The Will of the People

How many times do you hear someone in politics proclaim "the will of the people" as some all-empowering phrase in… whatever it is they happen to be doing? Far too often if you ask me. It's one of those phrases that's been run into the ground like "paradigm" during the dot-com days and, similar to that much-maligned buzzword of HR consultants and associated shysters, it's a clever lie that works more than it should.

What seems to have been lost is what "the will of the people" really is. Modern interpretation would tell us that it's a simple majority in any given poll. That's an outright lie and anyone who would proclaim it is intending to mislead you into believing they have some awesome force backing the same thing they are. Claiming that 56% of the populace backs your position with a 5% margin of error is hardly a groundswell of support. (In case you're wondering, this is the percentage of support claimed by each side of the voucher issue.) Polls with a large margin of error don't count either, such as the recent poll on support for the Real Salt Lake stadium deal. (C'mon guys… 7.7% margin of error with 11% undecided?)

This phrase no longer represents what a vast majority of "the people" want, but rather what a simple majority want. Simple majorities, however, are fickle and quick to switch sides. (Again, look at how the voucher support numbers yo-yo back and forth each month the question gets asked.) They represent the current of popular opinion now, but even small things can make a few fence-sitters switch sides and change what "the people" are asking for. This is hardly the basis for setting a political course. People who do this in their personal lives usually choose professions like "day trader" or "real-estate speculator". Are we, the voters, political day traders? Do we expect our elected officials to be the same way?

I firmly believe that if less than 60% of "the people" feel a certain way, there is no obligation from elected officials to vote in accordance with those polls. After all, we shouldn't elect a guy because he's our "yes man"; we should elect a guy because he'll tell us the things we don't want to hear and vote the way that's best for us in the long term. Expecting any less of an elected official is to expect the same kind of runaway train that runs the US Congress, saddling us with massive debts and endless new legislation. I'm tired of elected leaders being more concerned with what's popular than what's right.

While there's an obligation to try and accommodate what constituents want, this is not a direct democracy. Thank goodness for that. While I admire Jefferson's optimism about "the people" as a whole, Hamilton's cynicism about the ability of the majority to choose wisely is sometimes spot-on.

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1 Response

  1. Reach Upward says:

    Polls famously suffer from a number of problems. And despite what the pollsters’ statistical models say about margins of error, there is also a margin of error to each margin error.

    Polls do not necessarily ask the right questions, nor do they necessarily query the right people. It’s getting easier for people to avoid pollsters (thanks to technology), so the quality of just about any sampling nowadays is dubious.

    You are calling for more statesmen and less politicians. This has been a common refrain for centuries. But we must also recognize that almost every elected official gets involved to a certain degree out of self interest. It is up to the citizens to determine whether that self interest will work to their benefit or not. It’s not an easy task, but along with citizenship comes responsibility.

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