One symptom of decline and confusion at the end of an age is the prevalent misuse of terms, of designations that have been losing their meanings and are thus no longer real. One such term is public opinion. Used still by political thinkers, newspapers, articles, institutes, research centers, college and university courses and their professors, it has worn thin.
Wikipedia says, “the desires, wants, and thinking of the majority of the people . . . is called public opinion.”
Public opinions are elements of democracy. So are popular sentiments. But these two are not the same. Public is not necessarily popular; it differs from private. And opinions amount to more than sentiments. Their categorical definitions will not do. One reason for this is their occasional overlapping. Opinions may contain sentiments. Their influences may be reciprocal; but identical they are not.
Tocqueville had an abiding interest in public opinions. Often, he used the word mentalities for opinions, and manières—habits and behaviors—when describing masses of peoples. It is instructive to consider what he wrote in his immortal book about 1789, The Old Regime and the French Revolution. He wrote that the storming of the Bastille and what was coming thereafter...