Stupid Voters?

Jacob Weisberg writes in Slate that “the childishness, ignorance, and growing incoherence of the public at large” is the chief reason that “our political paralysis seems to have gotten so much worse over the past year.”

Weisberg makes a point that has been echoed, more subtly, by President Obama, who has hinted that the reason voters have rejected his health initiative is because they were too dumb to figure out how they’ll benefit from it in the long run. So, in his State of the Union speech, he graciously agreed to accept his “share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people” despite that, according to columnist Charles Krauthammer, Obama has given 29 speeches in the last year on the subject of health reform.

Indeed, there is evidence that some Democratic pollsters and activists are encouraging the White House to push ahead on the health bill despite its toxicity at the polls, on the theory that once it’s signed into law people will start to like it.

Who knows?  Perhaps the Kool-Aid drinkers are correct. After all, as Weisberg notes, Medicare was unpopular when it passed but now seniors cling to it like lawyers to an ambulance.

My current vade mecum text is On Democracyby political scientist Robert Dahl. Dahl argues that one of the five main criteria of a democracy is that the electorate be sufficiently informed, with access to solid data with which to make reasonable decisions about matters of public significance.

It is intriguing that the media — Did I fail to mention that Weisberg is the editor-in-chief of Slate? — has picked up the people-as-rubes trope and now suggest, ala New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, that the Democrats should simply force a health bill irrespective of the wishes of a public that is, in their consensus view, too uninformed and excitable to appreciate the benefits of Obama-style reform.

Blaming the voter for being too stupid to know what’s good for him is a timeworn elitist attack on democracy, but surely we have outgrown it by now. After all, the media and the Democrats have prided themselves as being something of a voice for the common man. So if the public speaks and it’s not in the voice of the elite consensus position, then golly — the people are insufficiently informed. And if more and more and more information doesn’t change their perspective — recall Obama’s 29 speeches? — then it’s simple fear or intransigence that is leading the people astray.

No, there can be no chance that the people know better than the political elite. Can there?

That’s the curious thing about Dahl’s perspective. If we concede that the value of a democracy is that citizens debate and discuss weighty public matters before registering their collective will, it should be a no-brainer that when 61 percent of the public wants Congress to drop health reform, the political classes will act accordingly.

Instead, the political classes suggest the people have debated the subject and came to the wrong conclusion, and because the conclusion was wrong, the Democrats should do what they think is best.

The question is simple: Given massive, sustained public displeasure with the specific proposals generated in the Democratic Congress, and factoring the widespread debate across the nation about health reform, should political leaders pull back and re-tool the plan, or abandon it altogether? Or should they press ahead, on the theory that they know better than the folks who elected them?

Yet Weisberg’s column is about more than just health care. Across the board, he argues, the people seem to want conflicting things. In principle they want health reform and banking reform and housing reform, yet they oppose the plans put forward by lawmakers or the Administration.

Weisberg’s eminently predictable conclusion is that the people are dumb: They don’t know what they want, so they want conflicting things simultaneously. He seems incapable of accepting another logical possibility — that the people may want a governmental fix on big-picture subjects, but reject the specific proposals advanced by a left-leaning Democratic Congress and a left-leaning Democratic President.

Is it possible that a center-right electorate wants specific policy proposals that reflect a center-right mentality, instead of solutions arising from left-wing ideology?

Perhaps the public wants health-insurance reform, but not a government takeover of one-sixth of the economy. Perhaps the public wants banking reform, but not massive TARP bailouts. Perhaps Americans want the Detroit automakers to be successful, but not be subsumed into the Executive Office of the President.

Public discourse is not advanced when thought leaders like Weisberg and Krugman and Obama act as if disagreements with their specific policy positions are tantamount to ignorance.

Perhaps the issue isn’t that the voters are stupid. Perhaps, instead, the voters simply prefer different and less ideological solutions to America’s pressing problems than those favored by Weisberg and his ideological compatriots.