"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.
This is an extended quote from the New York Times of February 19, 2010, from a story titled 'Afghan Push Went Beyond Traditional Military Goals':
"Before 10,000 troops marched through central Helmand Province to wrest control of a small Afghan town from a few hundred entrenched Taliban fighters, American officials did something more typical of political than military campaigns: they took some polls.
You know the usual story: a political community is sundered by ethnic or sectarian conflict, things fall apart; after a hot season or two of killings and mayhem peace is negotiated, and the domestic political process resumes. The international community insists on elections. They are held in a rough and ready manner, a faction wins and forms a government. Then what happens? The winners start using the powers of the state to smash opponents anew and entrench themselves in power. Very often, the winners do this just because they can. I call them the new authoritarians. They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.
In my last post, I mentioned some of the problems that public opinion as a political force can pose when citizens aren't sufficiently informed or just don't care about political issues. I mentioned Walter Lippmann's suggestion to relieve citizens of their participation in political decision making and leave it all up to experts. Another suggestion comes from political scientist John Zaller, who calls for a "burglar alarm journalism." The principle is related to Lippmann's: Zaller proposes to leave the evaluation of political issues to, of all things, the media.
“The man who lacks sense enough to despise public opinion expressed in gossip will never do anything great” - this is from Hegel's Philosophy of Right (1822). It's no secret that at CommGAP, we're all big advocates for public opinion, nevertheless we need to be aware of some of the problems that public opinion poses in its role as political factor.
Everyone can think of examples of public opinion seemingly landing somewhat off the mark in elections, referenda, polls, or other manifestations of the public's will. Elites then tend to shake their heads in exasperation about what they might call "public ignorance."
Will public opinion kill health care reform in the US? Naturally, I don't know the answer to that question. What is interesting is how a reform process that appeared close to conclusion can wobble mightily upon the apparent signaling of public displeasure. If reinforces once again the centrality of politics - and of public opinion- to processes of reform. What matters now, as the leaders of US government grapple with how to conclude or abandon the reform effort, is to reflect on some of the lessons coming out of the process at this point that might be applicable to reform processes generally. The following seem fairly clear:
CommGAP believes that social norms transformation is key to fighting petty corruption; we believe that one of the biggest impediments to anti-corruption efforts from the perspective of ordinary citizens is when corruption and bribery become so institutionalized in society that people view corruption as the fixed and incontestable norm. To break down such a system, the public’s ignorance of their rights, cynicism, fear of reprisal and mentality of submission to the status quo must first be defeated. Perhaps most importantly, the efficacy challenge needs to be addressed—people need to believe that they can actually do something about corruption so that they can act on that belief.
As many readers will know, CommGAP has developed a couple of training courses. We now run these courses in partnership with the World Bank Institute. A few years ago, we began to commission technical briefs on various aspects of communication and governance for use in the training courses. They are quick, hopefully accessible introductions to various key topics in communication, especially political communication. Each brief was written by an expert in the field although we have not attached the names of the writers, these being our corporate products. We have decided to share these briefs more broadly. Please feel free use them as appropriate. We would appreciate comments on them as well.
"The material for opinion research - all sorts of opinions held by all sorts of population groups - is not already constituted as public opinion simply by becoming the object of politically relevant considerations, decisions, and measures. The feedback of group opinions...cannot close the gap between public opinion as a fiction of constitutional law and the social-psychological decomposition of its concept. A concept of public opinion that is historically meaningful, that normatively meets the requirements of the constitution of a social-welfare state, and that is theoretically clear and empirically identifiable can be grounded only in the structural transformation of the public sphere itself and in the dimensions of its development."
-- Jürgen Habermas (1969, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, p. 244)
Imagine that you are an old lady from a poor household in a town in the outskirts of Chennai city, India. All you have wanted desperately for the last year and a half is to get a title in your name for the land you own, called patta. You need this land title to serve as a collateral for a bank loan you have been hoping to borrow to finance your granddaughter’s college education. But there has been a problem: the Revenue Department official responsible for giving out the patta has been asking you to pay a little fee for this service. That’s right, a bribe. But you are poor (you are officially assessed to be below the poverty line) and you do not have the money he wants. And the most absurd part about the scenario you find yourself in is that this is a public service that should be rendered to you free of charge in the first place. What would you do? You might conclude, as you have done for the last 1-1/2 years, that there isn’t much you can do…but wait, you just heard about a local NGO by the name of 5th Pillar and it just happened to give you a powerful ally: a zero rupee note.