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Leaders Who Ignore Public Opinion Lose Their Offices

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

"Leaders who pander to public opinion lose respect" - an interesting headline we found in last Wednesday's Financial Times, opening a comment by Economist and columnist John Kay. Kay makes two common mistakes in his article: First, he confuses public opinion with the popularity of an individual. Second, he underestimates the role of public opinion for legitimizing government.

It's a common misunderstanding to equate public opinion with some kind of sentiment that some parts of the public - Kay lists Facebook and YouTube users - may hold with regard to political personalities. Public opinion has little to do with the feelings of the electorate about a politician's tie. Public opinion is a complex political force that expresses the will of the public and is the result of a complex process of decision making. There's no one good definition, but lets say for the sake of argument that public opinion is the outcome of an elaborate process of exchanging information and opinions, and denotes a consensus of what the public considers to be good and important for society. 

Kay refers to respected politicians that didn't care much about public opinion but did get their job done nicely: Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill, maybe even Lincoln. It is a myth that Attlee, Churchill and other great politicians could ignore and disdain public opinion. Public opinion provides the legitimacy of every government. Even dictators stumble over public opinion if they lose their legitimacy in the public's eye, and elected leaders certainly fall.

Another quote: "politicians as a group have never been held in such low esteem. The more attention they pay to public opinion, the less favourably that public opinion regards them." "The leader who is too anxious to please loses the respect of those he or she seeks to please. Not just the achievement, but ultimately the popularity, of political leaders depends on the respect in which they are held."

Yes - and what is respect other than public opinion?

Statesmen like Churchill were successful “not because he gave the public what the public said it wanted ... but because he gave the public what it really wanted, which was leadership in a time of crisis.” This is arrogant. Does this mean that public doesn't know what it wants? Or can't articulate what it wants? Or doesn't want to say what it wants? I agree with Kay that what the public wants is not found in opinion polls. Indeed, politicians who try to accommodate opinion polls may look a little pathetic at times. But that is not public opinion!It is very hard to ascertain what public opinion is, but it helps to look at what is sometimes called the "opinion climate" - which is usually not neatly expressed in favorability percentages. Serious opinion surveys gauge public opinion through many different questions regarding a political issue - they can help politicians to get an idea of their legitimacy in the public's eyes. If it's about decision making on specific issues, deliberation projects can help finding good solutions. Put people together in one room, provide them with all the necessary information and let them discuss - this will be indicative of public opinion. Treat the public not as children, but with the "disarming candour" that Kay calls for, and you will find that the public isn't stupid after all.

“There is a difference between repeatedly engaging in actions you believe will make you popular, and demonstrating the qualities of leadership that prompt people to vote for you. The modern obsession with media management elides that distinction." I think we can agree on that. But, Mr. Kay, public opinion does not rest on whatever you do to make yourself popular. Public opinion rests, indeed, on your leadership.

Picture credit: Flickr user JGRNLY


Submitted by Kay Engelhardt on
Having worked for quite some time in public opinion research, I could not agree more with your points. “Public Opinion” indeed has become a catch all phrase for a wide range of information, starting with simple popularity questions to very in depth stakeholder assessments. What I find interesting about the argument in the FT article is that it suggests a fairly strong negative correlation between public opinion and the politician’s success in office. However, his argument rests upon a few individuals, who were successful when researching public opinion was either non-existent or relatively new (and therefore not much used). It also ignores the shift in voting behaviors that actually made it possible for politicians to ignore the public opinion in their day to a certain degree. The center of the FT argument is that “The more attention they pay to public opinion, the less favourably that public opinion regards them." I think that the definition of what is indeed understood by public opinion is unclear here. Quoting facebook and youtube as proxies to “public opinion” is not a valid point, as users of such media are self-selected (and therefore per se not representative). The argument also disregards established theories of voting behavior, in which the media plays only one role among others: while one might not agree with the public figure of the politician, a voter still might agree with the party’s vision. Although with the rise of television in the 1970s the perceived public personae of politicians have taken over a larger role in the election process in Western Europe, research confirms that it is not the sole determinant. While in the first half of the 20th century entrenched voting behaviors and social milieus were found to be determinants of the political vote, in recent years political positions towards certain issues (environment, foreign policy, social welfare, etc) have become important elements of voting behavior – and contributed to the rise of swing voters. While advanced public opinion surveys certainly measure the popularity, perceived competence in various fields and likability of a candidate (or a politician), for the largest part they strive to understand where their own voters, the voters of the competing parties and the undecided stand on specific issues. In the end the individual “visions” what is important and what should be done can then be compared to the party’s or the candidate’s “vision”. The data is then used to give inputs into the political process, to fine tune positions and to stress them (positions are never fully reversed because the public is against them, but they might lie dormant or are changed over time with programmatic shifts). In this regard, ignoring the public opinion (= what the public thinks are important political issues to be addressed) is dangerous for political parties: the Green Movement in Western Europe actually was successful because it identified an unanswered political issue and positioned itself accordingly. I completely agree with your point you stress in your blog that you should never underestimate the public. Although “the woman/man on the street” is sometimes considered to be not able to make informed decisions or changes the opinion too often to be relevant, I always find it enlightening to ask "the public" (i.e. beneficiaries) to analyze their situation and to develop recommendations for action: Most of the time, issues come to light that were overlooked by highly informed actors – and they always empower the “public”. Who could ask for anything more?

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