Who Cares About "The Will of the People"?

Andrew Tallman
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Posted: Jan 28, 2010 11:51 AM
Who Cares About "The Will of the People"?

It’s currently in vogue among conservatives to argue that health care reform should not pass because it is unpopular. The argument sounds like this: “Public support for Obama’s plan has dipped to just 36 percent. Nevertheless, Democratic legislators bull ahead, ignoring the will of the people in a mad dash to plant their ideological flag on the hill of political ambition, no matter how many Congressional bodies it costs.”

I could attribute this basic idea to any of a dozen of my fellow conservative authors, and now, with the stunning election of Scott Brown, the pleading has turned to shouting: “How dare you turn a deaf ear to the clear, express sentiment of the electorate! Will you so flagrantly disregard the people you’re supposed to represent?”

As you may already have surmised, I am not impressed by these lines of argument. In fact, I’m writing this column because their use disturbs me so greatly. To put the point bluntly, conservatives who denounce the Democratic leadership in this way have either forgotten what we believe or else are willing to sacrifice what we believe on our own altar of political persuasion.

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Make no mistake, this particular appeal to the “will of the people” works with an audience. If it didn’t work, no one would use it. But effectiveness alone is not enough. The strength of our political position is that our arguments flow from a clear and consistent set of principles. Unless our party is very badly named, we don’t believe in direct democracy. We believe in a republic. In a democracy, the people decide what policies are followed, whereas in a republic, the people elect leaders who decide what policies are followed. This is far more than a trifling difference.

The question is simple: Are our leaders obligated to do what the majority wants, or are they obligated to do what seems right to them? Although an ideal world would allow both outcomes, that world and ours don’t always coincide. In the present case, we have an overwhelming Democrat majority in Washington pushing an overwhelmingly unpopular health reform plan. And so what?

Although many journalists may shudder to acknowledge the fact, political authority in this country does not flow from opinion polls, even reliable ones. Zogby, Rasmussen, Pew, Harris and Gallup all combined have zero constitutional authority. Even if it could be reliably known that 85 percent of all voters opposed some proposal, it would mean precisely nothing in terms of the authority to abandon that proposal at this moment. The only opinions that count are those of the 535 members of Congress and the president.

That being said, there is one poll that matters. It’s very rigorously conducted and involves 100 percent sampling with no statistical projections whatsoever. All adult citizens without felony convictions are allowed to participate—and we conduct it every two years. It’s called an election, and the winners get to make the decisions for the next two, four, or six years. Once those offices are granted, there is simply no constitutional authority to impeach for the offense of unpopularity—as un-Californian as that may be.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I like the idea of legislators listening to their constituents. But that’s because I want them to be aware of all the viewpoints on a particular proposal and its impact on the people they serve. However, there is a gulf of difference between listening to the people and being led by them. I want Congressmen to think deeply and then do what they believe is best, even if it’s unpopular. Even if they disagree with me. The word for that is leadership.

In contrast, I suppose a congressman could simply count the number of in-district calls he gets on a particular issue and then vote according to that tally. Another approach might be to see what actual polling data in his district indicates. As idiotic as both these suggestions are, notice that they at least restrict the sample taken to the particular district. A USA Today poll of 1500 random Americans should be of no consequence whatsoever since no member of Congress represents that district. But in any of these approaches, we still have the same basic flaw: political opportunism, which is simply a euphemism for cowardice.

When President Clinton was in office, conservative commentators regularly said he had only one core principle: benefit Bill Clinton. The oft-leveled criticism was that he would stick his finger in the wind to see which way things were blowing and then do the popular thing. This description of his presidency has become almost core doctrine for most of us. But it should be obvious by now that we can’t coherently criticize him for governing by the polls and then also criticize President Obama (or Congress) for ignoring them.

Consider another case. President Bush did many things that either were at the time or else later became very unpopular. For those of us who liked them, however, we supported and even praised him for showing the “courage of his convictions” and “the willingness to do the right thing even if it’s unpopular.” Fine. But we simply can’t say that a commitment to unpopular policies we support shows leadership and a stance for principle over politics and then turn around and say that a commitment to unpopular policies we oppose is a flagrant disregard for the clear will of the people. Such arguments of convenience eventually make us sound like we really are just opposed, rather than being opposed on principle.

Besides, let’s be honest for a moment. Our opposition to these reform plans wouldn’t be one bit weaker if we happened to not have the majority on our side, nor would any of our arguments change. Why then do we think this bandwagon appeal is likely to persuade those on the other side?

Moreover, since it is our arguments which have been moving the marker rather than this ad populum fallacy, let’s stick with what we really believe and leave bad arguments to the foolish. The simple fact is we do not want to open ourselves up for the future criticism that some idea we oppose is popular and therefore we should embrace it. Yet if we are going to build our house on the shifting sands of public opinion, future battles will either force us to embrace that chaos for consistency sake or reject it by recanting our current emphasis on popularity.

All this being said, there is one nuanced shift which could make this argument work. Instead of feigning outrage that the Democrats are ignoring public opinion, we Republicans might instead simply allow this to prove that they are not the “ear of the people” party they claim to be. In this approach, we aren’t acting like we truly care that they are more committed to their agenda than to public sampling. We are simply showing that Democrats are guilty of the one thing they relish alleging about us: hypocrisy. Failing to live up to their own professed responsiveness to majority viewpoint, we’ve caught them in this one most culturally unacceptable sin.

A final note: Out of consistency, I think it’s fair to give one bit of credit where it’s due. Though I disagree vehemently with President Obama’s health care agenda and though I deeply hope he fails to pass it, I have to respect his courage in pursuing it despite such widespread public opposition. He’s wrong and he may lose his majority in the process, but I respect a man who stands by his convictions. Let’s also stand by ours and not embrace the tar baby of pretending to care overmuch about “the will of the people.”