The Pulse of Democracy: The Representatives
An excerpt from Polling Matters:
Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People
[Many elected representatives] tend
to value their own personal judgments on key issues
more than the views of the people they represent. We
saw this in particular when members of the House of
Representatives and members of the Senate pondered their
votes regarding the impeachment of President Bill Clinton
in 1998 and 1999. We saw it again when President George
W. Bush and his advisors repeatedly claimed that they
would not be making decisions on military action in
Iraq based "on the polls," echoing Bush's
earlier statements while campaigning in 2000 that "I
don't need polls to tell me how to think. If elected
President, I will not use my office to reflect public
These types of views were vociferously
espoused by the perennial gadfly and syndicated columnist
Arianna Huffington, who at one point in her antipolling
crusade argued, "The political landscape today
is littered with politicians who never stop looking
over their shoulders at the latest polls and whose motto
seems to be 'I'm their leader, I shall follow them.'"
In other words, the idea of having
wise representatives make the key decisions essentially
"on their own" seems perfectly acceptable
to many observers. Advocates of the trustee model [of
representative democracy] do not argue for a society
that totally disenfranchises the average citizen, but
rather for allowing that citizen to have an impact on
governing that is infrequent and indirect (primarily
the vote). Mechanisms that allow much more frequent
and much more direct monitors of the will of the people
are not highly desired.
[S]ome of the most ardent adherents
to this trustee viewpoint are the elected officials
themselves, who can easily become more and more enamored
of their own personal ability to make wise decisions.
Relying on one's own judgment is easier than constantly
checking with others to discern a course of action,
and it is more compatible with a mental image of oneself
as brilliant and in possession of supreme reasonableness.
Serving only as a messenger/delegate is much less interesting
and certainly much less consistent with a healthy ego.
It isn't surprising that many elected representatives
begin to think that they know best and that the views
of the people (between elections) are less relevant.
(Still, elected representatives end up responding to
a number of other pressures, including in particular
lobbyists and special interests.)
Elected representatives sometimes throw
up the "but I am in touch" argument and claim
they in fact do stay very closely attuned to what their
constituents think and feel on a daily basisand
that they certainly don't need polls or other "artificial"
systems to augment their understanding of what should
be done. A number of studies document the degree to
which representatives claim that they enjoy a broad,
subtle, and constant "in-touchness" with their
people. After all, representatives receive a steady
barrage of letters, phone calls, and e-mails in which
constituents express their viewpoints. Furthermore,
many elected representatives pride themselves on the
degree to which they go "back to the district"
regularly and maintain the connection with their constituents
that allows them to get an almost intuitive feel for
what they think and feel.
Those methods of staying in touch are
certainly useful and often perform valuable functions.
Some elected representatives are indeed quite closely
in touch with the views of their constituents. But most
don't regularly take advantage of the ability we have
today to access constituents' views on a systematic,
scientific basis, and many argue that it's not necessary.
Here's a paradox of sorts: elected
representatives are both willing and proud to announce
that they carefully track constituent calls and letters
and take time to hold town hall meetings in order to
keep current with citizen concerns. But representatives
are much less likely to proclaim proudly that they commission
and study the type of scientific polls that would do
a more precise job of helping them understand their
constituents' concerns and opinions. This doesn't make
a lot of sense. Why shouldn't elected representatives
take full advantage of the most scientific and demonstrably
accurate ways available of understanding their constituenciespolls?
The answer to that question is not
totally clear, but we do know that many political elites,
in addition to having perhaps inflated conceptions of
their own wisdom and value, simply don't have a lot
of respect for the people. This basic disdain for the
wisdom of the people on the part of elites was supported
by a 1998 poll of elites conducted by the Pew Research
Center. The poll asked questions of a sample of representatives,
congressional staffers, presidential appointees, and
senior civil servants. The poll showed that significantly
less than a majority of those in all these groups felt
that the public was smart enough to have worthwhile
opinions on important matters of policy. (It's interesting
that the majority of elected officials use polling in
their election and reelection campaigns, despite the
fact that they may disdain its use to help guide decision
making between elections.)
This elitist notion that regularly
consulting the views of the people is not necessary
can be contrasted with what the people themselves say.
In poll after poll, the people of the United States
affirm that they have more faith in their own collective
insights and wisdom than they do in their elected representatives.
Two such polls were conducted at times in which public
opinion was very important: the months leading up to
the Persian Gulf War in 1990 and 1991 and during the
Clinton impeachment crisis. In both situations, the
Gallup poll asked Americans whether their elected officials
should be paying attention to the wishes of the people
as expressed through polls in making their decision,
or doing what they (the elected officials) thought was
right. In both situations, the public came down firmly
on the side of paying attention to the polls. The public,
in short, had less interest in their representatives'
making decisions on their own, but rather were more
interested in the representatives' following the wishes
of the people who elected them.
In a September 2003 Gallup poll, Americans
were asked to rate how much confidence they had in various
components of American society. Confidence in "the
American people as a whole when it comes to making judgments
under our democratic system about the issues facing
our country" was the highest of the eight components
tested. Three out of four Americans said they had a
great deal or fair amount of confidence in the people.
Meanwhile, only 2 percent said they had no confidence
at all. The next highest-rated components of society
were local government and the federal judicial branch
of the government, headed by the Supreme Court.
Indeed, the juxtaposition of the polls
of elites and polls of the public tells the story well.
The elites in Washington are skeptical of the public's
ability to have opinions of value, while the public
itself demands that its views be given full attention.
Excerpted from Polling Matters:
Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People,
by Frank Newport. Copyright © 2004 by The Gallup
Organization, and published by Warner Books. Reprinted