of a popular rule.” The elected leaders can take public opinion into account when formulating policies or making laws. Opinion polls present a mechanism through which the public can present their views to government leaders who will be making decisions that affect the society in general. The sample in the survey is egalitarian and is designed so that each and every citizen has an equal voice and an equal chance to participate.
Leaders also use public opinion often to measure or monitor the public pulse they are making policy decisions. In healthy democracy, public opinion dictates that people must be acknowledged about an issue and must be given a chance to debate the merits and demerits of the policy before they make an informed decision. There is a disagreement however between some political scientists on the extent in which the political class should take into consideration the view of the people compared on the advice of the experts. One group argues that many people do not have the knowledge or good understanding policies and related issues; therefore they may not give an informed public opinion or may offer an opinion just to prove they are informed when they are not. This issue on to what extent the public should be involved is a matter that needs to be discussed in totality, however, for any working healthy democracy in America, public opinion need to count.