Saturday, April 16, 2011

Populism Is Not Leadership

(Note: Sorry, long post here. But this debate is very important, so I hope that you will sift through the entire post)

There has been a longstanding debate within American politics going back to Thomas Jefferson (for populists, Andrew Jackson) and Alexander Hamilton about the role of the people versus the role of their leaders. Today the two sides of the debate can be called populists and elitists (the term elitist implies a lot more than what I mean it to). The populists view public policy as "common sense" and that leaders ought to just listen to the people. The Tea Party movement has been built off of populist sentiments. Many of its leaders have gone to great pains to deny that there is a leadership within the movement. It is all about the people.

Elitists, the Alexander Hamilton types, place a greater emphasis on leadership. They believe that ordinary people, who often spend long hours of their days working and taking care of their families, do not have the capacity to sift through the health care literature and understand sound policy. For the elitists, it is up to exceptional leaders to take their message and win over the people.

There are pros and cons to both sides of the argument, which is why this debate has been around for so long. The Founding Fathers tried to play these two opposing viewpoints off of each other. They did not create a pure democracy because they feared the masses. But they also made sure that the elected officials (especially the House of Representatives) were held accountable to the people. In essence, they knew that regular people cannot run the government, but they also knew that unaccountable leaders often become corrupt.

This balance must always be held or we face severe consequences. Today, however, the balance seems to shifting towards the populists. There is a huge problem with this shift. It is a problem that the Founding Fathers were quite aware of when they wrote the Constitution: the masses do not know how to run the government.

Consider the mounds of evidence compiled by Bruce Bartlett.

Recent Polls on Taxes and Spending
An April 6 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 61 percent of people favor a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, down from 71 percent in 1995. Support falls to 27 percent when people are told that this would require a 20 percent cut in entitlement programs.
An April 4 YouGov poll found that an overwhelming majority of people favor large budget cuts. However, majorities also favor increased spending for education and medical research, and a strong plurality favor increased spending on clean energy technology.
An April 1 CNN/Opinion Research poll examined peoples’ knowledge of how the federal government spends its money. It finds that most really have no idea what percentage of the budget goes to various programs.
March 31 Pew poll asked people which among these programs the federal government spent the most on: Medicare, education, scientific research, or interest on the debt. Only 29 percent of people correctly said Medicare, 7 percent said education, 7 percent said scientific research, and 36 percent said interest.
March 16 Pew poll found sharply declining support for Republicans on budget issues. It also found strong opposition to cutting Social Security and Medicare, which Republicans have promised to do.
March 15 ABC News/Washington Post poll found that only 31 percent of voters support the Republican policy of only cutting spending to reduce the deficit; 64 percent believe higher taxes will also be necessary.
March 9 Bloomberg poll found significant opposition to many budget cuts proposed by Republicans.
Also on March 9, the Harris poll found strong opposition to cutting Social Security or Medicare benefits to deal with the budgetary problems of those programs. People are also opposed to raising taxes to fund them.

And a March 9 Ipsos/Reuters poll also found strong opposition to cutting Social Security or Medicare to balance the budget.
March 7 Harris poll found strong majority support for every government program that people were asked about with the sole exception of foreign aid.
March 2 YouGov poll found that people want government spending cut, but only on programs that don’t affect them.
Also on March 2, a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found strong opposition to cutting spending for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, K-12 education, heating assistance for the poor, college student loans, Head Start, and unemployment insurance. There was majority support only for cutting nuclear power subsidies, aid to state and local governments, the EPA budget, and spending on transportation and infrastructure projects. The poll also found that 81 percent of people would support a surtax on millionaires to help reduce the budget deficit, and 68 percent would support eliminating the Bush tax cuts for those earning more than $250,000.
On March 1, the Tarrance Group issued a poll which found that 63 percent of voters incorrectly believe that the federal government spends more on national defense and foreign aid than it does on Medicare and Social Security. Also, three-fifths of voters believe that the budget can be fixed just by eliminating waste, fraud and abuse.
February 16 Harris poll found that support for cutting spending is largely confined to small programs such as foreign aid, and that people favor increasing spending for big programs such as Social Security. The poll also shows that there is considerably less support for budget cuts today than there was in 1980.
February 15 CBS News poll found that only 49 percent of people believe that reducing the deficit will require cuts in programs that benefit them; 41 percent do not. Also, only 37 percent of people believe that reducing the deficit will require higher taxes on them; 59 percent do not.
It is undeniable that there are two factors at play here: The American people want to reduce the deficit, but they don't want to cut anything that would reduce the deficit. If we had a pure democracy, where the people decided public policy through direct referendums, we would be in an even much worse situation than we are now. Congress continuously disappoints the people because the people have faulty beliefs about how the government should operate. This is also why politicians pander and flip flop. In order to be elected they must listen to the people. But once in office, they are often forced to make tough decisions. 

The problem for Republicans is exacerbated. There is empirical evidence that suggests that in today's political environment, Fox News viewers are much more misinformed about current issues than viewers of other cable news stations. Granted, the non-Fox News viewers did not fare well either. In fact, the evidence really suggests that partisan news stations do a great job informing their audiences of issues that tilt toward their viewers' ideology and they also do a great job of misinforming their audiences of issues that do not tilt toward their viewers' ideology. It is ironic that with a wealth of information at our fingertips, Americans would instead hide in their preferred echo chambers and essentially remain uninformed about the pressing issues of our day. Technology has not made Alexander Hamilton's concerns go away. 

Despite the overall ignorance of voters, the Republican Party has a particularly big problem with its base. For example, how can so many people within the conservative movement believe that Obama was not born in the United States despite mounds of evidence that says he was? One can only hope that the poll yesterday was wrong. But why would it be? It was not the first poll to show strong support for birtherism in the Republican Party. Then there is Donald Trump's rise in the polls in conjunction with his birther remarks. It is not that Obama's birthplace is an important "issue." The problem lies in the fact that the base can so easily believe something that is so evidently false.

I have written this long post to make a point: Republicans do not need to nominate a populist. Republicans need a leader. I am not saying that we need somebody who will constantly offend the base (don't worry I am not running). Rather, we need somebody who will diplomatically turn people's attention to real issues and who will educate the people on sound policy. Our debt is too great, our health care is too costly, our unemployment rate is too high, our gas prices are too expensive, our education system is too dysfunctional, and our enemies are too many for us to continue down the same partisan stalemates and dysfunctional policies that the American people want. We need exceptional leadership.  

In 2012, the people need to be led forward.

Cross posted at The Cross Culturalist


Anonymous said...

Pablo, this is depressing!

Did you read the recent Peggy Noonan article? She is spot on. But even with a serious president, the obstacles to actually doing anything constructive are enormous. With polls like these, and The Donald wowing stupid GOP voters, we are doomed.

Paul Ryan is a GREAT spokesman, with a realistic plan, but I don't know if anyone can overcome the problems revealed in these polls. We are in big trouble.


Pablo said...

Martha, I did read the Noonan article. I absolutely agree. Articles like those are good for Romney even when they don't mention his name.

I like Ryan. He has started the conversation and hopefully we can at least get some of his policies put in place.

There is hope. I have gone from being soft on Romney to being excited about his candidacy. I think the book did it for me as well as Romney becoming more of a straightshooter

BOSMAN said...

GREAT POST Pablo! I think it's one of your best.

Unfortunately, we live in a period of the me generation. So don't expect people to line up in support of cutting things that affect them or someone in their family (Mom & Pop).

It is more important than in the past, that our next President isn't someone who is willing to just go with the 'popular' flow.

We need someone who is willing to roll up their sleeves, dig in, and do what is necessary.

Someone who knows that BIG CUTS need to be made, programs need to be thrown our or changed drastically.

A TURN AROUND EXPERT, would suit me fine!

Anonymous said...

Quite frankly I resent this entire piece due to its tone of unwavering, elitist superiority. Your understanding of the most basic concept of populism is clouded by your own contempt for the average American and that most basic of concepts that government is for the people and by the people. This country was built upon the blood, sweat and tears of average Americans, yet when they decide to get involved in the political process you turn your nose at them.


Pablo said...


You are somewhat correct. This country was built upon the blood, sweat and tears of average Americans. And as I made clear at the beginning of the essay, there are compelling reasons to make sure that our form of government remains a system of the people and by the people. I also mentioned that we do not have a pure democracy for a reason. And that is that the masses are oftentimes misinformed and do not know how to run the government. There is a balance between pure democracy and authoritarianism that must be met and I think the Founding Fathers struck that balance perfectly.

Now, you accused me of contempt for the American people, yet you did not respond to the mounds of polls showing that the American people do not understand the nature of the federal budget. Would you not agree that if we follow the opinions of all of those polls, we would not make a scratch in the national debt? The American people are wrong and they need to be told so. I am not sure if that is contempt; I don't really care. I care about truth. We need leadership, not pandering to people who don't understand the federal budget. I am sorry if you see contempt in my words, but I am willing to be corrected, if you would respond to my argument.

Anonymous said...

Civilization is in decline and will continue to be as long as the majority will not accept legitimate criticism or acknowledge that they are wrong.

Ann said...

I want a President that will know what the right thing to do is and won't lead the country by consensus

Anonymous said...

A leader is elected to represent the will of the people...perhaps the use of the word lead is wrongly applied to our elected Government officials. But the fact remains that government is for the people and by the people. Adams and Hamilton didn't trust the judgement or mental capacity of the people but I don't think that is why our democracy is in a representative form.

Personally I think that the politicians and the pundits make the ruling of this country to be more complicated than it actually is and the misinformation the masses have is based upon the misinformation the public receives through the media and through government officials who want the cloak of mystery intact to ensure their own positions in the bureaucracy that is Washington DC.


Anonymous said...

Dan, I'm not even sure what you're referring to?


Anonymous said...

I think Adams believed that the average American was a rube and that we need to be told what is good for us...he was a good man but had little faith in his fellow man which was pretty evident due to his own insecurities and delusions of grandeur. I believe the practicality of a "pure" democracy is why we went with a representative form.