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Public Opinion and Authoritarian Regimes: Issues and Responses

Sina Odugbemi's picture

I want to thank all those who commented on my blog 'Public Opinion and Authoritarian Regimes'.  The replies raise fascinating issues that are important aspects of the subject. Here are my responses.

Tanimu draws attention to the mediation role of the media in shaping public opinion. I agree that the media plays a huge role in that regard. He is also right that government control of broadcasting can complicate matters if, as often happens, the ruling party uses blanket control of broadcast media to keep citizens in the dark about bad governance. This is why we believe, for instance, that efforts to improve the quality of governance in developing countries should include a determined focus on the creation of free, plural and independent media systems.  But we should not forget that reality is not completely mediated by the mass media. First, the modern media environment - even in the poorest country - is porous. It is no longer possible to completely seal off a country from sources of information that the government fears. Secondly, citizens are everywhere in every country. There is no misdeed by rulers that a few citizens will not witness. Everything leaks eventually. Finally, there is everyday talk. Citizens will always meet and talk, and spread information about public affairs. Public opinion is forming all the time. I agree, however, that the mass media are by far the most powerful force in shaping public opinion about public affairs.

Kacholom and Khalil Ahmad both doubt the power of public opinion in the face of obdurate authoritarian rule.  I agree that it is not easy for public opinion to have an immediate impact in such situations although I would argue that it eventually undermines bad regimes. Authoritarian rule often thrives because of pathologies in a political community. These are structural impediments and they take a while to vanish. One factor that helps is where a  political community begins to have elections that mean something; when elections can actually lead to a loss of power by the ruling party. Suddenly, all political leaders worry about public opinion. Governments are suddenly far more responsive. Not only that, governments in power court public opinion long before the date of the next general election because they know that if public opinion turns against a government before the election then it is already lost. This is the phenomenon often known as the permanent campaign.

Ayo Adene is right that regimes that resist public opinion will eventually get into trouble.  For public opinion is linked to legitimacy. The most stable form of rule is where citizens feel content and willingly consent to the form of rule. That is a statement about the state of public opinion within that country. Those who want to pursue this further should read a classic essay by the philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume, titled 'On the Origins of Government.'

Finally, Rushda wonders if public opinion really has power when governments in some established democracies can ignore public opinion and do something public opinion clearly opposes. This raises a simple practical issue and a difficult philosophical issue. The practical issue first: in a democracy any government that ignores public opinion on a big  issue is likely to be punished when the next election comes around. Opponents are bound to exploit the opening that would be created thereby. But there is a more difficult question: should leaders always obey the dictates of public opinion? Political philosophers are divided on this issue. It is an issue I promise to write about at some length soon. It is very important. I cannot dispose of it in a quick paragraph.

So long! ---SINA

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