“I love democracy,” says Supreme Chancellor Palpatine in Star Wars Episode II, “I love the Republic.” While more eloquent words have been spoken about democracy by catatonic three-year-olds, the overarching sentiment – about the good of democracy – holds true. Democracy is, after all, the will of the people. But what about when “the people” are wrong?
There are inherent risks in criticising the collective opinion of the masses. One runs the risk of being labelled “elitist”, a trendy “effete” or – best of all – a naysayer; a contrarian. Even referring to the idea of “the masses” carries with it ideological baggage. Going against public opinion is like swimming against the tide, no? Well, “the people” are wrong more often than not. Now I probably risk the wrath of the masses as I mount my high horse – a creature that should not be stabled, but as Gore Vidal once said “tethered conveniently near”.
Liberal-democracy is one of the great conceptions of man – yes, most of those responsible for it were men. What is usually less noted is that it is the product of two contradictory ideas: the liberal idea of individual rights, of the rule of law and property, and the democratic tradition of the rule of the people – mass opinion. During an election, however, citizens are not asked for their opinions, but rather to select from a suite of candidates to represent them in parliament.
It is in between elections that public opinion is elevated to an almost sacred status. It is in this period that a ground-dwelling creature named the “pollster” comes into its own. This is a creature who is paid vast sums of money to find out what people are thinking, conflating popular wisdom with what is actually right.
These pollsters gauge opinion on global warming as if planet-wide weather patterns are contingent on the consent of a sample of 1000 people aged 18 or more. At the height of Kevin07 fever, a Lowy Institute poll found climate change was considered by the electorate to be the equal most important foreign policy goal for the Federal Government. By 2009, it dropped down to seventh position out of a possible ten goals. Yet somehow climate change continues unabated, unaffected by the whims of popular opinion. How rude. What’s next, a poll on the colour of grass? Because if 90 per cent of people believe the grass is red, it certainly makes it so.
In The American Democrat (1838), James Fenimore Cooper argued it is a “besetting vice of democracies to substitute public opinion for law. This is the usual form in which masses of men exhibit their tyranny”. If public opinion was reflected in the daily operations of society, prosecutors in Australia and in Britain would be still be able to seek the death penalty (55 per cent). Foreign companies would not be able to purchase Australian farmland (63 per cent), despite the farmers’ views that it is vital for the survival of Australian agriculture. Migration would likely be limited to those immigrants with “similar values” to Australians (57 per cent), even though defining said values is difficult for Australians when asked (91 per cent believe a “fair go” is important…whatever that actually is). In a touch of American-style jingoism, saluting the flag and singing the national anthem would also be compulsory at school (94.1 per cent).
Historically, public opinion does not fare well. We rightly find many of the opinions and attitudes of our forebears discomforting. A 1939 poll in the United States found 53 per cent of non-Jewish Americans thought Jews should be “restricted”; only 39 per cent of Americans felt Jews should be treated like other people. Remember, this was in pre-war USA, not part of the Greater German Reich. As Christopher Hitchens put forward, “Public opinion is often wrong, mob opinion is almost always wrong, [and] religious opinion is wrong by definition”.
Society’s obsession with polling virtually every subject imaginable means public opinion is stuck in its own feedback loop. While the Alan Joneses of the world claim they discuss issues that reflect public opinion, in reality they inform it, broadcasting their own biases by presenting them as public opinion.
While most of us agree that democracy is preferable to other forms of government (60 per cent – alarmingly only 39 per cent of 18 to 29 years olds feel this way), the fact remains that public opinion, while interesting in itself, should not be the yardstick for representative democracy. So don’t be afraid to mount Vidal’s high horse now and again. In anywhere from 10 to 1000 years, your opinion may be proved correct.