In the general slander of public opinion and public opinion polls ("leaders who pander to public opinion lose respect", see John Kay in the Financial Times), people often mistake attitudes for opinion. It's a technical detail, but from a governance reform view it makes all the difference. Attitudes are predispositions. Opinions are expressions, speech acts. Opinions precede and determine behavior. And that, after all, is where we aim in working toward governance reform.
In partnership with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), CommGAP is launching a new publication entitled “Building Public Support for Anti-Corruption Efforts: Why Anti-Corruption Agencies Need to Communicate and How.” The need for this guide became apparent at a learning event organized by CommGAP and UNODC in November 2008. The workshop participants – anti-corruption agencies, government officials, senior practitioners and academics – agreed that the media plays a crucial part in their work by influencing public perception of corruption and building public support for their efforts. However, the question of how to establish good working relationships with the media was of deep concern.
Last week, the field of communication lost one of its most eminent figures, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, who died on March 25 at the age of 93. A German public opinion scholar, Noelle-Neumann has had a powerful influence on the study of public opinion and political communication worldwide. Her most notable contribution, the theory of the Spiral of Silence, has made a lasting impression on the field.
If there is one historical personage that all finance ministers – or treasury secretaries – need to know, he is Jacques Necker (1732-1804). He was the finance minister of France in the 1780s. He was credited with popularizing the phrase ‘public opinion’ (opinion publique). What was his central insight? He noticed that the attitude of the French public to the king of France determined whether or not they purchased the treasury bills issued from time to time by the king. It they had a favorable opinion of the king they bought his bills; if not, they did not buy his bills. In other words, the financial health of the kingdom and the power of the king depended on opinion publique.
Necker pointed out that the same was true of the finance minister. He was clear that the finance minister ‘stands in most need of the good opinion of the people.’ He pointed out that fiscal policies needed to be pursued with ‘frankness and publicity,’ and that the finance minister must ‘associate the nation’ with his plans, including the obstacles he had to surmount. Necker practiced what he preached, launching a systematic management of public opinion. In 1792, he declared:
"Voicing the opposite opinion, or acting in public accordingly, incurs the danger of isolation. In other words, public opinion can be described as the dominating opinion which compels compliance of attitude and behavior in that it threatens the dissenting individual with isolation, the politician with loss of popular support. Thus the active role of starting a process of public opinion formation is reserved to the one who does not allow himself to be threatened with isolation."
In Memoriam: Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (1916 - 2010)
"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."