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Edmund Burke

Public opinion: Should leaders follow it or lead it?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Perhaps, as recent events have shown, no greater challenge confronts statesmen and women than this one: when should leaders yield to public opinion and when should they resist it or lead it?

In many democratic societies there is a presumption in favor of yielding to public opinion on the great public issues of the day. Proponents of direct democracy, for instance, argue essentially that leaders should always yield to public opinion. The assumption here, of course, is that you can always trust “the people”. In any case, it is argued, not to trust the people is to favor rule by unaccountable elites, the same people who almost always look after their own interests…and nothing else.  

There are at least two problems with always trusting “the people”. The first is the problem of expertise or civic competence. Many public issues are complex and many sided, and you need to be able to wade through boatloads of often contradictory expert opinion. Your average citizen in a democracy, even while reasonably educated, is not likely to be terribly well-informed generally let alone be able to decide complex issues. Deliberative Polls try to solve the problem of expertise by (a) selecting a representative sample of the people (b) exposing them to a full range of expert opinions on the key public issue they will vote on (c) allow them to discuss the issue at length before (d) asking them to vote on the issue. These polls often produce fascinating opinion shifts.

Conservation versus Correction: I have Burke on My Mind

Sina Odugbemi's picture

The outbreaks of political turbulence around the world have prompted me to re-visit Edmund Burke's masterpiece, Reflections on the Revolution in France ( 1790). In the work, Burke attacks the French Revolution. I remember that when I had to write a term paper about the work in a class on the History of Political Thought in graduate school, I fully expected to hate the Reflections and to debunk it. But it amazed me, and impressed me. First, its eloquence is overpowering. Even now as I leaf through my old copy, the grandeur of the language still moves the spirit. Second, you cannot but be impressed by the prophetic power of Burke's analysis of the French Revolution. For he wrote the Reflections in the early days of the Revolution, yet he was able to correctly predict its path - the deepening violence, the collapse into dictatorship. Now, as a school-boy fan of the French Revolution that got my attention.