Examining how democracy serves as a communicative process

By: Thanni Obafemi David, University of Ibadan


Democracy beautifully conceived in its birth might essentially be stillborn in its nature, entrusting decision making in the hands of seemingly able representatives. This perspective is born out of a deviation from the concise yet cliché evaluation by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address; and it would qualify a rather controversial by Charles I, “Democracy is the power of equal votes for unequal minds.” This tends to questions the core of our perception of democracy and consequently our attitude towards it that finally affects what is communicated in the typical communicative process.

Pressing further on attitude, it would be apt to examine the concept of Apathy. Apathy works in contradiction to the workings of democracy, a cog large enough to dismantle the wheels of democracy. Apathy itself is characterised simply by a lack or suppression of interest, zeal or enthusiasm. In relation specifically to democracy however is the concept of Rational Apathy which is more concise as the indifference that a voter usually feels when they make the reasonable assumption that his or her vote will not have any real influence on the conclusion of an election; this is usually born out of existing precedents of poor communication.

The essentiality of communication, unhindered, unceasing, unambiguous is, hence, entrenched in the fundamental nature of democracy as a representative system of governance.  Democracy qualifies as the political orientation of those who favour government by the people or by their elected representatives, a political system in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who can elect people to represent them and their interests, or, the doctrine that the numerical majority of an organized group can make decisions binding on the whole group. The dominant recurrent feature remains that of representation and the rule of the people this then begs the question, “What use is the representation of a people whose needs and opinions are unknown or poorly communicated?” As in the words of America’s Foremost lawmen, James Hume “The art of communication is the language of leadership.”



The gap between the representatives and the represented birth the necessity of correspondence or communication. Asides democracy, every form of governance needs communication just like a relationship would have it. Governments have paid attention to public opinion as long as there have been governments. Even the most oppressive tyrants need to know what the people are thinking, even if just to oppress them more effectively. As the famous investigator of public opinion, V.O. Key, Jr. said, “Governments must concern themselves with the opinions of their citizens, if only to provide a basis for repression of disaffection.” The essentiality of communication boarders on what could foster development or maintain underdevelopment; bring peace or encourage disquiet. This germane correspondence can be viewed as government communication.


Democracy as a Communicative Process in Public Opinion

In practice, government communication is more than just crisis management. It entails consulting for policy making, achieving consensus, raising awareness, changing behaviour, fostering transparency and civic education, as well as listening to/feeling the pulse of society. It would then fit aptly how majority of African countries lack a culture of consultation and participation, and this is not helped by the low literacy rates and lack of information provision.

But a key indicator of effective government communication is enhanced citizen participation. Therefore, government communication is not just about developing effective spokespersons with sharp soundbites, it also involves the development of masses or citizens’ oriented services and building capacities for citizens with reliable feedback mechanisms. Neglecting to provide information to the public represents a serious impediment to good governance.

As a result the communicative process in a democracy is evident in its ability to grow past the earliest showcases of public disaffection; through rebellions most especially peasant rebellions and the refusal to pay taxes by the subjects. With a properly entrenched communication process a vital substance of public opinion is measured through Informal and Formal Quantitative measures to avoid the undemocratic employment of Secret Police or Espionage as in previous climes. Through formal measurements; Telephone Surveys, Focus Groups and Content Analysis feature. Through informal measurements however, Elections, Media Coverage, Peaceful Protests, Interest Groups and Lobbyists feature.

The importance of public opinion can be summed up in the presence of the representative element and it dependence on the electorates or represented whose opinions count the most as regards evaluation of governance. This is portrayed in the words of Abraham Lincoln, ‘In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.’ This is complimented with the expression Vox Populi, Vox Dei, The Voice Of The People Is The Voice Of God.

However the words of Edward Bernays are more realistic,

“No serious sociologist any longer believes that the voice of the people expresses any divine or specially wise and lofty idea. The voice of the people expresses the mind of the people, and that mind is made up for it by the group leaders in whom it believes and by those persons who understand the manipulation of public opinion. It is composed of inherited prejudices and symbols and clichés and verbal formulas supplied to them by the leaders.”


Democracy As A Communicative Process In Legitimacy

With legitimacy being the acceptance of a government by the population it rules. The mind of the people becomes essential to qualify the representative as a man of the people. By the knowledge of the peoples wants only can a leader work towards fulfilling them for acceptance. These needs have to go through a process of communication and to achieve accountability and legitimacy for both parties respectively are summed up in the thoughts of Sudanese Businessman, Mo Ibrahim, ‘For citizens to become fully engaged in holding their leadership to account, accurate information is required to see where action is needed, to measure the results of policies and programmes, to build support for courageous decisions and to consolidate political legitimacy.’



The element of communication in a Democracy is vital for evaluation, development, legitimacy, accountability, growth amongst many others. The purpose for communication remains to sustain the democracy in itself whilst bridging the necessary gap between the representatives and the represented, the elected and the electorates.

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