WASHINGTON, May 3, 2014 – Recently, headlines around the country told us that President Barack Obama’s public approval had reached an all-time low. Public opinion polls seem to be cited daily to tell us whether, at the moment, the public supports the Affordable Care Act, wishes to see the U.S. further involved in Ukraine and Syria, or supports the Keystone Pipeline.
On cable television, conservative hosts tout polls that support their position on issues, and liberal hosts do the same.
Traditionally, under our system, the only polls which have mattered were elections. Every six years we elect senators, every four years a president, and every two years a member of the House of Representatives. Between elections, we have expected those we choose for office to exercise their best judgment and serve our interests, not our transitory opinions based on limited knowledge and imperfect information.
At the next election, if we disagree with those judgments and find them wanting, our option is to vote against such legislators.
In Federalist No. 71, Alexander Hamilton wrote that when “the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations,” it is the representatives’ duty “to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection.”
In his classic speech to the electors of Bristol in 1774, Edmund Burke declared that, “Your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
If a public opinion poll had been taken at the time Moses brought the Ten Commandments down from Mt. Sinai, they would surely have been rejected. Similarly, public opinion would most likely have rejected the Declaration of Independence, which is said to have been supported by no more than one third of colonial Americans. Would public opinion polls at the time have supported the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO, the Korean War, Brown v. Board of Education or a host of other policies which time has shown us were necessary and successful?
Fortunately, no one in the past suggested that serious policy decisions be made on the basis of transitory polls which are guided, all too often, far more by emotion than genuine understanding of the issues involved. Throughout history, the role of a leader has been to chart a course of action which he believed best for the country and then convince the public that his course was the proper one.
Those who urge government by continuous plebiscite as reflected by the polls—which,in any event, sample only a tiny fraction of public opinion—are advocating a system which is quite opposite of the one which the framers of the Constitution created. Representative democracy is not the same thing as mass democracy which, in any event, is hardly possible in a country of more than 300 million people.
The Founding Fathers understood man’s nature. They attempted to form a government which was consistent with, not contrary to, that nature. Rather than viewing man and government in positive terms, the framers of the Constitution had almost precisely the opposite view.
John Adams expressed the view that,
“Whoever would found a state and make proper laws for the government of it must presume that all men are bad by nature.”
As if speaking to those who place ultimate faith in egalitarian democracy today as manifested by polls, Adams attempted to learn something from the pages of history:
“We may appeal to every page of history for proofs irrefragable, that the people, when they have been unchecked, have been as unjust, tyrannical, brutal, barbarous and cruel as any king or senate possessed of uncontrollable power…All projects of government, formed upon a supposition of continued vigilance, sagacity, and virtue, firmness of the people when possessed of the exercise of supreme power are cheats and delusions.”
Adams concluded that:
“The fundamental article of my political creed is that despotism, or unlimited sovereignty, or absolute power, is the same in a majority of a popular assembly, an aristocratic council, an oligarchical junto, and a single emperor. Equally bloody, arbitrary, cruel, and in every respect diabolical.”
The political thinker who had the most important impact upon the thinking of the Founding Fathers was John Locke.
Locke repeatedly emphasized his suspicion of government power. He believed that if the authorities violate their trust, the regime should be dissolved. The political tradition out of which the U.S. Constitution grew repeatedly stressed the importance of limiting the sphere of government.
We often forget that public opinion is usually carefully manipulated, in the present era by an army of public relations consultants, now aided by the new technology of the Internet and social media. Discussing the start of a campaign not too long ago, David R. Altman, chairman of Altman, Stoller and Weiss advertising agency, assessed the influence of television advertising upon American politics.
In Altman’s view:
“The annual exercise in political irrelevance has begun. Once again, the American viewing public is being subjected to a barrage of flashy thirty and sixty-second spot announcements urging votes for this candidate of that. T.V. has become the most destructive political force we have known. It is an open invitation to the demagogue, a path to elective office for the incompetent but glib candidate, and it is definitely a deterrent for the brilliant but dull office seeker. It has changed the rules of the game of politics from ‘let the better candidate have a chance to win’ to ‘let the most appealing candidate win.'”
Altman charged that:
“For the most part, political ads on T.V. perform what I consider to be a massive confidence job on the American people. Why? Because political commercials do not as a rule inform the electorate. They stimulate the emotions. They arouse passions. They polarize people on different sides of the political street. They use trickery—trick lighting, trick makeup, a full gamut of Hollywood special effects—and occasionally candidates have even been known to lie on television. What has been the result? We consistently elect candidates who later ‘surprise’ us—who turn out to be different from the image perceived during the campaign.”
Beyond this, we must wonder if the positions taken by candidates on public issues really represent their view of what is best for the country or represent only the view of their public relations advisers about what will best create the kind of “image” necessary for the mass media? Do we vote for flesh and blood men and women with passions and emotions and, yes, with faults, or do we vote for the all-pleasing candidate, with blow-dried hair who resembles a t.v. newsman who never mispronounces a word or stumbles over one?
Dwight Eisenhower may not have had rhetorical skill, but his rhetorical blunders were, at least his own. We seem to have lost our humanity in an age of technology. What chance would George Washington—or James Madison—or Abraham Lincoln–have today?
Leadership means not pandering to the polls of the moment but determining the best course for the country and convincing the voters you are right. A genuine leader can never please all of the people, and a great leader should never try. To make decisions means that a large number will oppose you. Yet, today, we remember Jefferson and Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt far more than their critics.
To be great, a man or woman must dare to be proven wrong. To be a statesman, a politician must be willing to lose for what is right. In the poll-driven politics of today, where are such men and women to be found? Someplace, one suspects, other than Washington.