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When the People Say Yes and the Leaders Say No

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Does the state of public opinion on a public policy issue create obligations for political leaders, obligations they ignore at their peril? This is an issue being debated in the United States right now about a specific public policy controversy – gun control – but the core issue applies everywhere. In the specific case of the United States, many readers will know that there was an attempt to pass legislation requiring background checks before you can buy guns online or at gun shows. The legislation was blocked in the US Senate in spite of the fact that opinion polls say again and again that 90 per cent of Americans polled support the measure. So, the question is being asked and debated: how can 90% of the people support a measure and it does not become law? Very often the question is asked with real heat. Now, we are not going to get into the Byzantine complexities of American politics. What I am interested in is bringing to your attention what professional political scientists who blog have been saying about the core, universally relevant issue: does the state of public opinion create unavoidable obligations for political leaders?

In a couple of blog posts Jonathan Bernstein (he writes the excellent A Plain Blog about Politics) offers the following insights:

  • When polls say 90% of the people support a public policy response that is not the same thing as calling for change. That kind of ‘public opinion’ is mostly passive. He says: ‘And in politics, passive does not get results.’
  • What works is action. If you want something to happen in your political system you have to be willing to act.
  • But here is the problem: ‘Action is hard! Action can be painful. Action is risky. Action is unpredictable. We all have plenty of other things to do, after all.’
  • Even when a president uses the so-called bully pulpit to urge the people to act on an issue that rarely works. As he says: ‘Meaningful action is too big a commitment for the tiny signal of presidential exhortation to get it to happen. It usually takes something with a much more direct effect on our day to day lives. But if it does happen, look out.’

I think all that is sound and not sufficiently realized. The public opinion that is politically potent is activated, mobilized public opinion as Taeku Lee and I argue in the concluding chapter of our jointly edited volume, Accountability through Public Opinion: From Inertia to Public Action. Preferences expressed to pollsters who call you up and ask for your views don’t count for much, and political leaders know this.

There is another aspect of the debate: I call it the intensity debate.  Some people have been arguing that gun rights advocates are intense and that in these situations intensity trumps popularity. An organized minority can block legislative action even when public opinion is overwhelmingly in support of that action. In the leading political science blog, The Monkey Cage, David Karol argues that the explanation is too simple. He argues persuasively that when, as in this case, there are two sides to a public policy controversy some of the things we need to focus on are ‘the differences in the extent to which their social networks and activities facilitate collective action.’  In the case of gun control in the US, he points out:

Instead of viewing gun owners and advocates simply as individuals with some characteristics that predispose them to political action, we should take account of their position in social networks that facilitate collective action in favor of gun rights. I am not talking about Facebook and Twitter either, but actual face-to-face interaction. People often go hunting and target-shooting in groups. Gun enthusiasts assemble at gun shows. There are businesses that cater to gun owners; firearms and ammunition manufacturers and operators target ranges and gun shows…By contrast, gun control supporters have no shared social activities, no common identity and no companies to cater to them. Their jobs don’t bring them together. Unlike gun rights advocates’ they don’t find and stay in touch with each other without a conscious and sustained effort to do so.

Karol’s analysis of ‘these structural and sociological factors’ is powerful.  If you combine his insights with those of Jonathan Bernstein it is not difficult to see why 90% of Americans polled might support a gun control measure and the leaders block it with seeming impunity.  But what is interesting for our purposes is to apply the analysis to a developing country where the preponderance of citizens might support a change in policy (in the general direction of pro-poor outcomes) and the leaders ignore their wishes. And, more often than not, these leaders get away with it.

Now we can see some of the reasons why.

Photo Credit: Elvert Barnes
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Submitted by Tanner Huntus on

I have been following this issue, and this article gave me some insight to what happened... I understand a bit more about why possible things are not passed through, when in fact it is obvious they should be. It is astounding to me that most of the senate voted against gun control, considering the circumstances. After reading this insightful article I understand why it wasn't passed.

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