What if we saw the polls as tools for popular sovereignty? 📊 April 25, 2021
Facing historical levels of bias in America’s electoral institutions, liberals (lowercase “l”) should see polls as a partial remedy for entrenched political minorities
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What if we saw the polls as tools for popular sovereignty?
This week, Will Wilkinson and Ezra Klein wrote and podcasted about topics related to popular sovereignty and the majority will that dovetails a lot of the content I produce for this newsletter, and with my forthcoming book. Ezra’s audio interview with Noam Chomsky is insightfully wandering, and they spend a lot of time talking around the question of whether the government is truly representative of the people. Will took up a thorough rebuttal of the argument that governments should in fact not be so representative, which, he reasoned, “isn’t fair, it isn’t justice, it isn’t liberal and it isn’t democratic.” (I agree.)
“This Dispatch piece by Jonah Goldberg,” Will writes, “is extremely useful in illustrating the centrality of anti-majoritarianism on the right. He continues:
... even the most reasonable, principled, philosophical conservatives tend to be wary of majoritarian democracy, as Jonah illustrates in his case against what he calls “democratic supremacy.” He doesn’t exactly define it, but the idea comes across clearly enough: political legitimacy and liberal justice require that the preferences of the majority generally prevail. Jonah rejects this because he’s of the opinion that “a liberal society can be just with remarkably little democracy.”
Goldberg’s article is similar to recent pieces from right-leaning publications that have argued against universal suffrage n America — preferring instead a rule by a group of “better” or “more informed” citizens. For example, an author named Kevin Williamson recently asked “Why Not Fewer Voters?” for the National Review:
Much of the discussion about proposed changes to voting laws backed by many Republicans and generally opposed by Democrats begs the question and simply asserts that having more people vote is, ceteris paribus, a good thing. Why shouldn’t we believe the opposite? That the republic would be better served by having fewer — but better — voters?
I do not accept the premise, but even still, I am left wondering who these “better” voters are. Williamson never defines the term, but it is worth noting that the history of the argument is an insidious one. “The South does not want to deprive the Negro of a vote for the sake of depriving him of the vote,” the Review wrote in a 1957 article titled “Why the South Must Prevail.”
The central question that emerges … is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes — the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the median cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists. The question, as far as the White community is concerned, is whether the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage. […]
NATIONAL REVIEW believes that the South's premises are correct. If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. […]
The problem in the South is not how to get the vote for the Negro, but how to equip the Negro — and a great many Whites — to cast an enlightened and responsible vote.
Now, I am not alleging that Williamson is a segregationist — I am merely noting the historical context of the anti-majoritarian theory in American political thought. Along these lines, we must also note that equal state suffrage in the Senate is anti-majoritarian, and stemmed from the desire for smaller states not to be “oppressed” by larger, more numerical majorities.
The myth of the necessity of an informed minority
Both of these histories influence the current anti-majoritarian thinkers in the United States. Perhaps not directly — Goldberg is no William F Buckley, Jr — but indirectly. There is a class of voters who view many non-college-educated Americans, disproportionately non-white, to be lesser-than, incapable of rendering the judgments “necessary” to participate in informed democratic debate. They elect representatives who would like to restrict the franchise and create a market for congruent right-leaning magazines and thinkers.
If we condition on people making that argument in good faith — and it is by no means clear to me whether Williamson is — then a republican (lower-case “r”) has two choices: either they can restrict the franchise (as the National Review would have Congress do) or they can educate the masses. For what it’s worth, this is an old debate, and Thomas Jefferson’s comments are worth recalling
I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but inform their discretion.
Why then do Goldberg and Williamson argue against education, and for restricting the franchise? The likely answer is because their ideological goals are achieved when their loud minority in American politics gets undue influence over the process, and they do not want to see that power taken away by a more egalitarian democracy — of the sort the founders, who they are usually eager but to cite but are conspicuously absent from these pieces — would have favored. Though Goldberg spends most of his time arguing in favor of the “liberal” necessity of the Supreme Court as a check against the excesses of the majority (an argument that carries absolutely no muster), he makes a category error by ignoring the minoritarianism of our electoral institutions.
To those who favor conservative reforms that are not feasible through Congress, the Electoral College and Senate provide a remedy to irrelevance. But they also defend these institutions on the grounds that their constituents are more valuable than the opposition’s. Tom Cotton, a Republican senator from Arkansas, said in a speech against statehood for Washington, DC last June that:
Wyoming is smaller than Washington [DC] by population, but it has three times as many workers in mining, logging and construction, and 10 times as many workers in manufacturing. In other words, Wyoming is a well-rounded working-class state. A new state of Washington would not be.
Here, Cotton approaches a definition that Williamson was unable to provide: working-class Americans in majority-white states and economic sectors are apparently “better,” by which he means more worthy of self-government than the media and service industry workers of Washington, DC. Such an assertion is neither liberal nor democratic. It is, however, extremely convenient if your side of the political aisle is only really popular among those voters.
Remember that Cotton’s argument is not the original justification for the Senate, nor does it justify the existence of the Electoral College. Is the point that the Senate is good for the logging industry really profound enough to justify a political social contract that lets the minority party almost always control the Senate while losing the chamber’s cumulative popular vote for nearly three decades? Do white conservatives deserve the presidency even when they lose the popular vote by three percentage points, as a result of being “better” than the Democrats who are disproportionately living on the coasts and in big cities?
What, exactly, is it about living close to your neighbors that denies you of your right to self-government through a representative republic? At this juncture in American electoral history, the pro-rural bias of America’s electoral institutions will let the minority party control the Senate, Presidency, and Supreme Court while losing the popular vote by millions of votes. That is not democratic. That is not liberal. That is not republican. That is not just. To argue against majoritarian democracy — be it a defense of the Senate, the Filibuster, or the electoral college — is to argue against popular sovereignty itself.
The polls as a corrective
If you do not want to rewrite the Constitution — and if you’re a real liberal democrat (lower-case “l” and “d”), you probably should — there are few remedies to these problems. You can add more states or pass electoral reforms, such as ranked-choice voting, to approach proportional representation. But both of those are unlikely to pass the Senate due to partisan polarization over majoritarianism; Mass political factions (which the founders did not adequately anticipate) allow one party to control the federal government without being held accountable by the people. The institutions insulate offenders and perpetuate minority rule.
Public opinion polls offer one overlooked in-system corrective. The quantification of the will of all people can nudge politicians and activists toward the broader, more general public opinion. When the president polls the feelings of every adult, that information is factored into the highest echelons of the government, effectively placing a chorus inside the Oval Office. When Congresspeople take polls, the relationship is asserted similarly. And when the press reports what they say, the polls inherently provide another kick in the pants for leaders to do what the people want.
The prominent example of government using public opinion today comes from the White House. Broadly speaking, Joe Biden’s strategy has so far been to “do popular stuff and tell people about it.” Here’s how I reported on this dynamic earlier this month:
Polls make up a necessary part of the Administration’s approach to selling these bills to the people. Because of the 50-50 divide in the Senate, Biden has been accused of not being “bipartisan” and working instead to pass policies via reconciliation with a tie-breaker vote from his VP. Their rebuttal — strong, in my opinion — has so far been that about 70-80% of voters agree with the two big policy goals so far. Another way to read this is that the president, facing an opposition faction in Congress that represents far fewer Americans than the majority yet has an equal share in the Senate, is using polls to tilt the media narrative in his favor and put pressure on moderate Senators.
Regardless of how you feel about Biden’s policies, if you are in favor of the public getting what it wants out of government, you have a lot of things to be happy about with the current president. And if you’re a Democrat who wants your party to win the midterms in 2022, having a president that does popular things — and talks about it! — is a pretty good point in your favor.
But looking at the power imbalance in our institutions, I am reminded of a famous quote from the political scientist Sidney Verba: “Surveys produce just what democracy is supposed to produce — equal representation of all citizens,” he wrote in 1995. They are “designed so that each citizen has an equal chance to participate and an equal voice when participating.” Confronted with the many filters through which the light of the general will is distorted as it makes its way through the levels of government, a person might see polls as a necessary tool in our democracy.
If you doubt whether polls are accurate enough for this mission, I recommend you read last week’s letter. Debating the answer here risks pushing this newsletter beyond the limits of engaged reading.
Posts for subscribers
April 21: Can we trust the polls on policy issues? Is the looking glass merely cracked, or completely shattered?
Plus: the weekly subscribers chat on a few key issues of the day.
Links to what I’m reading
Please check out this story from me about Americans’ opinions towards Biden finally ending the war in Afghanistan.
A friend urged me to read Jamie Pietruska’s book Looking Forward, a scientific and cultural history of prediction. It’s good so far!
Dhrumil Mehta FiveThirtyEight: Americans From Both Parties Want Weed To Be Legal. Why Doesn’t The Federal Government Agree?
Today’s new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll has lots of goodies on how people feel toward Biden on a range of issues, such as covid, the economy, and the border
Alex Pareene for The New Republic on the Republican Party’s growing intolerance of protest movements, “The Right to Crash Cars Into People”
Annie Lowrey writing for The Atlantic that “There is No Such Thing as a Low-Skill Worker”
This post about the “The tragic story of the founder of weather forecasting in Victorian England”
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Do you think polling should play a more direct role in government? It seems like there's been very little structural change within democratic governments in response to the advent of widespread, reliable polling. To my understanding, the US government hasn't even set up its own polling operation, even though it seems natural that kind of information ought to be included in congressional research. Perhaps we should have a dedicated polling division within the Congressional Research Service?
Even more radically, it's not difficult to conceive of ways in which polling could be used to directly affect the behavior of Congress. Perhaps declarations of war should first require that a supermajority of the population supports it, as evidenced by reliable polls? Or even more assertively, perhaps Congress should be mandated to craft legislation if polls indicate large majorities support a particular policy position, as is the case with universal background checks? I'm just spitballing wild ideas but given your view that polls are a "necessary tool in our democracy" I wonder if you see an expanded role for them in government?