Authors: Bobbio, Matteucci, Pasquino
Summary: This 2,100-word entry defines the term and presents the ideas of major thinkers about it. Public opinion is "public" in relation to its formation and its object, the res publica. It is "opinion" because the sense of the public does not necessarily correspond to the truth. The existence and importance of public opinion is peculiar to the modern era, for the emergence of public opinion as a force requires a free and articulated civil society distinct from the state, with a plurality of sources of information.
Hobbes, the theorist of absolutism, condemned public opinion as a sign of anarchism. But in the French and British liberal tradition the civic role of public opinion is stressed. According to Locke, Bentham, Constant and other liberal thinkers, public opinion represents the link between the electorate and the legislative power, and serves as a means of expressing consent for the government between elections.
Hegel and Marx criticized the liberal understanding of public opinion. Hegel maintained that public opinion was unscientific, merely the collective opinions of individuals about their own affairs. Marx saw public opinion as ideology, the false conscience which served to cloak the interests of the middle class. Tocqueville and Stuart Mill considered public opinion a possible source of corruption in the body politic, through the tyranny of the majority and the popular tendency toward conformism.