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The People Are Voiceless
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The People Are Voiceless

In a democracy, voters never really speak with one voice—and they’re often wrong.

Voters cast their ballots at the Dodge YMCA in the Brooklyn borough of New York City on November 8, 2022. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Before I get to the new stuff, let’s review my case for democracy.

Democracy guards against bad outcomes, but it in no way guarantees good outcomes. I think virtually everyone who thinks seriously about politics and democracy understands this to one extent or another. But virtually no one involved in politics says this sort of thing out loud. Instead, they talk about how elections are the “voice of the people.” 

Again, I am all for giving people a voice. Here the people rule and all that. I just don’t like, or agree with, a lot of the poetry that comes with this stuff. (Voice can mean a lot of different things, of course. But in this context, it means voting and not, say, telling a Bakersfield City Council that their hearing room security proposals are excessive because we can just “murder you” at your homes.)

The worst rhetoric about democracy is of the sort when the election results—decisive though they may be—prompt people to say things like “the people have spoken.” Such statements are virtually never true. In any given elections, even in a landslide, somewhere around a quarter to a third of “the people” voted for someone else. And a vast number of people didn’t vote at all. Are they not part of “the people” too? Do you not have the same rights and dignity regardless of whether you voted for the winning side in some election?

Also, decisive majorities don’t speak in a single “voice.” Everyone who votes for a Republican or Democrat isn’t saying the exact same thing with their vote. Some voted because they agreed with the candidate’s foreign policy or tax policy or just because they liked him or her more than the opponent. Indeed, these days I think it’s fair to say that something close to a majority of voters vote against the other candidate. And yet politicians and their spinners routinely, nay relentlessly, insist that “the people” are 100 percent on their side on every issue. This is always a lie. 

There’s an additional problem: The people can be wrong. In fact, voters are wrong all the time. The ridiculous slogan “vox populi, vox dei” (“the voice of the people is the voice of God”) illustrates the point well. And you can substitute “nation” for “God” if you like—that seems to be all the rage with some people anyway. 

But nothing polls anywhere close to 100 percent and no politician wins with anything close to 100 percent of the vote, even those who run unopposed. 

Fun fact: In the history of modern polling, only two presidents had approval ratings that broke the 90 percent barrier and they both had the last name Bush. Technically, Bush the Elder received 89 percent approval after the first Iraq war, but we can give him the benefit of rounding up one point. Bush the Younger actually hit 92 percent shortly after 9/11. The best Democrat score wasn’t FDR’s 84 percent or JFK’s 83 percent, but Harry Truman’s 87 percent in June of 1945. But you know that was just after we beat the Nazis in Europe. I’m going to stipulate that it’s always good to be president when the forces of democracy beat the stuffing out of Nazis. Now, roughly 18 months after Bush the Elder hit that high, his approval ratings dropped to 29 percent. At the end of the Younger’s presidency, his approval was 19 percent. Truman sunk to 22 percent at the end of his. 

Now, I don’t want to get into the theological weeds, but I kinda think that the Almighty’s opinion of these men—pro or con—wasn’t nearly so fickle. The Supreme Court may read the election returns, but I’d like to think God goes straight to the sports pages. 

The point becomes even more obvious when it comes to issue polling. Wherever you come down on abortion or, for that matter, the carried interest deduction, I’m pretty certain that God’s opinion is more consistent.  

Interestingly pretty much all of the highwater marks in public opinion are in response to war. In 2001, 94 percent of Americans supported a military response to 9/11. I was definitely one of them. But I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to think we are getting closest to God’s will whenever we’re most determined to open a can of whup-ass on somebody. And, besides, the remaining 6 percent were equal members of “the people.” Some of them might actually be really good folks. I don’t see eye-to-eye with Quakers and Amish people, but I’m very open to the idea that God has a better opinion of them than He does of me, regardless of how wrong they are on foreign policy. 

I’m sorry to belabor this, but I sincerely believe that the whole idea of the “people’s voice” is romantic hogwash. It’s a means of smuggling in nationalistic, populist ideas, or even theocratic claims of authority for the winners and “otherizing” dehumanizing notions about the losers. I have so much more to say about this point, but I should get to what elections are actually for.

They’re for firing people. They’re also for hiring people. But the firing is much more important. 

Democracy’s greatness lies in the fact it is a hedge against bad things. (Its record in assuring good things is decidedly more mixed and contestable.) The ability to fire people is essential to political competition. If a politician or a party screws up or starts looking out for its own interests more than the interests of the voters, the ability to kick them out is essential. This was among the greatest innovations in human history. Monarchs and aristocracies can get selfish and self-absorbed. Indeed, they always do eventually. Politicians are prone to the same tendencies. But in a democracy, you can get rid of them without swords or guns. 

James Madison designed our political system on a very different conception of the voice of the people. He understood that people change their minds and that people disagree on stuff. There’s nothing wrong with that. People and groups have different interests, religions, tastes, ambitions, and ideologies. That’s why I dislike the rhetoric about “the people” or “the nation”—it rhetorically erases the diversity of the people into a homogenized lump. 

Recognizing this, Madison wanted lots of elections. Remember, before modern polling, elections were really the only way to “take the temperature” of the people. So best to have a bunch of them, often, to stay on top of changing attitudes and new problems. That’s why this country is drenched in elections. We have them every year somewhere. The most democratic branch of the federal government has elections every two years. The idea wasn’t just to elect people voters agreed with. It was to hold them accountable for how good or bad a job they did in actually doing things. It’s great to have a representative who sees the world the same way you do, but if they suck at the job, agreement is largely irrelevant. Better to have a politician in office who disagrees with you on some stuff, but is good at the job. I’m not saying it’s better to have an effective representative who’s effective at doing things you dislike. I’m saying it’s better to have an effective politician who at least does more of the stuff, particularly the important stuff, you want them to do. 

One of the problems today is that a lot of politicians have figured out that they can raise money and win votes simply by testifying about their feelings without delivering on facts. But you know my views on the pundification of the political class. 

What got me on this is that I’ve been reading a lot on the various criticisms of democracy, and hooboy, there are a lot of them. And, while I am still very much in the pro-democracy camp, the critics make a lot of points I agree with. The anti-democratic tradition usually begins with Plato. I’m not going to reprise it all here, in part because I don’t want to, in part because his critique of democracy often elides into a critique of liberty, and I don’t think democracy and liberty are remotely synonymous concepts. 

Voting is a small—but important!—subset of liberty. But there’s a robust tradition that says democracy is an unreliable protector of liberty, and there’s evidence to back up that view. The founders believed this, which is why they put most of our core liberties on a very high shelf that was hard to reach in a single election. You can democratically repeal the Bill of Rights—but man it’s hard, and I’m glad for that. But Plato was right: Democracy is vulnerable to all sorts of things, from tyranny to the death of expertise and mob rule. 

Some pre- and post-liberal critics of democracy take this fact and conclude that democracy is therefore suboptimal. The key flaw in their thinking is that there is some alternative system that would do better over time. I have no doubt that if there was some brilliant philosopher-king, modern George Washington, Cincinnatus, or even a Frederick the Great waiting in the wings, we’d better off with them in charge. But there’s no Zip Recruiter available to find such a person. And even if we could find some enlightened despot, replacing him or her with an equally qualified replacement is practically impossible. A system dependent on the “good Czar” is powerless at preventing the bad Czar from taking his place.  

Other critics echo or amplify various aspects of the Platonic critique. I’m particularly partial to the Italian elite theorists. They argued, correctly, that elites are inevitable and that elites will often—or always, opinions differ—prioritize their own interests over the public’s. This is so obviously true of every city where one party has a monopoly on political power, I don’t think it’s worth debating. I’m not saying they don’t ever tend to the public interest, but they first work assiduously to protect their own interest. That’s why if you’re against the calcified NIMBYism and ideological nonsense hobbling so many cities, I think you should vote to throw the bums out whenever feasible. Competition is essential to a properly functioning democracy. 

Anyway, the reason I started reading up on the critiques of democracy is that it occurred to me that for all of the talk these days about “our democracy” and the threats to it, very little of it tracks with the anti-democratic tradition. The case for democracy starts from the premise that elections are honest and function properly. Donald Trump’s attacks on democracy—and he did attack democracy—go directly at this premise. Now, it’s true that the more sophisticated defenders of Trump will argue that the election was “rigged” precisely because the “Deep State” or the “Biden regime” in waiting wanted to protect its hold on power. But this is a bad-faith argument for the simple reason that the election wasn’t rigged. It’s pretextual to defend Trump’s ego. And the amazing thing is how this argument has become the one non-negotiable loyalty test in Trump’s party. Even abortion is negotiable now, but not his stolen election claims. 

But you know what controversy fits the classic critiques of democracy perfectly? Joe Biden’s determination to cancel student loan debt. (The same goes for Trump’s failed attempt at the end of his term to cut even more stimulus checks to voters.) Countless skeptics of democracy warned that democratic rulers would ignore the law or the public good and demagogically pander to bribable constituencies. That’s what Biden is trying to do. He’s ignoring the will of Congress, the most democratic branch, and to a certain extent the Supreme Court, in a naked attempt to reward a constituency in exchange for their votes. Whether or not you think it’s good policy—I think it is horrible, immoral policy—the means and motives behind the effort are quintessentially undemocratic. Biden was once skeptical he had the authority to forgive student debt. You may like to believe he changed his mind after carefully studying the law and the Constitution, but Occam’s razor suggests he changed his mind after carefully studying the polls.  And yet, many of the people most inclined to rend their cloth and gnash their teeth about the threats to “our democracy” think it’s bizarre to complain about Biden’s lawless pursuit of mass bribery. 

Student loan forgiveness is just an example of the larger dynamic. We are so far down the road of the New Deal-era conception of government that many are simply blind to it. The New Deal was a mixed bag, but one of its core philosophical commitments was the idea of turning citizens into clients of the state. Forget the law and Constitution for a minute and just look at the math. Biden and Trump share an ironclad commitment to doing nothing to fix entitlements. A Frederick the Great would have a cup of champagne-coffee-and-mustard (no really, that was his preferred drink to get his day going), take one look at the country’s books, and start slashing. But Frederick the Great didn’t give a rat’s ass about the people’s voice. 

And that gets me back to where I began. I don’t know any serious expert on America’s finances who doesn’t think we need to seriously reform entitlements. Opinions differ on how. But there’s a broad consensus on the necessity. The problem is that there’s a broader consensus among voters—that is, a majority of voters—that the government shouldn’t touch them. (Thanks to the pandering of demagogues, many of them also believe, incorrectly, that we can simply tax the rich to fix the problem. This, too, is consistent with the critiques of democracy). 

You can prattle on about “vox populi, vox dei” or similar nostrums all you like. It won’t change the fact that “the people” are wrong (unless you think God wants America to become fiscally insolvent). Democracy depends on good leaders, but it also requires good followers. And as bad as our leadership problem is, our followership problem is worse. I am not a fan of Joseph de Maistre—a great critic of democracy in all forms—but he had a point when he said people get the government they deserve. 

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.