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We the people

Adam Newman | Thursday, April 26, 2012

One never-ending argument in the realm of American politics is over the weight politicians should give public opinion. Should legislators follow public opinion? Or should they work to influence it? This debate is central to our democracy but usually receives far too little attention.

When a politician finds himself or herself on the side of public opinion, they often justify their decision by evoking it. One notable example is John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House, when arguing against the health care bill.

His statement at the “health care summit” in February 2010 is just one example: “I think our job, on behalf of our constituents and on behalf of the American people, is to listen.

“And I spend time in my district, I spend time in a lot of places. I’ve heard an awful lot. And I can tell you the thing that I’ve heard more than anything over the last six or seven months is that the American people want us to scrap this bill.

“They’ve said it loud, they’ve said it clear.”

While Boehner used this argument for health care reform, he conveniently ignored it for many other policy issues when the polls clearly showed he was against public opinion.

According to a Gallup poll in December 2010, 54 percent of Americans supported granting children brought to America as illegal aliens legal status if they joined the military or went to college. This is the premise of a bill called the DREAM Act, but Boehner voted against the DREAM Act in December 2010. Another Gallup poll conducted in December 2010 found that 67 percent of Americans supported a law that would allow gay men and women to openly fight in the military. This is the entire premise of a repeal of the military policy “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (DADT), but Boehner voted against a repeal of DADT in December 2010. Boehner has also gone against public opinion on raising taxes for the top two percent of earners and privatizing Medicare among other issues.

Is John Boehner a hypocrite? I think so. But he is just one example of a politician who justifies a policy decision based on the American people when public opinion falls on his side, and conveniently ignores it when it is not. All politicians engage in this hypocrisy.

However, there is a more important question that usually isn’t asked: Why should politicians listen to the American people on complicated policy questions?

The average American is not an expert in health care, the military or immigration policy, so why should their opinion matter? Winston Churchill was famous for saying the “best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Many of the founders, most notably James Madison, were suspicious of popular opinion, which is why anti-democratic institutions, such as the Supreme Court, Senate and Electoral College were included in the Constitution.

Moreover, public opinion often contradicts itself. One famous example is that Americans want a balanced budget, but poll after poll shows that they are usually against cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and defense. These programs, along with the interest on the national debt (which has to be paid) makes up nearly 70 percent of the federal budget. Given these constraints, it is almost impossible to balance the budget unless Congress ended all welfare programs and shut down most government agencies. While public officials may say they are simply following the will of the people, it really is closer to glorified cherry picking.

This leads me to the two trends that will define the 21st century for America.

The first is the growing cost of entitlement spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which has put the federal government on the road to bankruptcy.

The second is the increasing threat of global warming, which will shift weather patterns, increase extreme climates while also increasing the number and intensity of natural disasters. Dealing with these issues through a long-term approach starting now will allow us to avert disaster. Unfortunately, the solutions to dealing with both of these trends are immensely unpopular with Americans (cutting entitlement spending to balance the budget and raising energy prices to lower consumption and spur investment.) This means that as usual, the “can will get kicked down the road,” giving us less time to deal with these problems and making it more likely that future Americans will not share in the quality of life we have today. To put it simply, if our leaders were to follow the will of the American people on entitlement spending and global warming, these problems will turn into nightmares.

Given the reality of the situation, the difference between our country’s future being one of American renewal instead of American decline will not be politicians who follow the will of the people, but leaders who have the courage to save us from ourselves.

Adam Newman is a junior finance major. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.