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Spiral of Silence

Governance and the Supernovas of Politics

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Every now and again, somewhere in the world, a politician comes along who is a supernova: a special astronomical event.  Reacting to him or her, citizens feel a tingle in the spine, they become emotionally flooded, and they fill up with galloping hopes and effervescent dreams. In my adult life, I have yielded to the power of supernovas twice. Between the Special One and the followers, and amongst the followers themselves, you have a case of interpenetrating intensities.

Each of these cases is an instance of what Max Weber calls charismatic authority. According to the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, charisma is: “a capacity to inspire devotion and enthusiasm.”  And according to the Oxford Companion to Philosophy: “Charismatic authority exists where exceptional abilities cause a person to be followed or obeyed, and the ability is perceived as conferring the right to lead” [page 70]. Add formal power to charismatic authority and you have power and influence of a tremendous variety.

How do these situations arise? Nobody knows for sure. Clearly, it is a potent mix of a gifted person, some inner magnetism, and the specificities of the particular cultural and political context. What is clear is that for the leaders so blessed being a supernova is great for winning elections. It produces enormously enthusiastic, self-sacrificing efforts by millions of followers. It tends to produce big wins and powerful mandates. What fascinates me about the phenomenon though is what happens to governing when the leader is a supernova.

Let's Get Loud: Mobilizing the Silent Majority

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

Ideally, governments and other decision makers should consider public opinion and let it guide them in designing policies that benefit the general public. Problematically, sometimes the opinion of the public simply cannot be heard. Sometimes this happens when a very loud minority drowns out the voices of the silent majority. In such cases, the opinion climate in a society may seem to be more radical than it actually is.

Nixon famously used the term "silent majority" when he appealed for support to what he perceived as the majority of American voters who did not publicly oppose the Vietnam War. He saw this group outclamored by a small but noisy minority that did protest. This was actually a clever strategic argument on Nixon's part. Noelle Neumann's Spiral of Silence, which we have introduced here on this blog, posits that most people would follow the majority because they don't want to be isolated in society. If one opinion is heard more and more often, it may be perceived as majority opinion, even though it isn't. And then, if it's become almost ubiquitous, it might be perceived as majority opinion and people may change their own opinions to fit this "opinion climate." This way, over time and with a lot of help from the media, a minority opinion, for instance an extreme political opinion, may actually become the opinion of the majority.

RIP Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

ddpLast week, the field of communication lost one of its most eminent figures, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, who died on March 25 at the age of 93. A German public opinion scholar, Noelle-Neumann has had a powerful influence on the study of public opinion and political communication worldwide. Her most notable contribution, the theory of the Spiral of Silence, has made a lasting impression on the field.

Quote of the Week

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

"Voicing the opposite opinion, or acting in public accordingly, incurs the danger of isolation. In other words, public opinion can be described as the dominating opinion which compels compliance of attitude and behavior in that it threatens the dissenting individual with isolation, the politician with loss of popular support. Thus the active role of starting a process of public opinion formation is reserved to the one who does not allow himself to be threatened with isolation."

 

In Memoriam: Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (1916 - 2010)

Social Networking Sites: Getting People to Speak Their Minds

Fumiko Nagano's picture

On Facebook, I have noticed an interesting trend: some of my friends who are normally introverted and shy in person are a lot more vocal and seem to have fewer qualms about voicing their opinions on the site. They post status updates sharing their thoughts on issues, comment on others’ posts, and provide links to websites, articles, photos and videos about topics that they deem important, even creating interest-specific groups to attract those who are keen to participate in online discussions on key causes. Part of this phenomenon might be psychological. Maybe we feel a certain degree of safety on social networking sites because they give us the option not to have to engage in physical, face-to-face interactions with those who might disagree. On these interfaces, there is no need to worry about potentially negative consequences arising from differences in opinion, such as ridicule, humiliation, confrontation, and isolation. If social networking sites can embolden even the shiest of us to voice our true opinions, could they be the answer to breaking the spiral of silence on contested issues?

Quote of the Week

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

"Public opinion seems to achieve integration: the individuals trying to avoid isolation are ready to compromise, thereby furnishing society with some common ground which, as is generally acknowledged, is a condition for the society's survival. Public opinion seems to stabilize societies. Partly this is a consequence of integration but it is more. Political scientists interested in developing societies complain that the lack of public opinion, or of an infrastructure of consensus among persons interested in the political sphere, leads to extreme and frequent upheavals. Public opinion establishes priorities. In the field of communication research, this is called the agenda-setting function. It dictates what problems society deems to be its most urgent tasks. Public opinion confers legitimation. It is striving for consensus (exerting strong conformity pressure on the individuals), defending established norms, or creating those which in turn will be legally sanctioned. This is the meaning of 'all governments rest on opinion.'"

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann

Breaking the Spiral of Silence About Corruption

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

There's nothing worse that can happen to a young scholar at her first conference presentation than having one of the big founders of one's academic field sit in the first row and stare intently at her poor little PowerPoint presentation.