The Encyclopedia of Democracy

Authors: Lipset
Summary: This long entry of approximately 5000 words defines public opinion, discusses its relationship with direct democracy, explores different channels for expressing public opinion, analyzes the correlation between policy disagreements and public opinion, considers voting sophistication and behavior, and concludes with a look at public opinion's role in government policy choices.
According to the entry, public opinion represents the "...political values, attitudes, or opinions..." of a particular political unit's citizens. Public opinion expressed through referendums are one of the only opportunities for direct participation in a representative democracy, and the entry offers many illustrative examples. Also considered here is the importance of tolerance. Even though the use of referendums worldwide is increasing, their use as an everyday tool for direct participation is significantly limited. The entry explores other channels for expressing public opinion in representative democracies and provides numerous instances of such participation.
Next the entry discusses the relationship between policy disagreements and public opinion by emphasizing shared underlying political values and offering a variety of examples. Despite particular policy disagreements, most nations' citizens share similar or compatible basic values such as national identification and loyalty. These shared values keep nations united even when sharp discord over policy choices develops.
The entry's remaining analysis focuses on different aspects of political participation and their efficacy as expressions of public opinion. Voter sophistication and voting behavior are the first issues considered. The entry introduces a few significant scholarly works as well as some particularly illuminating examples. Finally, the analysis turns to the role and effects of these public opinion expressions on government policy decisions. The entry concludes by exploring varying levels of public opinion support in different political systems.