Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | March 4, 2010


One side of an age-old debate was bluntly expressed last week by Canadian Alliance leader Stephen Harper when, in response to the government’s decision to follow the majority of public opinion and stay out of the war on Iraq, he said, “I don’t give a damn about the polls.”

He was referring to polls like the one conducted by Ipsos-Reid, for the Globe and Mail and CTV, which found that only 15% of Canadians thought Canada should contribute troops to a unilateral attack on Iraq.

Apparently, Jean Chretien did give a damn about this, and acted accordingly.

This debate over the legitimacy of public opinion stretches back in time at least as far as the birth of the modern world’s first democracy, in post-revolutionary America. Harper probably would have agreed with one of the American Constitution’s authors, Alexander Hamilton, who said in a speech:

“The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not in fact true. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right.”

It is indeed odd that Harper – the leader of a party that advocates (to paraphrase its own document on policy) binding referenda, the recalling of unpopular MP’s, the representation of constituent consensus over party and personal views, and a high level of citizen participation in the democratic system – would hold public opinion in such low regard.

Chretien, on the other hand, would have found a supporter in another architect of the U.S. Constitution, Thomas Jefferson, who once wrote to a friend:

“We both consider the people as our children. But you love them as infants whom you are afraid to trust without nurses; and I as adults whom I freely leave to self-government.”

My guess is that most citizens would prefer to be treated as adults, but a number of world leaders have exhibited an ideology in the past weeks that falls more into the Hamilton camp than the Jefferson.

Tony Blair has taken what he calls a “moral” stance for war, irrespective of the more than 9 out of 10 Britons who oppose a war not mandated by the UN. John Howard has sent Australian troops to fight in Iraq, despite polls showing only 6% of Australians support such action without UN authorization. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has thrown his support behind the U.S.-led coalition, ignoring polls showing a 74% opposition to an American intervention in Iraq. Further polls have shown that upwards of 80% of Spaniards oppose violent regime change in Iraq, yet Jose Maria Aznar has lent his country’s support to the war cause. Perhaps the Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi summed up the view of these leaders best when, brushing aside the over 80% of Japanese who are against removing Saddam Hussein’s regime without UN blessing, he said, “There are times when we make mistakes following public opinion.”

Underlying this worldview is a profound cynicism about the decision-making capabilities of the “masses”. They are accused of being emotional, fickle, superficial, selfish, ignorant, and unwise.  This expression of elitism is deeply undemocratic, as it presumes that power is best left to a small group of individuals, who know what’s best for everyone else. This is not democracy; it is oligarchy.

The “fickle masses” are often written off by the same business and political elites who promote policies – such as cuts to education or the consolidation and narrowing of media voices – that inhibit the ability of the public to make informed choices in the first place. Politicians ignore public opinion for decades and then wonder why less and less people bother to vote each election. They chalk up this apathy to some inborn weakness of the “common person” rather than admit that they’ve been deaf to the public’s wishes all along.

Most people’s beliefs are, in fact, anything but fickle. Opinions may change, sensibly enough, as access to new information becomes available, but most people’s core ideas are well-reasoned and very slow to change. One must only look at the string of broken election promises to see that, if anyone is fickle, it is our leaders. This is because people’s opinions are generally governed by their conscience, which can’t be easily compromised, while the politician’s “opinions” are often opportunistic realpolitik – compromised daily in the complex interplay of diplomacy.

“Leave it to the experts,” is the message ordinary (as if there is such a thing) Canadians consistently hear from their leaders. How conveniently this message removes the messier aspects of participatory democracy from the job of formulating policy, and consolidates the power of those at the top. If the citizenry is really too stupid to know what’s right for itself, then perhaps they’re too dumb to even choose the right leaders and we should do away with elections too.

The truth is, people are extremely well-informed. Satellite TV, the Internet, higher education, and access to literally thousands of magazines, journals, newspapers, and books, have combined to shape increasingly sophisticated opinions about the world. People have never been better equipped to make informed decisions than they are now. 

It is tragically appropriate that the issue of war in Iraq should also show the true colours of some leaders over the issue of the legitimacy of public opinion. The belief that foreign powers can intervene in other cultures and successfully “nation-build” – the myth of benevolent imperialism, popularized by such authors as Rudyard Kipling – is intimately tied to the notion that the few know what’s best for the many.  

Unfortunately, some citizens do accept this logic of father-knows-best. They put strong personalities ahead of strong policies. The same poll that found 9 out of 10 Britons against Tony Blair’s war policy, also found that about half of respondents continued to admire him, agreeing with the statement, “He does what he believes to be right for Britain.” The virtues of moral clarity and absence of doubt are sometimes allowed to trump all other concerns. The desire to offload personal responsibility to a higher power, and to be provided with clear and simple answers to complex problems, can cause people to willingly surrender their democratic freedom. It’s a chilling reminder that some tyrannies are welcomed with open arms by the populace – in the beginning at least.

We need to learn to admire a new kind of strength in leadership – the kind of leader who is strong enough to submit her own ego to the service of the public will. We need to elect leaders who desire nothing more than to truly represent the hopes and dreams of their constituents as completely as possible. We urgently need the kind of leaders Ralph Nader is describing when he says that, “the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.”

We are right to want leaders with conviction; but they should be leaders who hold a conviction in the wisdom of the people above all else.

Sometimes, as Koizumi pointed out, this will lead us to “make mistakes.” But, in the end, no one knows policy better than the people affected by that policy. Abraham Lincoln recognized his own limitations as a leader when he asked rhetorically, “Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better or equal hope in the world?”

Public opinion is the very essence of democracy. Any effort to marginalize it is a blow against the ideal of self-rule. The full potential of democracy is only served when the public’s opinion takes its rightful place, centre stage.

Copyright Sean Butler 2003

Published in The Ottawa Citizen, April 5, 2003


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