In a recent interview with Vice President Dick Cheney, ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz presented polling data showing that most Americans are critical of the Iraq war. Cheney responded, cryptically, “So?” Raddatz then asked, “So – you don’t care what the American people think?” Cheney replied, “No,” explaining, “I think you cannot be blown off course by the fluctuations in the public opinion polls.”
Subsequently, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, fielding questions about Cheney’s comments, was asked whether the public should have “input” on decisions about Iraq. She replied, “You had your input. The American people have input every four years, and that’s the way our system is set up.”
However, the views of Cheney and Perino are roundly rejected by the American people, according to a new poll by WorldPublicOpinion.org, a project of the University of Maryland. Moreover, such attitudes undermine confidence that the government is acting in the public’s interest.
In a democratic system, it should be relatively rare for leaders to depart from the public’s views. And when a leader does depart from the will of the people, this should be seen as a serious matter.
Contrary to the widely held assumption that the public disdains leaders who read polls, 81 percent say that when making “an important decision,” government leaders “should pay attention to public opinion polls because this will help them get a sense of the public’s views.” Only 18 percent endorse the administration’s position – that government leaders “should not pay attention to public opinion polls because this will distract them from deciding what they think is right.”
Perino’s argument is also firmly rejected. Asked whether “elections are the only time when the views of the people should have influence, or that also between elections leaders should consider the views of the people as they make decisions,” 94 percent say that government leaders should pay attention to the views of the public between elections.
Americans unequivocally endorse the principle expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “The will of the people should be the basis of the authority of government.” Eighty-seven percent of Americans say they agree with it.
This does not mean most Americans want the public to have absolute power, or think that leaders should follow public opinion in a mechanical fashion. Asked how much the country should be governed according to the will of the people – on a scale with 0 meaning not at all and 10 completely – the mean response is 7.9. Only one in four say 10. But Americans do not think this is what they are getting. Asked how much influence the people do have, the mean response is on average 4.0.
This may explain, in part, why just 19 percent say they believe the country is run “for the benefit of all the people,” while 80 percent say it is “run by a few big interests looking out for themselves.”
Thus, when leaders depart from the will of the people, the American public is unlikely to assume they are acting on their conscience or greater wisdom, but rather that they are being swayed by special interests – probably ones that contribute to their campaign coffers.
Of course, restoring confidence in government is not a question of blindly following a poll. To really understand the public’s values and priorities, it is necessary to look at multiple polls, each of which captures a different nuance or dimension.
Voters understand that leaders have more information. But this is not a basis for ignoring the public. Leaders should constantly hold in mind the public’s values and ask: “What would the public do if they knew what I know?” If they do not know the answer, they should find out.
As for the idea, voiced by Cheney, that polls constantly fluctuate – that’s largely a myth. Americans’ responses to poll questions about fundamental issues are remarkably stable.
Surely leaders should not ignore their deeply held values on issues that are of utmost importance. Nor should they slavishly follow the polls. But a leader should try to find common ground with the public whenever possible. A leader should explain his or her position in a manner that signals respect and deference to the public.
And, unlike Cheney, a leader should not dismiss the public as irrelevant or as so unstable that it should only be allowed out of its straitjacket to have input on fundamental policy decisions once every four years.