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Constitutional Democracy

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.

The “voice of the people” is a fearsome thing

Sina Odugbemi's picture

The form of rule known as liberal constitutional democracy – the high achievement of the Enlightenment – is under attack almost everywhere these days by people claiming to represent that most fearsome of things: the voice of the people. This claim is made in a self-justificatory, there-is-no-arguing-with-that manner. All that opponents have to do is bow to the force, the power, and the majesty of, you guessed it, the voice of the people.

This is no ideological divide here. Populists on the right are making the claim as they push for the unchallenged sway of the genuine interests but also the grievances and prejudices of a portion of “the people” which they claim is “all the people”. Spot the slick rhetorical move. Populists on the left make the same claim as they agitate for the genuine interests but also the grievances and prejudices of another (but sometimes overlapping) portion of “the people” which they too claim is “all the people”. The same slick rhetorical move. What is left unsaid is a blunt claim: “The people I represent are the only ones that matter in this political community, and what they want takes priority over all else.”

There is a second rhetorical move that these populist leaders make, especially if, as often happens, they have acquired charismatic authority. It is the elegant dance from the “we” to the “I”. When these populist movements erupt the leaders say “we” a lot, but after a while they become the embodiment (or so they claim) of the “will of the people” and to oppose them is, they suggest, to oppose “the people”. The leaders of nationalist movements make this move easily. Once the “we” becomes the “I” these leaders become truly powerful and dangerous. If you oppose them they can unleash a mob on you, even if the mob is only online. And if they win power, to oppose them is treason. Mere criticism of the leader can land you in jail, and this is happening in some contexts as we speak.

Minarets in Switzerland: The Dilemmas of Public Opinion

Sina Odugbemi's picture

The leaders of Switzerland have a ticklish problem, one of the most difficult problems in political thought and practice. A clear majority of the Swiss have just voted to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland. 57.5 per cent of voters in 22 out of 26 cantons voted  in the recent referendum to approve the ban. According to press reports, under Swiss law the ban will be added to the Constitution. Now, that is a major development, and, as you must know, the referendum result has proved controversial...to put it mildly. The impact will be felt for years to come. But I am not going to get into the issue. The Swiss have to sort this one out. What I am interested in is the fact that the leaders of government and business in Switzerland do not regard the referendum decision a wise one. According to the justice minister, Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, while the referendum result 'reflects fears among the population of Islamic fundamentalist tendencies' and the concerns 'have to be taken seriously' still 'The Federal Council takes the view that a ban on construction of new minarets is not a feasible means of countering extremist tendencies'.