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An American Lesson: Counter-Reform Can Shape Public Opinion

Sina Odugbemi's picture

What might be the generalizable lessons of the recent mid-term elections in the United States? There are several that this blog would be interested in. The one that I would like to draw attention to today is the fact that despite the huge reform bills that Democrats successfully passed - the biggest being the health care reform bill - it seems clear that they lost the battle for public opinion, and that losing that battle did not help them on election day, whatever else shaped voter preferences on that day.  Reformers everywhere need to reflect on that experience very carefully.

When reforms fail what is often blamed is 'lack of political will'; in other words, not enough leaders in leadership positions in the specific country context supported the proposed reform and it failed. Suppose you secure political will, as in this case, and the reform succeeds, is it game-over? Clearly not. To quote Robert  O. Varenik of the Open Society Justice Initiative (at the end of a  review of a series of pretrial detention reform experiences from around the world): "The acid test of reform should not be what can be attained but what can be sustained."

And the reason? Counter-reform never sleeps, never gives up. And if counter-reform loses a reform battle because supporters of reform control the key organs of the state, it will focus on shaping public opinion in ways that will undermine, and possibly reverse, the reform. It will use every trick in the book to make sure that it turns the majority of voting age citizens against the reform. Yes, people can be made to vote against their own interests if you know what psychological buttons to press, what strategic frames to deploy, what lies and distortions to use -- all with sufficient ruthlessness. Counter-reform never slumbers.

And, in the battle for public opinion,  counter-reform will have the field to itself if proponents of reform ignore the business of attending to public opinion, and simply focus on the policy and the legislative process. Just because proponents are convinced, in fact know, that a set of reforms is in the public interest, it does not follow that ordinary citizens will get it, see it, buy it. Public engagement throughout the reform process is vital. Sadly, it is rarely done. Which is why, for me, one of the most generalizable lessons of the midterm elections was captured by President Obama himself on the CBS show, 60 Minutes. He said:

"I think that, over the course of two years we were so busy and so focused on getting a bunch of stuff done that, we stopped paying attention to the fact that leadership isn't just legislation. That it's a matter of persuading people. And bringing them together. And setting a tone. Making an argument that people can understand. I think we haven't always been successful at that. And I take responsibility for that. And it's something that I've got to examine I go forward."

Clearly, there is a lesson there for reformers everywhere.


Photo Credit: Flickr user Jody Barnett

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Submitted by s masty on
This article seems to imply that the US Administration's legislative agenda is a good thing, or at least it uses the term 'counter reform' which carries pejorative connotations. In The Ethics of Rhetoric, Richard Weaver wrote of 'god-terms' and 'devil-terms' which are loaded with invisible judgements: democracy is one such word, even though a majority may vote for something truly horrid. We must be so careful. One man's reform is another's unwelcome assault. as for the unlucky Mister Obama (the unluckiest US President since Jimmy Carter, and luck does matter in politics), he would never have had the consensus to make such sweeping changes (i avoid the god-word here) so he used his legislative majority as was his right. seeing it as his failure or unwillingness to build a full consensus gives too much credit to communicators and presumes that the publics would have liked the changes if only they had been better cajoled or informed. Not true; sometimes people know full well and just do not like given proposals. his lucklessness comes in as he legislated changes (in an almighty rush) as the economy began to tank - something hastened by his predecessor but a very long time coming: two generations by my estimate. when asked what were the biggest pitfalls in politics, Harold Macmillan said airily, 'events, dear boy, events.'

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