Monday, January 17, 2005

God Bless the Founders
They really were on to something.

I've taken several classes in American government, as well as classes studying public discourse and public opinion, most often in a discussion format with a lot of very smart undergraduate students. Without exception, we come to at least 10 different versions of the roll government should play in public discourse, and the role public discourse should play in government. Also without exception, we agree that the only true option for an effective government "of the people, by the people, for the people," is a representative democracy, rather than a pure one. That is why I am so bothered by the fact that anyone is even asking this question: "In this year's survey, Americans were nearly evenly divided about whether and how the United States should change troop strength in Iraq: Twenty-four percent said more troops should be sent, 26 percent said troop strength should not be changed, 21 percent said some troops should be withdrawn and 25 percent said all troops should be withdrawn."

We have a representative government because the average citizen can never have a full set of information on every issue. While some may be experts in specific areas, many lack expertise on any issue of serious concern to the greater public, and the vast majority know a very little about a broad range of issues. It is for this reason that we elect people we trust to work on our behalf. Their job, of course, is to work for what their constituents desire in many cases. But in others, where the public cannot be fully informed, they are required to work with a special set of knowledge granted to them by their position and make tough decisions.

In this case, the people who know the most about the best troop strength are, in descending order: commanders in Iraq; commanders stateside; the civilian leadership of the Pentagon, the National Security Council, the CIA and others around this level; and the White House. Now, let me be clear, we can dispute the actual ordering of these things, but the overall point remains clear: the American people are not qualified to make a determination regarding troop strength in Iraq—they lack the requisit information and the training to use that information.

OK, so by now a lot of you are probably thinking that I'm making a big deal out of nothing. And it's true, thank God, that we do not have a direct democracy, and the public does not make the determination. However, in the modern day of constant public polling, we are approaching that point rapidly. Students of statistics, of political polling, and of public opinion know these things that I've said. The problem is, many in government do not, and almost no one in the general public does. The result, then, of a poll like this, and more specifically of CNN giving it coverage as important information, is an increase in the perception that it means something. People read that and say "well, if the American people think xyz, then there must be some credence to that thought." In short, it removes that important ability of our representatives to govern based on their own instincts and knowledge without exposing themselves to political suicide for facing down the public.

I'll admit, I'm not sure what to do about any of this, but it's an important thing to consider.

No comments: