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Should Real Leaders Ignore Public Opinion?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Many policy entrepreneurs and technocrats waving sundry blueprints dislike uncooperative public opinion. Sometimes the dislike is intense. But since you cannot go around insulting mass publics on television what they do is turn on leaders and they ask these leaders to show true leadership by ignoring public opinion…or transforming it with a feat of oratory.

We have at least two instances playing out right now. First, we have deficit slashing, austerity zealotry running amok. In country after country, governments are being asked by experts to slash budgets no matter who is hurt (but, naturally, common people bear the brunt of the hurt).  Unelected prime ministers are being used to push through painful budget cuts and then the establishment is surprised when people refuse to vote for these technocratic ‘saviors’. And we get the reaction: ‘What is wrong with the people of that country?’

Second, we have instances now where elected leaders are urged to make politically suicidal decisions, that is, implement policies that the vast majority of their citizens are dead set against. Yet many policy entrepreneurs and technocrats say to these leaders: ‘Just show leadership Mr. President. Show some courage. Real leaders lead public opinion.’

There is one misconception about all this that we can clear up straight away. The ability of political leaders, even popular ones, to transform public opinion on any given issue is grossly overstated.  Anyone in doubt should read a recent review o f the political science literature in The New Yorker by Ezra Klein titled: ‘The Unpersuaded – Who listens to a president?’ Key insight: it is far easier for a president to mobilize the already persuaded than it is for him or her to persuade the unpersuaded, and many citizens are well nigh unpersuadable. The article is worth reading in full.  The problem is that many technocrats consistently underestimate what it takes to change the considered opinions of fully socialized adults in any society.  It can happen but it is no easy task… and it takes time.

Rather than ask elected leaders to commit political suicide or perform illusory feats of public opinion transformation, my suggestion would be to see public opinion as both constraint and permission.

Public opinion as constraint: If you are promoting a particular policy agenda you need to know how public opinion constrains what political leaders can safely do without paying too high a price. That includes figuring out:

  1. What it is that most adults in that society will not support at all. What policy responses or alternatives are enough people so dead set against it is simply foolish moving in these directions now?
  2. What is it that enough people might come to support over time? Since the environment is dynamic and new adults join the voter register every year, and the aged move on, and immigrants move in and so on, how does time play in your favor?

Public opinion as permission/opportunity: If you are promoting a particular policy agenda you need to know how public opinion gives political leaders space to operate on the issue. That includes figuring out:

  1. What it is that enough adults will support. What policy responses or alternatives will enough people support even if it does not take you as far as you would like to go and as quickly as you would like to get there?
  2. What it is that enough people might support if the issue is framed in a way they find attractive. For instance, Drew Westen, author of The Political Brain came to the World Bank the other day and gave this example from his research. Apparently claiming that the climate agenda is about ‘green’ energy does not get you very far in America; but if you say ‘clean’ versus ‘dirty’ energy support jumps. Sometimes, framing is the difference between success and failure.
  3. In what ways public opinion might help improve the policy: Public opinion can be an input into policy making as many deliberative processes around the world are now showing. So, rather than hostility towards uncooperative public opinion why not patient engagement?

Intelligent political leaders work within this framework. They do not slavishly follow public opinion; they do not confront it head on either. They study it, they nudge it, and they cajole it…all in the direction of stated policy ambitions and goals.  They are patient but they are persistent. What they do not need are policy entrepreneurs and technocrats who do not have to face any of the consequences of the rash, impetuous moves they champion urging political leaders to show ‘true leadership’.

Photo credit: flickr user Pensiero

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Submitted by simonjames on

Political researchers have been less worried with what part public attitude should play in a popular polity and have given more attention to setting up what part it does play in actuality. Nice post.

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