As the American presidential election finally winds down with what appears to be a grudging concession (of sorts) by soon-to-be former President Donald J. Trump, I’ve been thinking about the fickleness of public opinion. Despite pollsters’ valiant attempts to explain and predict the collective attitude of large numbers of people, they often get it wrong, either by mis-measuring the distribution of opinions, or by interpreting accurate data incorrectly.
One of the biggest problems is that public opinion can be extraordinarily fickle, especially during, after, and around national security crises. We like to think that there is some stability to public opinion, but in some cases, that kind of stability simply does not exist.
One example that stood out to me recently was Sri Lanka. In early 2015, long-time wartime president Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the election to his rival, former health minister Maithripala Sirisena. Rajapaksa had led government forces to bloody victory over the Tamil Tigers in 2009, some 26 years after the insurgents first launched their war of independence.
After his victory, Rajapaksa oversaw a tightening of autocratic rule, cracking down on dissent from within Sri Lanka’s minority populations (Tamils and Muslims), as well as within the dominant Sinhalese Buddhist community.
One of Rajapaksa’s biggest Achilles heels in the run-up to the 2015 national elections, however, was his heavy reliance on Chinese-funded debt to launch major Sri Lankan infrastructure projects. In the months leading up to the 2015 election, Rajapaksa’s critics zeroed in allegations of corruption, many linked to the Chinese construction projects.
Fast forward four years, however, and Rajapaksa was once again elected president. According to the New York Times, public anger at the previous government’s mishandling of intelligence information about an impending terrorist attack by Muslim extremists against Catholic churches appeared to have done the trick. Rajapaksa’s victory over the Tamil separatists had cemented his tough-guy image, and in a moment of public fear of terrorism, voters turned to what they saw as a tried-and-true wartime leader.
What this means is that public opinion in Sri Lanka, as in many other countries, is often a rather unpredictable beast. In 2015, public sentiment ran against Rajapaksa because of his reputation for corruption and his government’s over-reliance on Chinese debt. Four years later, sentiment ran in the precise opposite direction because people thought he could handle a new and different threat. Public opinion giveth, and public opinion taketh away, as Trump recently discovered.
China, meanwhile, has remained a constant in the Sri Lankan economy. Last month, the two countries signaled their desire to deepen bilateral trading ties;Chinese investment, moreover, has continued apace ever since 2015. Rajapaksa’s successors never saw any real benefit in disrupting their economic relationship with Beijing. Chian’s massive Belt and Road Initiative is busy building ports, airports, railroads, highways, and telecommunications infrastructure worldwide, and most resource-constrained countries are eager to play ball.
Many of my colleagues in political science dismiss the importance of public opinion, arguing that it is so fickle and elite-driven as to be meaningless as an independent political factor. Ordinary people have very little knowledge of politics or motivation to learn more. For the most, they argue, publics are easily swayed by rumor, propaganda, elite messaging, and peer pressure.
Ordinarily, I fight back, arguing that public opinion is indeed a real thing that cannot simply be reduced to political manipulation. It does, I think, place real constraints on leaders’ freedom of movement,. In some cases, moreover, it really does help shape the content of policy.
Sometimes, however, I wonder…..