Public Opinion: Experts vs vox populi
By Thomas E. Brewton
Tension between government by experts (intellectuals, bureaucrats, and independent legislators) and the voice of the people (expressed in elections and opinion polls) complicates politics in our Federal republic.
Relying too heavily on opinion polls or elections is a short road to disaster when the government must determine critical policies that involve intricate financial knowledge, broad knowledge of history, economics, and foreign affairs. The general populace can be too easily misled by propaganda and ignorance of the subject.
But looking exclusively to an expert elite opens the path to tyranny, as the history of socialist collectivism demonstrates. Intellectual cadres, working through an impersonal bureaucracy, display, as a comedian once observed, all the sensitivity of the IRS and the efficiency of the Post Office.
The issue is as not a new one. Aristotle noted in his study of ethics that the objective of virtuous conduct is the Golden Mean between extremes. Courage is a virtue, while too little courage is cowardice, and too much is rashness.
In our Federal republic, the aim is a balance between wisdom based on experience and careful analysis, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a sensitivity to the shifting winds of public opinion. The balance wheel is political leadership to educate and channel those opinion winds in the proper direction.
Complete reliance on experts produces arrogance and leads to arbitrary exercise of power that threatens the inalienable natural-law, individual rights prescribed by the Bill of Rights. A judicious reliance upon expert knowledge, coupled with thorough airing of all views through the legislative process, leads in the direction of sound and stable government.
In the opposite direction we had the week-to-week policy shifts of President Carter, whose declarations of firm policy frequently were reversed as soon as a clamor arose from liberal pressure groups. Similarly, if we are to credit Clinton political advisor Dick Morris, President Clinton never announced a policy before testing public opinion and modifying the policy to fit current public opinion. Various committee hearings in the wake of 9/11 suggest that President Clinton failed to nail Osama Bin Ladin after the first World Trade Center bombing and after the bombings of our African embassies, because he believed that public opinion would not have supported aggressive action.
The recent re-election of Connecticut's Senator Joseph Lieberman exemplifies the conflict enunciated by Edmund Burke, the father of Anglo-American conservatism. As Burke saw his Parliamentary duty it was to exercise his best judgment on behalf of his constituency, rather than simply to vote as momentary, and often uninformed, public opinion urged.
Senator Lieberman lost the Democratic Party primary to socialist insurgent Red Ned Lamont, who advocated almost immediate withdrawal of our troops from Iraq. Running as in independent in the general election, Senator Lieberman decisively defeated Mr. Lamont, while advocating keeping our troops in Iraq long enough to prevent a take-over by al-Qaida, Ba’athists, or Iran.
Mr. Lamont, unencumbered by even the slightest experience in foreign affairs, based his entire candidacy upon going with the flow of highly emotional public opinion. Senator Lieberman chose to follow the course dictated by his judgment and experience.
The tension between experts and general opinion is as old as our Constitution. The two year debate before ratification of the Constitution was waged between groups known as the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists.
Federalists wanted a strong national government curbed by internal checks and balances. As Washington wrote, attempting to govern under the Articles of Confederation had been a bad joke. Any objection by a state could halt action, gravely threatening our survival amidst the wars among England, France, and Spain.
Anti-Federalists objected that we had just fought a bloody war against England to free ourselves from the arbitrary power of the king. They were adamantly opposed to creating a powerful national government that would take up where George III had left off. The promise of a Bill of Rights allayed their concerns sufficiently to secure ratification of the Constitution.
This set the stage for conflicts that persist today between the powers of the Federal government and the rights of states and individuals.
The Federalists, under George Washington and John Adams succeeded in alienating enough states-rights and individual-freedom partisans to elect Thomas Jefferson to the presidency in 1800. The precipitating issue was one near the head of today's list: dealing with immigrants.
Following the turmoil of the French Revolution's Reign of Terror (1793-94) several thousand French refugees fled to the United States. Many of them were radicals who transferred their socialist advocacy to the American political system, promoting revolutionary action in newspapers and political organizations. A smaller number of Irish radicals immigrated and pursued similar action.
The Federalists met the threat to internal stability with a heavy hand, passing the Naturalization, Alien, and Sedition Acts in 1798, which gave the Federal government power to invade what the states saw as their field of jurisdiction, local police powers. Moreover, the Sedition Act, by giving the Federal government authority to prosecute for seditious speech, ran afoul of the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.
Calling these acts "The Federalist Reign of Terror," Jefferson's Republican party won the 1800 elections.
A similar conflict arose with the Sedition Act of 1917, when Jefferson's successors, the Democrats, confronted the efforts of socialists and anarchists to overthrow the Constitution to prevent our entry into World War I. Ironically, liberal icon Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote the Court's opinion upholding the 1917 act.
In that year, the Federal government essentially took over American industry to mobilize for the war, but President Woodrow Wilson rescinded nearly all of the government's extraordinary powers within months after the 1918 Armistice.
In that era, both Republicans and Democrats believed in the original concept of limited national government, leaving as much regulation as possible at the state and local levels.
With a modified gold standard in effect through the 1920s, Congress could not pass new spending bills without facing public disapproval by levying new taxes. The Federal Reserve, under a gold standard, could not create money with bookkeeping entries to finance government programs.
Members of Congress voted to protect both the national interests and the special interests of their constituents, but voting based on opinion polls was not the practice.
Beginning in 1933 with Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, however, that governmental self-restraint ceased. Roosevelt called for creating emergency powers to enable state-planning modeled on the Soviet Union and Fascist Italy.
Agriculture, our largest employer in 1933, was nationalized. Socialist and Communist labor unions were elevated to a position of favored power by the New Deal. Industry was placed under state-planners by the National Recovery Administration (NRA), our version of Mussolini's Fascist State Corporatism. The NRA set production quotas, prices, and labor rates. Tax revenues, predominantly at the state and local level before 1933, were taken over by the Federal government, which tripled income tax rates.
Since 1933, continuing collectivization of power at the Federal level has effectively neutered the Ninth and Tenth Amendments of the Bill of Rights, permitting the Federal government to run roughshod over states' rights and the supposedly inalienable rights of individuals.
With an ever expanding scope of regulatory power in the Federal government, along with institution of the socialist welfare state, public opinion has become a loose canon on the gun deck threatening to wreck the ship of state. The public have been taught that they are entitled to a Federal government that provides for their daily needs by taxing "the rich," ending the ethos of self-restraint at the Federal level.
Out of the New Deal socialization of our government has come the liberal-socialist-progressive theory that changes in public opinion amount to amendments to the Constitution, despite the specific amendment procedure laid out in Article V of the Constitution. It is this theory that liberals use also to justify activist judges who rule according to politically-correct public opinion.
Thomas E. Brewton is a staff writer for the New Media Alliance, Inc. The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets. His weblog is The View From 1776. Email comments to