“In this age, in this country, public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed.” Abraham Lincoln’s verdict on the importance of public opinion remains as relevant now as it was when he mouthed these words two centuries ago. Increasingly, we observe a trend of populist governments that blindly pander to public opinion which is problematic when catering to the whims of the masses is possibly often at the expense of rational and sound policy-making. Additionally, the growing appeal of charismatic demagogues who successfully exploit popular sentiments have further threatened the power base of incumbent governments while social media has successfully amplified the voice of the common man, rendering it no longer possible for governments to disregard public opinion. As such, despite the slew of other challenges that governments continually grapple with, I would argue that the challenge of whether to pander to public opinion is the biggest challenge governments currently face.
For a start, it is important to note that the conundrum of whether or not to pander to public opinion exists to the extent that public opinion is not necessarily aligned with the political direction or policies that the government would have independently chosen. Naturally, if public opinion and the government’s approach to managing state affairs are directly compatible, this purported challenge would be a non-issue. However, it is increasingly common that public sentiment has been directly antithetical to what have been deemed as rational and sound policies. The mounting pressure exerted by the masses thus drives governments to enact policies that are not necessarily beneficial to the country in the longer-term. We see this in the rise of anti-immigrant nationalism sweeping across advanced European economies like Germany and Italy. In response to the humanitarian crisis afflicting Syria, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel adopted an open-borders policy that allowed for an influx of close to 2 million refugees into Germany since 2015. While the policy ensured that refugees with a dire need for a safe living environment can successfully seek asylum in Germany, the sudden inflow of refugees provoked backlash from certain sections of society. The pushback against the open-borders policy manifested in the ascendance of the far-right party ‘Alternative for Germany (AFD)’ that unabashedly promulgates xenophobic rhetoric. Eventually as such sentiments gained traction, the public support for Merkel gradually dwindled and made it untenable for her to continue serving as Chancellor. Despite acting in the best interests of her people and of the incoming refugees, Merkel had to fight against a powerful tide of anti-immigrant public sentiment and was an unfortunate victim of growing public disaffection. More recently, anti-lockdown protests across the United States and Europe in 2021 significantly undermined governments’ attempts to contain the pandemic. The manner in which the masses express their disapproval of governments’ heavy-handed pandemic measures ironically runs counter to the policy’s underlying intention to promote safe-distancing and prevent the spread of the coronavirus. It is therefore clear that the adversarial and often destructive manner in which public opinion is expressed renders it no longer possible for governments to outrightly disregard public opinion. Furthermore, when the masses explicitly espouse intentions that are counter to what incumbent governments deem as rational, governments are placed in an unenviable position where they either succumb to public will or risk losing power.
Next, the political successes of populist demagogues have forced incumbent governments to practically consider pandering to popular opinion as a politically expedient approach to retaining political power. ]Most countries currently are founded on democratic principles and popular support forms the essential foundation of an effective, democratically-run government. In the absence of popular support, the ruling government’s authority and legitimacy to rule is undermined, and governments thus need to ensure that they can successfully amass sufficient public support as a critical need to ensure the continuing survival of the incumbent government. While demagogues have consistently been a thorn in the side of democracies, the growing appeal and political success of populist demagogues such as Donald Trump in the US and Jain Bolsonaro in Brazil suggest that they can have a consequential impact on the political trajectory of most democratic countries. Demagogues exist across the political spectrum, with Bolsanaro and Marie Le Pen on the far right to Nicolas Maduro on the far left. To collectively consider all demagogues as one and the same in a broad brush might be too simplistic, but demagogues tend to take on a similar approach to gain broad popular appeal. They generally focus on stoking public sentiment against the opposition and often in an unconstructive manner and their incendiary attempts at fuelling public disaffection distract governments from tackling core issues, or at worst successfully undermine incumbent governments. ]For instance, Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric is best encapsulated by his costly yet ineffective solution to build a wall along the border with Mexico. By conjuring a visceral image of a literal barrier being established as a bulwark against immigrants, Trump successfully captivated a section of the electorate that harbour such anti-immigrant sentiments. Political opponents are thus forced into mudslinging on the inefficacy of evidently ludicrous policy suggestions floated by demagogues rather than engaging in productive discourse. Similarly, in France, we see how the threat of Le Pen’s ascendance forced the people to coalesce around a centrist candidate in Emmanuel Macron despite his relative inexperience. These examples substantiate the argument that due to populist leaders being able to significantly influence political outcomes by dictating public discourse and fuelling public sentiments towards potentially unproductive ends, countering their influence and making sure that public opinion is on their side is the largest challenge that governments have to face in our current age.
Moreover, the advent of social media has created numerous far-reaching platforms that amplify public opinion such that governments are no longer able to turn a deaf ear to public opinion. Given how dissenting views can spread far and wide through social media and cause untruths to propagate throughout society, the rapid pace in which public opinion can form through social media is a challenge that governments would now have to grapple with. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the anti-vaccine group ‘Healing the Divide’ in Singapore amassed a strong social media presence. The group utilised Facebook to perpetuate falsehoods about the risks of vaccination and this naturally stoked fear about the mass vaccination drive that the government had committed to roll out. Social media platforms allow interest groups to successfully propel their agenda into the national spotlight and thus influence the way the rest of the country might perceive certain issues. In the case of the possibly baseless anti-vaccination narrative, slow and ineffectual government response to repudiate the claims of ‘Healing the Divide’ could have allowed for anti-vaccination beliefs to take root among the masses and significantly undermine the government’s ability to contain the spread of the pandemic. In light of the age of social media, governments would now have to pay heed to dangerous public rhetoric or risk an uncontrollable spread across the general populace through such mediums.
However, although the dangers of not pandering to public opinion are clear, critics postulate that the short-term successes of populist governments suggest that purely pandering to public opinion is not to the long-term advantage of ruling governments and is not the biggest concern on their agendas. The eventual downfall of populist leaders who lack the fundamental capacity to lead the nation might offer a sobering reminder that substance and pedigree is ultimately prized over style and charisma. Pandering to public opinion would thus not guarantee the sustained success of populist leaders. Riding a strong tide of American nationalism into the White House, President Trump’s one-term tenure was filled with controversy and scandals that continue to plague him today. More recently, populist leader Boris Johnson prematurely and disgracefully stepped down as British Prime Minister a few years after successfully amassing widespread support from the UK public with his pro-Brexit rhetoric. Yet, while the short-lived tenures of populist leaders might be eminently true, this does not negate the fact that the threat of such leaders continue to distract governments from dealing with core issues, nor does it eliminate the possibility that demagogues do successfully attain power and can possibly undermine the authority of the incumbents. Hence, the short-term success but longer-term failure of populism does not repudiate the claim that dealing with public opinion is the biggest challenge for current governments.
At the same time, while dealing with public opinion is a serious challenge for governments, some argue that this is not the biggest problem that governments struggle with. Perhaps the most troubling of challenges are issues that governments might have no direct control over. The devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the threat of destabilising global events that might necessitate robust government intervention. The failure of governments to adequately deal with external threats can cripple a nation. For example, poor containment measures and an ill-equipped hospital network led to far worse infection rates and a higher death toll in Italy than neighbouring European countries during the early onset of the pandemic. These countries might have ostensibly been similarly affected but were better prepared to deal with these challenges. External threats are not limited to global pandemics and can extend to existential security threats that tend to loom heavy over some countries. Russia’s belligerence and provocation of war in Ukraine threatens the collective security of European nations and remains a pertinent threat for many countries in the region. Domestically, demographic challenges such as ageing have quickly emerged at the top of an extensive laundry list of issues that current governments have to deal with. An ageing population puts further pressure on an already tightly squeezed working population and creates a pressing need for governments to ensure that the elderly population age gracefully. Nonetheless, it is important to understand that all these issues – while vexing and problematic in themselves – can be greatly amplified if public opinion on these concerns are overlooked by governments. The above problems are dynamic in nature and newly evolving challenge will emerge over time, whereas public opinion is one constant factor that will never go away, and therefore, I believe that dealing with public opinion is arguably the most pressing challenge for governments in current conditions.
In the final analysis, while it must be acknowledged that a wide array of challenges exist for governments and that the tenure of populist leaders are generally short-lived and thus usually unsustainable, I would argue that the challenge of whether to pander to public opinion is the biggest challenge current governments face. This is because governments are increasingly forced into conceding to public opinion that might be antithetical to rational policy choices or risk losing popular support. The task to preserve popular support is made even more onerous by the incendiary tendencies of demagogues and by the advent of social media. In the face of such developments, I posit that the decision on whether to pander to public opinion indeed poses the biggest challenge to current governments, and agree with Abraham Lincoln that without public opinion, nothing can truly succeed.