The View From 1776

Iraq Policy and Public Opinion

With mounting stridency, news media demand to know why President Bush fails to bow to public opinion expressed in the recent Congressional elections and pull our troops out of Iraq.

The underlying assumption is that public opinion, expressed in elections or opinion polls, in all cases represents truth and wisdom.  As I wrote in The Limitations of Public Opinion, such is seldom the case when complex policy matters are the subject of those opinions.

The stock market, for example, gives us a daily, broad spectrum opinion poll reflecting the outlook for business.  Obviously, however, very few people have the knowledge and resources to become rich and to keep their wealth over time simply through knowing what composite market opinion is at any given time.

Similarly, as Plato noted in downgrading uninformed opinion as a guide for policy, when someone is seriously ill, he seeks expert medical advice.  Most people would agree with him that it is nonsense to go into the streets to poll random strangers for their opinions about what medical treatment should be prescribed.

Why then should we insist that voters’ opinions set our foreign policy, in Iraq, or anywhere else?

David Broder, the ?minence grise of Washington Post columnists, wrote in a column dated December 14, 2006,

This is hardly the first time I have been reminded that people of high standing in the political community can be unfamiliar to most voters. When Richard Lugar of Indiana, for two decades the leading Republican Senate voice on foreign policy and a widely admired statesman, entered the 1996 Republican presidential race, no one in New Hampshire seemed to have heard of him.

The reason in both cases is that the national political press corps does not see its responsibility to spotlight all the people vying for the presidential nominations. Rather, our tendency is to narrow the field as quickly as possible and define who we think the “serious” candidates may be.

These early judgments are based on polls, financial reports and what I would call the “buzz” factor of novelty or excitement.

Here is the key quotation from his column:

But polls are unreliable when those surveyed know almost nothing about the candidates.

The only thing that most American know about our involvement in Iraq is that around 3,000 Americans have been killed there since the invasion.

Most voters know nothing about the geopolitical stakes or the intricate interrelations among the contending powers in the Middle East.  Most have not the foggiest idea of what consequences almost surely would follow, were we to withdraw our troops as House Speaker-designate Pelosi and Congressman Murtha demanded.

New Deal liberalism in the 1930s transformed the media into the the creator and shaper of public morality.? Whatever ?wrong? the media chooses to publicize and whatever ?remedy? it chooses to support tends to become public opinion.? As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., (and Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels) said, there being no independent standards of truth or morality, truth is whatever wins out in the marketplace.

Liberal-socialist-progressive doctrine became so-called mainstream opinion only as recently as the New Deal in the 1930s.  The simple fact of the matter is that the ?mainstream? worshipped by left-wing media is socialism, running as fast as it can, away for the Jeffersonian individualism of our original Constitution. 

And when public opinion in that sense is the mode of government, with no value placed on respect for morality, religion, and tradition, we are under the sway of Tocqueville?s tyranny of the majority.  This, of course, is the process we saw when throngs blocked public streets to demand ?constitutional rights? for illegal immigrants.

A basic tenet of liberal-socialist-progressive, mainstream opinion is that wars are caused by capitalist greed.  Thus the invasion of Iraq was, in liberal opinion, concocted (Bush “lied”)to enrich large corporations that contribute money to Republican politicians.

Liberals point out that socialist policies of the New Deal, even though ineffective in ending the Depression, were widely popular.  Changing public opinion, in liberal orthodoxy, is a legitimate way to “amend” the Constitution and far simpler than the procedure prescribed in Article V.

Never mind that Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution confers the executive powers of the Federal government upon the President and grants him authority as commander of our armed forces in time of war.  Newly minted ?mainstream? opinion is to be accepted by the executive branch and the Federal judiciary as having superceded the words of the Constitution.

Unfortunately, popular opinion as the basis for political legitimacy cuts both ways. 

In a society supposedly based on the rule of law, it is not sufficient that large numbers, even a majority, of Americans support policies that damage the Constitution.  The same criterion would have legitimized the National Socialist subjugation of Europe by Adolph Hitler, who was enthusiastically supported by the opinion of forty million Germans. 

If the only sanction necessary for public policy is volatile public opinion, then there is no need for a Constitution.  Constitutions by definition embody the unchanging, underlying principles of political society.  The checks and balances of our Constitution were intended precisely to forestall mob action, to prevent short-run public opinion from becoming the determinant of public policy.

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