The term public opinion is actually older than initially thought. It is a term that has had and nowadays still has a very large variety of definitions. All the efforts to try to define the term have led to frustration of the authors, having some of them concluded that public opinion “does not refer to a particular thing, but to the classification of a set of things”.
Public opinion, historically defined as the free and public communication between the government and its citizens on issues that concern to the nation, can be explained as a phenomenon of middle-class civilization. The main idea that supports this theory is that the importance of public opinion arises as a result of a series of changes in the economic institutions and in the whole structure of society. But to fully comprehend this idea, it is necessary to study the historical development of public opinion over the centuries.
In a general overview, public opinion at first was mainly concerned with internal affairs. However, over the years, the use of public opinion in international affairs became generally respected among politicians. Today, the effectiveness of government over public opinion in the sphere of foreign affairs is considered one of the basic features that is used as the basis of the modern democratic civilization.
Throughout its history, public opinion has often been considered as an opinion revealed to others or at least pointed out by others, so opinions that are hidden from others used to be called “private opinions”. Therefore, the criterion for distinguishing between private and public opinion seems to lie in the field of communication. However, in expressions such as “public good” or “public law”, our point of reference is not communication but a matter of general interest. Thus, the political meaning of public opinion is older than the one we usually associate with the term in these days.
Then according to this, public opinion, for the purposes of this historical review, can be understood as opinions on matters of concern to a nation expressed freely and publicly by those outside the government who claim the right to have their opinions influence the actions or structure of their government. In its purest form, this right is affirmed as the expectation that the government will publicly explain all its decisions to allow citizens to discuss these actions and, thanks to that, ensure the success of the nation.
Therefore, public opinion, understood in this way, is primarily a communication between citizens and their government, and only secondarily a communication between citizens. On the other hand, if the government denies the relevance of citizens’ opinion on public matters or if it prevents the free expression of such opinions, public opinion does not exist. There is no public opinion under a dictatorship rule; there can only be suppressed and private opinion.
For that reason, one can concluded that government actions should not be kept secret. Since Enlightenment, the public communication of government actions has been demanded by the most important political philosophers. The more democracy develops and the more intensely public opinion is appreciated as a means of ensuring morality in politics, the stronger the demands for the abolition of secrecy in government decisions has become. If public opinion is seen primarily as public communication from citizens to their government, it can be distinguished from political advice from policy advisors, which is one of the communication processes that influence decision-making within government. Moreover, Public opinion can also be distinguished from diplomacy, which can be seen as communication between governments. Finally, propaganda activities can be referred to as communications from a government to its own citizens or to foreign audiences in general.
On the other hand, during the French Revolution, discussions about popular opinions placed much emphasis on the power of opinions as a means of restricting freedom, indicating that men of judgment, whether philosophers or politicians, treat popular opinion with prudence. Especially in this age there are discussions about why governments should take into account popular opinion rather than merely impose their laws on the citizens. Finally, it also stands out in these traditional discussions how popular opinion was seen to be closely related to imagination and passions rather than to intelligence and knowledge.
The institutional changes that took place within European society during this century led to the emergence of public opinion as a major factor in policy. After the Vienna Congress, the use of public opinion in international affairs became respectable also among politicians who were not pursuing any revolutionary cause. Once the importance of public opinion was accepted as a new factor in international relations, its use became both a moral necessity and one of convenience.
Consequently, the ability to make use of public opinion became a highly prized skill during the nineteenth century even among great statesmen like Bismarck, who did not respect public opinion and remained indifferent to its moral claims without making any attempt to raise their level of competence. This was because Bismarck condemned all policies inspired by feelings. He considered public opinion to be largely dependent on feelings, incapable of the calm calculations that should precede any political decision. Thus, the scope of government influence on public opinion was limited throughout the nineteenth century and, compared to current activities in this field, it was almost patrimonial in nature.
As a conclusion, one can say that one of the distinctive features of modernity and of the twentieth century has been the incorporation of the popular sectors into the areas of action politics through public opinion. This long process, fuelled by the decline of the absolutist state and the rise of the European bourgeoisie that allowed the consolidation of the public sphere, as well as for the the development of the liberal political philosophies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, brought with it a new form of understanding the complex relationship between individuals, society and the state.
In this way, the traditional communication relations and ways of citizen participation are increased with the mass media, the introduction of new technologies, such as the use of the Internet and its contributions in the formation of public opinion, which stands out in the decision-making process that affects society as a whole. Public opinion and democracy imply a permanent relationship that will be determinant for the future of the community. Thus, public opinion is closely involved in the decision-making process, which is not only the responsibility of a dominant political class, but it is also necessary for the citizens to assume their role as agents of change that every State requires in order to better address public affairs.