Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Tyrant

There is a Tyrant among us. He lurks, growing his support in our nation's capitol, in the halls of academia, and in corner diners and shopping malls.

He is waiting patiently for his chance to bypass the Constitution and rule by His Will alone.

Who is this Evil One I oppose, this charming despot who will turn this once great nation into His plaything?

You already know him. His name is in the news every day.

He beams with pride whenever you hear, "the polls show that the American people ...."

When I hear those words, I brace myself for what's coming next. When the press, politicians, or pundits preface a statement with what the polls show, it is almost always because they agree with the poll but can't justify their opinion with solid reasoning. Popular opinion stands as an irrefutable argument.

Polling numbers have become the new dogma, an authority which cannot be questioned without opening oneself to the charge of autocracy. "What, you don't care what the people think?"

It may come as a shock, but the majority is not always right. No, I'm not so naive as to think the pollsters and their addicts really care what their polls say, because for the most part polls are designed to return a desired answer.

But popular opinion, if it can be guaged correctly, is as fickle as March weather. That is why our Constitution lays out layer after layer buffering the will of the majority from holding sway.

  • We elect a Congress to argue amongst each other, and not just one house but two. Senators, whose task is to "deliberate" (ie, drag their feet), have six years to let their constituents get over an unpopular action.

  • We don't elect an executive directly, but instead our States do. That's partly to keep small, populous urban areas from ruling over the vast countryside.

  • Nowhere in the Constitution is a referendum prescribed.

And yet our politicians govern by polls. Our press and pundits love to use a poll as a handy club. Leave aside your opinion of the war on terror, the Iraqi part in it, and take, for instance, Tim Russert on NBC's Meet The Press (Sunday, March 19, 2006). General George Casey, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, had just finished explaining that troop levels would continue a gradual decrease while the Iraqis continue to take on more and more responsibility for their own defense.

Showing polling numbers showing Americans thinking troop levels are too high and believing that we have little likelihood of eventual success, Russert asked General Casey, "Can you continue to conduct a war without the support of the American people?" The question, disingenous though it was, carried with it the weight of alleged popular opinion.

There are those who label incorrectly the "tyranny of the majority" any action by the majority which the minority doesn't support. That is mere self-serving hyperbole, however, meant to deny the duly elected majority its just authority to rule.

Tyranny is the mob in the street calling for the right to work badly or demanding that everyone adopt the mob's dogma or forfeit life or limb.

As John Stuart Mill wrote:

Society can and does execute its own mandates; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development and, if possible, prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. -- On Liberty

The answer to Russert's question, by the way, is that yes, General Casey can continue the war without popular approval. He is not beholden to the Tyrant; his charge comes through the chain of command from the President, the Commander in Chief.

And I am made glad that we live in a republic and not a democracy, that we are governed by those we deem wise and not by our own whims. I am glad that our forebears knew not to construct a nation to be ruled by topical referenda.

For the Tyrant, of course, is us.

(cross-posted from a while ago)

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