September 29, 2004,
Can you remember the last time a major politician said, simply, "The American people are wrong." I can't. (Please note: Ron Paul, Alan Keyes, Maxine Waters, Michael Badnarik [Libertarian-party candidate for president], or the guy handing out flyers at the New York Public Library don't count.)
Even when the polls show that a huge majority of Americans disagree with a politician's position, the politician will never say, simply, "Well, the American people are wrong." Instead he will say that the polls asked the question the wrong way. Now, it may well be true that pollsters ask loaded questions very often. But surely, every now and then, they ask the right ones, and the American people come up wrong. But you almost never hear a politician respond by saying what is obviously in his own heart (though during the Clinton impeachment, Henry Hyde did invoke Edmund Burke's speech to the Electors of Bristol).
For example, most Americans including blacks oppose racial preferences; but when advocates of preferences are presented with this incontrovertible fact, they respond by explaining that if you ask the question this way tada! Americans are in favor of preferences. The barely hidden subtext of these defenses is that if the polls really revealed that Americans were against preferences, then that would be devastating testimony against racial preferences or, to be fair, any of the myriad conservative policy proposals the Right likes to defend with similar quibbles.
Vox IgnoramiBut let's take a detour for a second and parse what "wrong" means. For the purposes of this conversation, there are basically two kinds of wrong. There's informed wrong, and there's uninformed wrong. In other words, there are people who draw the wrong conclusions from the facts available and there are some people who don't even know what the facts are and still draw the wrong conclusions. Here are a few examples of the latter, plucked from James Bovard's excellent book, Freedom in Chains, which I happen to be reading:
In 1995, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found two months after the election that put the GOP in control of the House for the first time in 40 years that 39 percent of Americans didn't know what the Contract with America was.
In 1996, a Washington Post/Harvard survey found that "four in ten Americans don't know that the Republicans control Congress; and half either think the Democratic Party is more conservative politically than the GOP or don't feel they know enough to offer a guess."
In 1987, 45 percent of adult respondents to one survey answered that Karl Marx's dictum "from each according to his ability to each according to his needs" was in the U.S. Constitution.
In 1991, a study commissioned by the American Bar Association found that a third of Americans did not know what the Bill of Rights was.
I could go on, of course. And while some of these surveys are old, I don't know anyone who thinks there's been a surge of civic education in the last decade or so. In fact, Bovard's litany is less depressing than an article by Louis Menand last month in The New Yorker that advanced the notion that many voters choose their presidential candidate based on the weather (Gore lost seven states in 2000 because it had been too wet or too dry, according to one scholar). And do keep in mind that just because you know the answers to such questions as "What is the Bill of Rights?" and "Which party controls Congress?" it hardly means your opinion on politics and public policy is particularly worthwhile. We've all met lots people who are buffoons about politics but who can still answer those sorts of questions pretty easily. After all, I know the rules of baseball and football pretty well, but it would be beyond absurd to take my advice on what the Yankees' pitching roster or Giants' playbook should look like.
Before I get all sorts of e-mail from readers calling me an arrogant elitist a** a not-altogether-unfair allegation I guess I should also add a couple clarifications. First, I don't think the situation is as bleak or insulting as I'm making it sound here. People can be bad at answering pop quizzes from clipboard-wielding strangers and still have perfectly decent political instincts. And, second, you can be a genius and not know jack about politics, just as you can be a genius about politics and not know jack about much else.
However and this is a big however no matter how much such snapshots of the society exaggerate the ignorance of the American voter, they are still exaggerating an indisputably true fact: Tens of millions of Americans don't know enough to have informed opinions on most public-policy issues. And yet these tens of millions of Americans way, way, way more than enough to tilt the balance of public opinion on any issue are almost never, ever wrong according to our elected leaders and most pundits.
But let's accept for argument's sake that every voter and non-voter, since public-opinion polls weigh their opinions equally could pass the basic civics test Czar Goldberg would require for all voters. That still doesn't make them right. Noam Chomsky could pass any civics test; that doesn't mean that if 51 percent of Americans agreed with Chomsky, it would be a good idea to confiscate the Army's weapons and give Iraqi insurgents paddle boards for spanking the Yankee invaders.
A few weeks ago I wrote a column about gay marriage in which I tried to argue that the push for gay marriage is less about conceptions of immutable Platonic justice and more about populism. It's only because lots of homosexuals want gay marriage that we are even considering whether it's a good idea.
Well, here's another example. Across the country there's a growing push to let ex-cons regain the right to vote. I'm against it as a wholesale policy, although at the margins I think you can make a good case for some folks. But let's put aside the merits of the argument for a moment. The one indisputable fact is that the issue wouldn't be gaining any steam at all if there weren't so many ex-cons mostly black demanding it.
If you follow the debate on this issue, you'll notice that the very first point advocates for "re-enfranchising" convicted criminals make is that there are so many more ex-cons who are barred from voting today. They back it up with the fact that they are disproportionately black, as if that should make a big difference. Indeed, the concern has it exactly backwards: Instead of worrying that so many black felons can't vote, the black community should be worried that so many blacks are felons.
Even the effort to give the vote back to felons has it backwards. If it was a good idea to bar ex-cons from voting when there were few of them around, why should it be a bad idea when there are more of them? In other words, why would it be just or wise or no big deal to bar one ex-con from voting but unjust or unwise to bar one million ex-cons? Whatever the dangers are of allowing one former criminal to vote, they surely pale in comparison to the dangers of allowing millions of them to vote. A community can absorb one ex-con voter no problem, but 10,000 or ten million of them may be a different matter altogether. It's only when felons what they call the "ex-offender community" in D.C. became a class or potential voting bloc that this became a hot issue.
This pattern seems to hold across social and economic policy and elite attitudes. Once an entitlement becomes widely held, it is permanent. Once any group swells its ranks to sufficient size that it becomes, well, a "group" in democratic parlance, its members begin to be treated with increasing respect, no matter how wrong or "deviant" we might have thought them not long ago. Wiccans, Druids, Goths, even fans of Margaret Cho, and, to a very limited extent, pedophiles have gained grudging acceptance.
The reasons for all this are complex, with some trends dating back to the French Revolution, when the Jacobins deified the masses and democratized God. Identity politics, pandering, multiculturalism, pragmatism, the decline of political parties, etc. all factor in too. In a sense this is just one more gripe about modernity. I do have some suggestions about how to fix things, but they'll just have to wait for another column. Fostering an appreciation for delayed gratification is Step Number 1.