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Public opinion: Should leaders follow it or lead it?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Perhaps, as recent events have shown, no greater challenge confronts statesmen and women than this one: when should leaders yield to public opinion and when should they resist it or lead it?

In many democratic societies there is a presumption in favor of yielding to public opinion on the great public issues of the day. Proponents of direct democracy, for instance, argue essentially that leaders should always yield to public opinion. The assumption here, of course, is that you can always trust “the people”. In any case, it is argued, not to trust the people is to favor rule by unaccountable elites, the same people who almost always look after their own interests…and nothing else.  

There are at least two problems with always trusting “the people”. The first is the problem of expertise or civic competence. Many public issues are complex and many sided, and you need to be able to wade through boatloads of often contradictory expert opinion. Your average citizen in a democracy, even while reasonably educated, is not likely to be terribly well-informed generally let alone be able to decide complex issues. Deliberative Polls try to solve the problem of expertise by (a) selecting a representative sample of the people (b) exposing them to a full range of expert opinions on the key public issue they will vote on (c) allow them to discuss the issue at length before (d) asking them to vote on the issue. These polls often produce fascinating opinion shifts.

The second problem with always trusting “the people” is the ever present danger of the powerful sway of ugly passions and prejudices. Particular moods and tumults can seize a public so totally that terrible crimes can occur (like ethnic or sectarian riots that lead to mass murder), certainly ill-informed or daft decisions. Which is why liberal constitutional democracy as an institutional form carefully constrains public opinion. Guardrails are imposed by the Constitution. As James Madison, the great American Founding Father, remarks in Federalist, No. 10, the propensity of mankind ‘to fall into mutual animosities’ cannot be avoided. You will always have factions and in-fighting, and statecraft must anticipate this and counteract the effects. Key quote:

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

In other words, even majority opinion can sometimes be wholly wrong-headed, and it is the task of statecraft to anticipate and manage such exigencies when they occur. And all this is why liberal constitutional democracy is anti-majoritarian. Certain processes are often protected from public opinion (like setting interest rates or interpreting the Constitution). Supermajorities are prescribed for a category of key decisions. And certain constitutional provisions (especially fundamental human rights protections) are entrenched in the constitution by making the amendment process onerous. Above all, representative assemblies act as a buffer between public opinion and policymaking. An elected legislator can use his or her independent judgment…as Edmund Burke famously lectured the Electors of Bristol in 1774. It is one of the most important statements in the history of political thought:

To deliver an opinion, is the right of all men; that of constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a representative ought always to rejoice to hear; and which he ought always most seriously to consider. But authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience,--these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution.

It is clear, therefore, that leaders should not blindly follow public opinion if they are convinced that it is wrong or harmful. They need to challenge it and seek to educate it. And constitutional restraints seeking to slow down or moderate the impact of public opinion (if only to force a pause for reflection) are very helpful.

Yet public opinion is the basis of power in all societies (as David Hume has powerfully demonstrated: “Of the First Principles of Government”). So, while leaders will often have to lead or seek to shape public opinion on particular issues, it would be deeply unwise to run too far ahead of public opinion. The fundamental values and beliefs prevalent in a political community will shape public opinion on the great questions and controversies of the day. Wise leaders will not seek to take societies in directions contrary to deeply held beliefs and values.
For that could bring a whole world of trouble.

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Photograph by
Håkan Dahlström via Flickr Creative Commons, some rights reserved

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