How Stable and Reasonable is Postcommunist Public Opinion? The Case of the Czech Republic
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THE QUALITY OF GOVERNANCE IN A DEMOCRACY CAN BE COMPROMISED in at least two ways. On the one hand, political leaders may free themselves from democratic control. They may engage in corruption and rent-seeking and preserve their positions through clientelism or charisma. This is the standard complaint in new democracies. Rulers have purportedly come to power through populist campaigns or manipulation of the electoral process and then used their positions to enrich their cronies and entrench themselves in power. But there is another way that democracy can come to grief. Citizens may hold mistaken

beliefs about the right policies or may change their opinions so frequently that they are a poor guide for political leaders (Caplan 2006; Delli Carpini & Keeter 1996). In this case, politicians may actually follow public opinion as wewould expect in a democracy, but policy would not serve citizens’ interests precisely because citizens were demanding capricious, mistaken, or incoherent policies. Which of these diagnoses is correct matters because each has very different policy

implications. If governance is poor because elites are pursuing their own interests, the solution is more democracy. Citizens should be empowered and given the means to hold I wish to thank the Institute for Human Sciences/Institut fu¨r die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (IWM) for

their rulers include civic education or insulating politicians through anti-majoritarian institutions. The question of whether there is elite failure or citizen failure is particularly important in

new democracies where there are fewer stabilising forces and democratic traditions to cushion the effects of poor policy choices. To date scholars appear to blame elites more than citizens; politicians have managed to avoid democratic accountability and thus pursue policies that benefit them and their supporters rather than society as a whole (Pehe 2002). But there are also reasons to worry about the ability of citizens to govern. Consider, for example, the large literature which claims that public opposition would stall necessary economic reforms (Przeworski 1991; Haggard & Kaufman 1995). This paper follows the example of Page and Shapiro (1992, p. xi) to ask whether

postcommunist public opinion is rational in the sense of being ‘real, coherent, stable, and understandable’. Using a set of nationwide public opinion polls fielded in the Czech Republic from 1990 to 2010, it considers whether policy preferences change rapidly or slowly and whether they respond to new circumstances in reasonable ways. Though based on only one country, the results presented here suggest that public opinion

is relatively reasonable in this sense. Opinion on most issues is stable even over substantial lengths of time. The changes that do occur further appear to be a function of changes in social conditions rather than a product of whim or elite manipulation. At least in the case of the Czech Republic, politicians could reasonably rely on public opinion in making policy without endangering public welfare.