It is a truism that democracy means government by public opinion. It represents at once a working measure of common agreement and a driving force in working the governmental machinery. It has always commanded great prestige and has now and then been invested almost with superhuman dignity.
It is true that opinion has often been perverted and distorted by social disharmonies and it has split into sectional opinions, yet despite its imperfections, it is an active and propelling factor in a democratic State.
The people at regular intervals are called upon to elect their representatives and the electors express their opinion in favour or against certain programmes and policies put before them by different political parties.
If the majority vote goes in favour of a party it gives a mandate to that particular party or coalition of parties, who had agreed on some basic principles prior to the election, to form government.
The mandate is withdrawn at the next election if the confidence reposed in them had been betrayed. In fact, no party, whether in power or Opposition, can afford to forget that tomorrow is the day of election.
The ultimate appeal rests with the people, and the party in office must remember those who entrusted them with power. Responsibility and responsiveness to the people keeps the government alert and removes possibilities of arbitrary exercise of authority. It, thus, ensures a certain measure of fairplay to minorities.
Public opinion has also played an invaluable role in the working of political institutions and serves as the most potent agency of coordination. In the presidential system, it smooth’s the functioning of the executive and legislative departments and brings harmony between the two without the one being responsible to the other.
What the framers of the Constitution had put apart public opinion tries to bring together for mutual action. It also prevents or solves deadlocks between coordinate legislative chambers. In Britain, the House of Lords, though a secondary chamber, has always respected the electoral mandate.
The Conservative majority, immediately following Labour victory in 1945, approved bills embracing such measures as nationalisation on the ground that the Labour Party had received a mandate from the electorate.
Democracy generates freedom and guarantees expressions of views to influence public policy. By giving to citizens an opportunity to have their say, democracy binds them with a sort of vital tissue to government.
There are, thus, not only outgoing currents of commands and ordinances issued from the central seat of authority, but also incoming currents in the form of suggestions, desires and grievances of people.
Democracy is best qualified constantly to adjust the supply of control to social need and favours a wholesale social equilibrium. It deepens the sense of social obligation. Public opinion enables democratization of political institutions and keeps them true to the constructive role and offset the shortcomings of expertise.
The governing class is particularly sensitive to its obligations and the majority party in office is alive to the fact that one class rules by sufferance of the whole nation as trustees of the public. This makes them exceedingly careful not to ride roughshod over public opinion and violate the decencies of their public conduct.
It, thus, keeps all agencies of control and service up to certain standards of behaviour. It throws outworn laws into desuetude and influences judicial pronouncements, bringing the administration of justice abreast of the times.
Democracy lives and thrives on public opinion, provided it is honest, forceful and vigilant. It has no place for Lippmann’s “stereotypes.” A citizen of a democratic State must necessarily be a thinking human being who actively participates in the affairs of the State and responds to real facts with fullness of human sympathy.
A common man cannot be expected to form an opinion on the details of all public questions, but he should be able to discern whether the ruling party keeps to the standards of public decency by observing rules of the game and, thus, be able to discover whether the party which he had supported before and intends to support now is generally seeking to promote the welfare of the community. This he can do by judging the broad principles of rival policies.