The View From 1776

The Limitations of Public Opinion

When so many people don’t know even the names of the candidates in presidential elections, it’s hard to maintain faith in the wisdom of the voters.  Voters are, however, pretty good at assessing the character of local candidates.

The average voter tends to have a very narrow perspective, viewing all political issues in light of what the media tell him will be the effect on his pocketbook, and seldom has comprehension of the real impact upon the whole of society.  Economic, taxation, and foreign policy matters are particularly difficult for the average voter to assess.

That’s why the writers of the Constitution rejected election of the president via mass popular vote.  Instead, they wanted a layered selection process in which local citizens were to elect people whom they knew first hand from their local districts to serve as state legislators.  Those legislators, in turn, were to select the people having the best character and judgment to serve as delegates to the electoral college for selection of the President and the Vice President.

To our great loss, we have made the electoral college little more than a formality.  Still it remains effective, as in the case of the Senate, in providing a stronger voice for the interests of smaller and less populous states.

If the President were elected only on the popular vote, the big East Coast and Midwestern states, Texas, Florida, and California would control elections and steam-roll the voices of voters in the other 40 or so states.  Because those big states are, with the exception of Texas and Florida, Blue States, we would have mostly Presidents who were committed socialists, and the Constitution would complete its “evolution” into a collectivist tyranny at a rate that would gratify even the New York Times editorial board.

That definitely was not the intention when the Constitution was written in 1787.

In Federalist No. 68, concerning the mode of electing the President, Hamilton wrote:

It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided. This end will be answered by committing the right of making it, not to any preestablished body, but to men chosen by the people for the special purpose, and at the particular conjuncture.

It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.

It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder. ..... The choice of SEVERAL, to form an intermediate body of electors, will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of ONE who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes. And as the electors, chosen in each State, are to assemble and vote in the State in which they are chosen, this detached and divided situation will expose them much less to heats and ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people, than if they were all to be convened at one time, in one place.

In Federalist No. 39, Madison described the nature of ratifying the Constitution, as well as of electing the President and members of Congress: appears, on one hand, that the Constitution is to be founded on the assent and ratification of the people of America, given by deputies elected for the special purpose; but, on the other, that this assent and ratification is to be given by the people, not as individuals composing one entire nation, but as composing the distinct and independent States to which they respectively belong. It is to be the assent and ratification of the several States, derived from the supreme authority in each State, the authority of the people themselves. The act, therefore, establishing the Constitution, will not be a NATIONAL, but a FEDERAL act.

Again, in Federalist No. 10, Madison wrote:

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.

In the intervening 218 years, we have unhappily drifted far from the intended Constitution, toward a politics that more resembles the mobocracy roaming the streets of Paris in July, 1789.  The corrupting influence, more than any other, is the gigantic size and intrusive scope of the Federal government.  With so much money and personal benefit or hardship at stake in the actions of our semi-socialistic government, millions of dollars are expended to shape, or warp, public opinion.

An op-ed piece in the Washington Post tells us what has come to pass.

In What if We’re to Blame?, Robert J. Samuelson begins with a quotation from James Bryce’s “The American Commonwealth,” 1888:

Towering over Presidents and [Congress] . . . public opinion stands out, in the United States, as the great source of power, the master of servants who tremble before it.

Mr. Samuelson continues:

The problem of American democracy is (of course) democracy. ....As Bryce saw, our politicians are slaves to public opinion. Superficially, this should be reassuring. Democracy is working, because public attitudes remain the dominant influence—not “big money” or “special interests,” as many believe.

But it is not reassuring. The trouble is that public opinion is often ignorant, confused and contradictory; and so the policies it produces are often ignorant, confused and contradictory—which means they’re ineffective. The Catch-22 of American democracy is this: A government that mirrors public opinion offends public opinion by failing to do what it promises. People then conclude that the system has “failed.”

....Aside from being fickle, public opinion also marches in many directions at once.
Americans favor balanced budgets. But in 66 years of surveys, taxpayers have never said their income taxes were too low, reports Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute. A Gallup poll in April found that 48 percent thought their taxes too high and only 2 percent too low. Americans also think government spending is hugely wasteful; 61 percent said so in a 2004 poll by the University of Michigan. But locating that waste is hard. A recent Fox News poll found that only 19 percent favor cuts in Social Security, 21 percent in health care, 19 percent in education and 25 percent for the military.

Or consider energy. Americans crave cheap gasoline. Unfortunately, that increases our oil demand—which conflicts with our desire to reduce oil imports. Or immigration. A Pew Research Center survey in March said that 52 percent of Americans think immigrants are “a burden because they take jobs and housing.” But only 27 percent would require illegal immigrants to go home, and only 40 percent would reduce legal immigration.

Facing such inconsistencies, how can government make sensible policy? .....Tell people what they want to hear, regardless of how inaccurate, shortsighted or stupid it might be. That’s the bipartisan instinct. In this election, the Republicans deserve to lose, and the Democrats don’t deserve to win. .....The enduring significance of public opinion (see Bryce, above) reflects both national optimism and suspicion of power. Believing that all problems can be “solved”—even if goals are inconsistent—we blame government for not accomplishing the impossible. ....Throwing the bums out is a venerable tradition, but what if the ultimate bums are us?

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