For over a century and a half, discussions of the nature and functions of public opinion have centred on the problems of the tyranny of the majority, the lack of its competency, domination by elites, or the manipulation of the masses by persuasive communication and propaganda. Accepting the inapplicability of any forms of direct democracy in modern conditions, much of the debate was framed by notions of representative democracy, including the norm of rational deliberation of laws by elected representatives accountable to a more or less participatory citizenry. Legitimacy was supposedly conferred on representative lawmakers through the electoral process.
Recent developments, however, have unsettled this framework at key points. Despite going through the usual campaign routines, the legitimacy of elected leaders is no longer taken for granted with high levels of public disenchantment with politicians in many democracies. Institutions that previously organised meaning, identity and authoritative information for many people, that structured their political preferences and simplified the process of democratic power-seeking political parties, mainstream religion, the nuclear family, the workplace, neighbourhood and social-class groupings all have waned in salience and influence. Mass media have emerged as autonomous power centres, and media-based strategies for shaping public opinion and winning support have become more important.
"Populism", as a creed and a set of practices, has become fashionable. In the broadcast media, the experiences, views and priorities of ordinary people are being elicited more often, and they are being encouraged to discuss social and political problems in various new communication vehicles call-in-programmes, electronic town meetings, televised citizen juries, and, especially, talk shows.
Modern technology has also spurred populism. On the one hand, politicians are becoming more sensitive to feedback information through new computer mediated communication channels. There is a growing interest in public opinion polling. A new “democratic rhetoric” may be emerging in legislatures and in public discourses (or public relations) drawing primarily on public sentiment. On the other hand, the same developments have revived direct democracy models; it is claimed that the people ought to begin to shift from depending on representatives to representing themselves.
Papers are invited revisiting the theories and practices of political representation and public opinion in the light of these technological and societal developments, discussing future scenarios where possible. We are interested in new answers to the classic questions of political representation and public opinion, but also in new questions that may radically shape our future ideas of political democracy.