The power of public opinion is the power of ordinary citizens; it is the power of aware, engaged multitudes. And there is a way of understanding the spectacular events of 2008 in terms of the power of public opinion. Let's take just a few.
1. The first is the crisis in financial markets and the global economy. Whatever technical experts eventually decide to be the origins of the crisis, there is no doubt that public opinion has played a role in intensifying the crisis. It has done so through the collapse of public confidence in financial institutions generally. For what is 'confidence' but the opinion widely shared that the financial system is sound and your savings and investments are safe? That collapsed in so much of the world in 2008, beginning in the United States. There is no doubt that restoring 'confidence' will be crucial to ending the crisis; that means, recreating majority opinion in the stability and secure management of the global financial system.
Public opinion is playing a second role in the management of the crisis. Public attitudes to regulation appear totally transformed. In the face of the crisis, public opinion is suddenly on the side of major state interventions in the economy and tougher regulatory regimes of all sorts. As governments everywhere regain control of the commanding heights of one economy after the other, it is difficult to imagine the intensity of old ideological battles over the proper role of the state in the economy of only a few years ago.
2. The second event is the presidential election in the United States. This has been an amazing event for the simple reason that it destroyed many old assumptions. For students of public opinion like myself two things about that election stand out. The first thing is the confirmation of the old democratic faith that you can have a grown up discussion with citizens, deliver major speeches on complex issues, appeal to their better angels, and win a major victory.The second feature is the dramatic demonstration of the sheer power of 21st century political communication techniques, especially techniques of citizen engagement and mobilization. The Obama Campaign has re-written the textbook. And students of political communication are already all over the lessons of that campaign like tiger ants.
3. This has also been the year of agitated public opinion leading to sustained citizen action, even in authoritarian political environments. From Thailand to Greece, citizens spoke up and acted in many countries. They wrote letters. They demonstrated, they protested. They confirmed that governance is not simply the business of public officials; that citizenship has its responsibilities; and that citizens must care to be informed, and, if they are dissatisfied, they must act. The citizens who acted vigorously in different countries in 2008 remind us that the so-called demand-side of good governance is really about citizen vigilance and citizen-action. Having said that, the year also showed us that there are political environments in which the structures of authoritarian rule are still so strong that citizens voice their concerns in vain. Those environments deserve the best efforts of all men and women of good will who are in a position to offer assistance.
Photo credit: Flickr user murplej@ne - under deconstruction