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Ted McAllister and Pete Peterson: When Public Expression Gives Democracy a Bad Name

We do the political process no good when we assert with certainty that which we do not know.

Americans have always known how to compromise. European visitors to the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries routinely commented that while Americans have strong opinions they nonetheless form associations readily and find easy compromises over matters of public dispute. In 1920, Spanish philosopher George Santayana noted that this cooperative spirit was part of the American essence, saying that Americans “meet in a genuine spirit of consultation, eager to persuade but ready to be persuaded, with a cheery confidence in their average ability, when a point comes up and is clearly put before them, to decide it for the time being, and to move on.” If these observers noted American cooperation at its best, we have discovered that episodically in our history our public engagements are more declarative than cooperative. If one of our finest democratic virtues is the humility that we bring to public debates, the occasional arrogance of our public expression is the bane of our democracy.

Ted McAllister
Ted McAllister

A tendency toward unambiguous declarations is built in to the democratic ethos, but largely checked by an American pragmatism, a long habit of dealing with problems at a local level with one’s neighbors, and by a genuine humility that citizens are not sufficiently informed to have and express views with certainty. But the pressures that come from the theory of democracy itself, which places “the people” as the authority, encourages citizens to feel compelled to express their thoughts on public or political matters. “Every voice should be heard; every vote should count.” We hear these democratic pieties regularly — few people are willing to question these assumptions as they pertain to policy-making on complex issues.

In a particularly glaring example of this, two political scientists — Samuel Best and Monika McDermott, who holds a political science degree from UCSB — studied a variety of national polling data regarding the USA Patriot Act. In their recent essay, “Measuring Opinions vs. Non-Opinions — The Case of the USA Patriot Act” for the journal, The Forum, they found that when surveys paired factual questions about legislation alongside opinion questions, there were several instances in which more than 40 percent of respondents answered the former questions incorrectly, while less than 10 percent replied, “I don’t know” to the opinion questions (when these were offered). Citizens, it seems, are prone to offer opinions on policies they do not understand.

Pete Peterson
Pete Peterson

But in American history, the arrogance of assertion, the declaration of unambiguous truth, is largely muted, except in times of great trial or stress. In such times, like the Depression or our own time of ambiguous war and economic fears, Americans create and tolerate strident demagogues like Father Coughlin in the 1930s or Keith Olbermann and Ann Coulter today. These radio, television and, now, blogging personalities rant with a peculiar disdain for those with whom they disagree, combining a penchant for personal attacks with assertions of extreme confidence in their own knowledge.

In the political conversations we hear among fellow citizens as well as those who have privileged positions, we experience people willing to declare things that they cannot possibly know. People seem to “know” that President Bush is the “worst president” in U.S. history (a phrase that has launched a million bumper stickers), even though they may not be able to name more than 10 others. A right-wing talk show host recently declared that Sens. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., were our two “dumbest senators.” Many of our fellow citizens even seem to know about the deeper motivations of our elected leaders and of conspiracies great and small that explain the choices that have turned out badly. We citizens seem less willing to believe that people make mistakes — we have to assume that our leaders acted with full knowledge and that they simply lied.

In difficult times, when the future is unclear and our problems are so very complex, the anxiety that naturally comes with the democratic citizenship to have one’s voice heard and one’s vote counted, causes some of us to latch on to unambiguous answers and to join a herd of individualists in declaring with certainty that we know what is happening. These tendencies are strong today, but it is one of our nation’s great virtues to reject certainty in favor of pragmatism, to accept humbly our inability to know all the relevant facts and to have all the skills necessary to analyze those facts. We help protect our democratic culture when, in our public life, we come “eager to persuade but ready to be persuaded.”

Ted V. McAllister holds the Edward L. Gaylord Chair at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy. Pete Peterson is the executive director of Common Sense California and lectures at Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy.

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