THE PUBLIC AS BYSTANDER
Political leaders, advocates of reform proposals, persons speaking for special constituencies, and even the "man (or woman) in the street" continually invoke public opinion to legitimate positions they themselves favor. The press nowadays gives big play to opinion trends. Governments track these carefully and commission polls tailored to their needs. What the public thinks is judged important, since responsiveness to the popular will remains, after all, the cornerstone on which the edifice of popular government rests.
Just what is "public opinion" and how does it influence the decisions of government? Was it more than rhetoric when Gerald Ford, on assuming the office of President of the United States, declared that "here the people rule"? Traditional doctrines of popular government start from the single premise, stated in one form or another, that sovereign authority resides with the people, that their will is supreme. Yet, if sovereignty is vested in so vague a collectivity as an entire "people," the concept of public opinion loses much of its utility as a diagnostic tool. 1 If the will of the people is only what everyone agrees to, such unanimity is rare, and the supposed mandate that the people hand their government amounts to nothing more than a willingness to be ruled in accordance with custom and law. Even at that, people often disagree on which customary or legal practices they believe to be workable and of some benefit to everyone. Also, if public opinion as the will of the people stands for nothing more than an underlying consensus, this hardly helps explain how it influences the passage of particular laws, the choice among alternative policy decisions, or political decision-making in general.
Evading this conceptual problem, some political theorists specifically identify public opinion with the decisions of representative bodies functioning as agents of the people. This leads them only to the unpalatable conclusion that ultimately all government, however despotic, is legitimated by popular consent, a position brilliantly argued by David Hume some two centuries ago, long before the advent of modern totalitarianism made a mockery of