Public opinion is a sometimes overwhelming and devastating force in public affairs, even in non-democratic countries. The military theorist Karl von Clausewitz, who as a Prussian cadet then officer fought in the epic wars against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, noted the decisive importance of public opinion when he elucidated his famous trinity of forces that comprise war. This trinity of forces, says Clausewitz scholar and translator Michael Howard, is the policy of the government, the activities of the military, and the “passions of the peoples.” Canada in the First World War gives an excellent example of the latter. Canadians volunteered with enthusiasm for military service when the fighting broke out in 1914. Three years and many thousands of casualties later, English Canadians re-elected a government that had introduced conscription only months before. After so many casualties, English Canadians wanted victory and revenge over Germany, not peace.
It wasn’t just Prussian elitists like Clausewitz who understood the decisive and sometimes irresistible nature of this force. The British Marxist historian George Rudé emphasized the role of popular protest in the French Revolution, the very upheaval Clausewitz spent his career fighting against. Though Rudé had his detractors, his analysis, published in his seminal The Crowd in the French Revolution, remains today a classic, and for good reason. The public can sometimes be led, but it can also drive events.
On March 11, 2011—1576 days ago—an earthquake and tsunami of unprecedented power devastated the northeast coast of Japan. Tens of thousands of people lost their lives, and hundreds of thousands lost their homes. It was a traumatic catastrophe, especially considering that it happened to a highly advanced and well equipped country that frequently deals with powerful earthquakes.
In light of that, it is perhaps not surprising that early post-disaster public opinion focused on the crippled Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant, where three reactors suffered meltdowns because the tsunami had wrecked the backup electricity generators that ran their cooling systems.
Watching from North America, I and others were astounded to see such hysteria over an event that was likely to lead to few if any casualties. But we were in North America, insulated by 6,000 kilometers of distance from the mood on the ground in Japan. It is easy to be objective when you’re not in the soup. If you are in the soup, it’s totally different.
Well, the Japanese government of the day was in the soup. I have described the government’s decision to shut down all of Japan’s 47 remaining reactors as a panic decision. That is probably unfair. I was not subject to the public opinion of the time, and that opinion was, in the aftermath of the real disaster of the tsunami, intense. Sometimes governments must do something to mollify the public, even if that something is the wrong thing. In this case, the public pressure on the government was probably irresistible.
But it has been 1576 days since the Fukushima reactors started melting down. As I and others predicted on Day One of the nuclear situation, the meltdowns have not produced a single casualty. And meanwhile, the Japanese economy has gone into a serious tailspin. Electricity-dependent industries that recently led the world in productivity have had to cut back to the point where Japan now has a trade deficit.
In light of the past 1576 nuclear-casualty-free days and the economic situation, the new Japanese government, which won a landslide victory less than two weeks ago, says it wants to reverse the nuclear shutdown and get the remaining 45 reactors back to producing cheap power.
If the new government approves a nuclear restart, how will that jibe with the “passions of the peoples”? My prediction is: it will jibe well. It has been 1576 days since the trauma of the tsunami conflated with the situation at Fukushima. The distance of time tends to ease fear-fueled passion. And the public is now feeling the economic squeeze. Its passions may now be fueled by want, which is a different kind of fear.
Either way, the new government just won an overwhelming victory. Obviously, its pro-nuclear position did not prevent the anti-nuclear passions from manifesting in the polling booth.