Commentary Magazine

Do the American People Know What They Want?

When President Carter announced his proposals for reforming welfare policy last summer in Plains, reporters were quick to take note of a peculiar feature of his statement. Not once in the course of what he had to say did he use the phrase “welfare reform.” Indeed, it was necessary to pay rather close attention to his words to grasp what he was really proposing. The casual listener would have been aware, instead, of a bold presidential initiative to abolish welfare once and for all and to replace it with something completely different—a program to provide Americans with “better jobs and income.”

Had the Carter program been a typical exercise in fraudulent policy leadership, his reticence would have been understandable—though in that case, following the usage of contemporary politics, he would have declared his commitment to “welfare reform” in every third sentence. But in fact Carter’s program was a serious effort to contend with an area of public policy that is all but universally acknowledged to be overdue for reform. It was not, to be sure, a legislative initiative of the sort that fires the imagination or delights the mind. It was merely competent, which is to say, in many respects a bit disheartening, but withal something a citizen could be grateful for a President’s having undertaken. Yet Carter seemed intent on evading full personal credit for what he was proposing and on making it less than clear to the American people that under his leadership the U.S. government was doing something important that needed doing, and doing it pretty well.

A few days before Carter announced his non-welfare reform, the New York Times published the results of a public-opinion poll that explained why the President was being so modest. The poll showed that when you ask Americans whether they favor expensive programs to aid the poor, the blind, dependent children, and so on, the answer, by a margin of something like five to one, is yes. But if you ask Americans what they think of “welfare” programs, two-thirds of them say that they do not like them. As a deputy assistant secretary of HEW put it during a television round-table in the aftermath of the Plains announcement, the word “welfare” has come to have a “negative connotation.” The President was aware of this, and wanting to avoid semantic contamination, he put together a statement that carefully did not describe exactly what he was proposing.



Do Americans know what they want? There is no dearth of evidence these days to suggest that they do not; the Times‘s discovery of public enthusiasm for helping the poor and public distaste for “welfare” is not an isolated case. Consider, for example, the public’s attitudes toward business. Americans, to judge from the opinion surveys, like their economic system. Ask them if it is the most productive, most efficient, and generally most admirable system in the world, and by an all but unanimous vote they say yes. Does the system presuppose the making of profits? Again, by an overwhelming margin, yes. Are Americans in favor of private enterprise? Also yes. Would things be better if the government owned or ran the nation’s economic institutions? No, according to the polls. For that matter, how do Americans compare business and government? A long series of surveys going back many years now shows that public esteem for business institutions is distinctly higher than it is for the federal government. A typical study of this sort was conducted by U.S. News and World Report in 1976, and it found that on a combined scale of decency and efficacy, Americans ranked, on a list of twenty-six institutions, small business third, business executives eleventh, large business thirteenth—and the Presidency twentieth, the regulatory agencies twenty-third, the federal bureaucracy twenty-fifth, and politicians twenty-sixth.

Yet if Americans like their economic system, the opinion polls also make it clear that they are not of one mind on the subject. By and large the public regards business, especially big business, as an institution that does not ordinarily stop to scruple if the pursuit of its goals might harm individuals. The public estimates corporate profits to be some six or seven times higher than they actually are, and in doing so it is not trying to signal approval or admiration. In spite of everything they profess to believe about the virtues of the private economy and the infirmities of government, regulators, and politicians, well over half of the American people think that government regulation of business should be maintained at its present level or expanded.

Or consider, as another example, the much heralded, long awaited new “conservatism” that now is said finally to have arisen in the electorate. Today more than twice as many Americans identify themselves as “conservatives” as identify themselves as “liberals.” And on the surface at least, these numbers would indeed seem to portend a major shift toward the Right. Yet a closer inspection suggests that what they demonstrate is not so much a resurgence of conservatism as an upwelling of confusion. For these self-identified conservatives, though they narrowly preferred Gerald Ford to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election, identify more with the Democractic party than with the Republicans (45 per cent vs. 35 per cent), voted for Democratic congressional candidates over their Republican competitors by a margin of 53 per cent to 46 per cent last year, and are in favor of maintaining or increasing federal social programs by majorities on the order of two to one.

Nor is it only in the views of self-identified conservatives that one encounters major contradictions. Over the past dozen years or so, there has been a sharp and sustained decline in the esteem Americans profess for the leadership and performance of virtually every economic, social, and political institution. Recently, to be sure, the trend appears to have bottomed out, and some analysts now argue that public regard for American institutions has begun, slowly, to climb back up. Even if that is the case, however, the reputation of government, business, education, medicine, and so forth is far lower today than it was in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, and for many years now observers have argued, and not implausibly, that the legitimacy of the system itself has been seriously eroded.

A similar but even more important contradiction emerges from surveys of American attitudes toward the entire system of liberal government that has prevailed in this country throughout most of the present century. By enormous margins of three and four to one, Americans these days consistently support the New Deal tradition and the full range of present-day public programs to which it has given birth. Indeed, something like half the population would like to see the government provide even more benefits and intervene in more areas of social life than it already does. And by large majorities Americans vote accordingly. Today the Democrats control about two-thirds of the seats in Congress and the fifty state legislatures, and there is no present prospect that the Republicans will mount a serious challenge to this extraordinary hegemony.

Yet by almost equally large margins, Americans also say that the institutions responsible for creating and running the New Deal state are currently in the hands of liars, cheats, frauds, and profligates. Three-fifths of them think the government is run for the benefit of a powerful few. Even more assent to the proposition that the system is so arranged that the rich get richer and the poor poorer. Just about everyone ranks the nation’s principal representative institutions—Congress, the political parties, the politicians, even the Presidency—near the bottom of any list of American institutions. Last year the electorate manifested a powerful inclination to vote against presidential-primary candidates who were associated with Washington, D.C. In other words, Americans seem to love the New Deal state and to detest everyone and everything associated with establishing it, running it, defending it, and expanding it.



The public’s mistrust of the nation’s political elites may damage the prospects of the kind of New Deal governance it prefers, but in one respect at least that sentiment is both understandable and justified. For the conduct of these elites leaves a great deal to be desired, and in no respect more so than in their performance of the classic function of all political elites—that of defining “issues,” i.e., shaping the topics and problems on which public discussion focuses and around which public opinion coalesces. Public opinion may be incoherent these days, but its incoherence is as nothing compared with the incoherence that characterizes the way American political elites go about posing the questions to which public opinion is, as it were, the response.

A little known but utterly typical example of this incoherence is to be found in the movement against paperwork that has been under way in Washington in recent years. Complaints about the paperwork burden the federal government imposes on businesses, universities, and other institutions are not new to American politics. They go back at least to the decade of the New Deal, and on several occasions since then—usually in the wake of major waves of domestic legislation—they have surfaced as an articulate public concern. The most recent anti-paperwork crusade came together and set out to do battle in the fall of 1974. At the time, businessmen were up in arms over new reporting burdens Washington had imposed on them, and mayors, governors, and university presidents were, if anything, even angrier. Thus Congress was quick, as it got wind of the furor, to establish a Commission on Federal Paperwork, and some time later President Ford set in motion a paperwork-cutting program within the executive branch. Since Ford’s retirement, that program has been continued and expanded by the Carter administration.

Over the past two years, the anti-paperwork crusaders have carried on with great energy and fanfare (and at no small public expense), and along the way they have managed to ease the nation’s paperwork burden, or in any event to reduce the rate of its growth—or so at least the recently submitted final report of the Commission on Federal Paperwork asserts. But they have not thereby quieted the public clamor over paperwork appreciably, and there is no serious likelihood that they ever will. For the public outcry to which the anti-paperwork movement is a response does not in fact concern paperwork as such, the vast bulk of which is perceived as a reasonable, or anyway inevitable, accompaniment of useful public programs. The real outcry addresses itself almost entirely to the reporting requirements imposed by a handful of new and ambitious federal regulatory programs set up to promote pension security, equal employment opportunity, environmental protection, occupational safety and health, and the like. These requirements are indeed felt to be excessive—along with all the other, often more substantial, costs of compliance.

Thus the anti-paperwork movement is destined to fail because there is no intelligible sense in which the country can be said to have a “paperwork problem,” and because what genuinely does ail it in this regard cannot be cured by a commission or a task force that operates out of the Office of Management and Budget. What the country really has is a “new regulation problem,” and the only body that can do anything significant about it is Congress itself. The costs and insults of the new regulation are no accident, no consequence of mere bureaucratic mismanagement. They are in almost every case mandated by Congress and written into the law, and they will not be alleviated until Congress rewrites the statutes so that the costs of these programs can be balanced intelligently and evenhandedly against their benefits.



In the anti-paperwork community in Washington, and among the institutions that raised the issue in the first place, all this is understood, but it is not really admitted. To do so would require them to abandon the non-issue of paperwork and to take on the thorny problems of the new regulation itself—and they prefer not to do that. For one thing, the paperwork issue “works” quite nicely. Paperwork is physical; it can be photographed and televised. Its burdens are easily grasped, so it makes good copy. By contrast, imbalance between the benefits and costs of regulatory programs—the central problem of the new regulation—is much harder to put across.

Moreover, the paperwork issue is safe. Everyone is against paperwork, and no one will defend it. Thus there is no political risk in mounting a dramatic assault on the paperwork problem. By contrast, anyone who dares to speak ill of the new regulatory programs—or even to suggest that there are more effective or less expensive ways in which they might proceed—can count on being attacked as an enemy of health, safety, environmental cleanliness, the human rights of workers, and so on. Indeed, merely failing to pay maximum obeisance to these social goals can be hazardous to one’s political health.

Best of all, the paperwork issue permits those who pursue it to assume a heroic posture. The culture has a deep distaste for bureaucracy and all its works, and those who attack paperwork can cast themselves as uncompromising defenders of the people as a whole against the depredations of evil bureaucratic forces and special interests. By contrast, trying to make new regulatory programs more sensible is a complex and thankless process of choosing among evils—and of repudiating the entire idea of heroic policy-making, inasmuch as the weaknesses of the new regulation derive from its congressional supporters’ desire to promote health, safety, environmental cleanliness, and the like in a similarly heroic manner.

Do Americans know what they want where the paperwork problem is concerned? By definition they do not and cannot. They could indeed have a coherent view of the new regulatory programs; if one were to ask how much health, safety, or environmental cleanliness they wanted in light of the costs and alternatives, a meaningful response would be possible. But that is precisely how the question is not being put these days, those involved preferring to take an easier, safer, more politically profitable course of action. I am not aware of any public-opinion polls that have plumbed American attitudes toward paperwork, but it is hard to believe that the results of such a poll would not show that huge majorities are “against” it—just as polls do in fact reveal that huge majorities are “for” health and safety and against the kind of corruption that can result when administrative controls (i.e., paperwork) are weak or nonexistent. Is it any wonder, then, that public opinion on the questions of paperwork and the new regulatory programs should be incoherent, or that Americans these days should feel that their leaders and institutions are unworthy of their trust? Both incoherent views and demoralization are inevitable consequences of the kind of failure of elites that is illustrated by the anti-paperwork crusade.



The paperwork problem has parallels across the entire range of policy concerns today, both foreign and domestic. Almost wherever one might choose to look, elites and institutions are at work redefining actual experience in a way that tends to empty public opinion of its ability to arrive at a considered and meaningful position and thereby to influence the course of actual events. In some cases, such redefinition reflects the desire of elites to appear to respond to a real complaint or problem without doing anything consequential about it. In other cases—and they seem, if anything, even more numerous—the process works the other way around. The elites and institutions are committed to projects that would be rejected by the public if these were candidly described, so they redefine their intentions and the situations involved in a way that makes them seem popular even if in fact they are not.

Consider, as an example, the effort that has been under way for a decade now to “democratize” the national conventions of the political parties and to open them up to broader “participation.” To listen to the advocates of these reforms, one would imagine that the mass of rank-and-file party members had gone largely unrepresented in the national conventions and that, at their wits’ end, they were finally mobilizing their overwhelming numbers to throw the old oligarchs out. In fact, just the opposite is the case. Though the conventions have been dominated by party regulars, they have by no means been unresponsive to the views of the rank and file. Most of the people pressing for party reform are a narrow and exotic minority of the parties’ total memberships—principally people with high socioeconomic status and strongly ideological concerns who under traditional party structures were unable to secure the nomination of their preferred candidates. Their real purpose in restructuring the parties is not to make nominations more representative, but to make them less so. However, since a candid presentation of these intentions would do little to advance their cause, they clothe their efforts in the language of “reform,” “openness,” and “participation,” everyone naturally being for all these things and against “bosses.”

By now the reformers have been extremely successful, and the changes they have pushed through have transformed the entire nature of the presidential-selection process. Procedurally, the presidential-primary election has become the principal means by which delegations are selected. Structurally, party regulars have been displaced from their position of dominance by upper-middle-class ideologues of the Left in the Democratic party and of the Right in the Republican party. (These elements participate in primaries and open state caucuses at a rate which far exceeds that of any other element of the population.) Thus the parties, despite all appearances to the contrary, have not become more representative, they have become less so. What looks on the surface like “democratization” has been in fact a transfer of power from one oligarchy to another oligarchy, and a less representative one at that. The result, as Professor Everett Ladd among others has pointed out, is a new and disturbing pattern in our presidential politics: the growing prevalence of the unelectable nominee, the consequent rise of the “unnatural landslide” that confers no positive mandate on the winner, and, as a result, a growing inability in the Presidency to represent and lead public opinion.

Is this what Americans want? It is hard to believe that it is, and easy to imagine how they could entertain confused or contradictory views on the issue of “party reform” and a sense of powerlessness and alienation vis-à-vis “Washington.” For in this case as in the previous one, real issues have been misdefined and the nation has been sent off on a singleminded quest whose predictable negative consequences were not adequately considered or even raised in the first place by those responsible.

Or take the case of the ongoing investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission—and, earlier, by a variety of congressional committees—into illegal and “questionable” payments by corporations. These inquiries began as a result of the Watergate investigations, which uncovered, among other things, the fact that U.S. corporations, in direct contravention of the laws, had made contributions to the Committee to Reelect the President. But what began as an inquiry into authentic crimes quickly developed into something very different. For as the various official bodies involved pursued the phenomenon, the focus shifted from actions that subverted public policy to actions that supported it—from exposing and discrediting domestic crimes to disclosing conduct that, in however unseemly or unattractive a fashion, had in fact served to bolster anti-Communist regimes in Western Europe and elsewhere and thereby to sustain the central purpose of U.S. foreign policy.

Yet the press, the SEC, and other institutions did not observe these crucial distinctions. From the beginning to the end of the episode they proceeded on the assumption that all “questionable” payments were evils and had to be rooted out; they did not in public appear to consider that there could be a reason for protecting an anti-Communist foreign policy even if its conduct or underpinnings were morally unattractive. As a result, a domestic issue was coopted by those critical of U.S. foreign policy and pressed into the service of their policy goals. Disclosures were made that toppled friendly governments and weakened the alliance without there having been any deliberate prior public discussion or decision as to whether these eventualities were on balance desirable.

Was this what Americans wanted? The question cannot be answered meaningfully, for the public was not enabled to consult its settled preferences and arrive at a considered judgment of the matter. Elites and institutions proceeded in a way that was easy, safe, or convenient. As a result, most of the relevant issues and arguments were not raised or made, and the foreign-policy issue at stake was resolved unilaterally by those who decided to make the key disclosures.



Now it is possible to make too much of all this. In a large and diverse society, one does not expect public opinion to be a model of intellectual consistency, and especially in such a society should the findings of public-opinion polls be read with a good deal of suspicion. Nor, given the rough-and-tumble of American public life, is it reasonable to expect elites to conduct public discussion with the kind of disinterested precision that one might hope for in a graduate seminar on public policy. Yet the patterns of behavior described above do not represent mere “technical” offenses against standards of political order. To the contrary, they are genuine pathologies. When an overwhelming majority of the electorate supports New Deal governance and at the same time considers the people and institutions responsible for providing such governance to be unworthy of trust or support; when a nation is mired in a seemingly permanent state of demoralization even as the political system is at work satisfying its needs and wishes on an unprecedented scale; when elites and institutions show themselves to be unable or unwilling to handle the most important issues with even a modicum of coherence and candor—when circumstances like these prevail, something fundamental is amiss.

Incoherence and demoralization in public opinion, dishonesty among elites: these are the defining pathologies of our time. Their prevalence reflects the influence of three phenomena or institutions that increasingly shape—and distort—the American system of representation and governing.

1. The adversary style. Nothing, it seems, is more capable of moving the hearts of men today than the assumption of an adversary posture toward the way things are in the society at large. This posture combines the moralism and meliorism that have long characterized American mass culture with the anti-bourgeois ethos of the high culture, and more and more these days it serves as a vehicle for political action. To do something in politics, from passing a bill to getting elected, one attacks things, the more indignantly and uncompromisingly the better.

Richard Fenno has described the growing influence of the adversary style in congressional elections: “Every Representative with whom I traveled,” he wrote in 1974, “criticized the Congress and portrayed himself, by contrast, as a fighter against its manifest evils. Members run for Congress by running against Congress.”

Not surprisingly, this adversary spirit has begun to shape the making of public policy. A problematic condition becomes redefined as a scandal, an outrage, or a crisis. Its cause is depicted as the wrongdoing of various “interests” and other malefactors. Compromise with them, even acknowledgment of their legitimacy, is out of the question. A “strong” bill must be written. What often emerges is a statute that spells out a large and often pure goal, that enjoins administrators to pursue it singlemindedly, and that prohibits them from attending to legitimate competing goals that are bound to be affected by the pursuit. Environmental legislation provides perhaps the best illustration of this style: in setting certain kinds of air-pollution regulations, the Environmental Protection Administration is enjoined to concern itself only with public health; the social costs of achieving public health are not to be taken into account in making decisions.

2. The national press. In 1963, CBS and NBC inaugurated their half-hour nightly network news programs, and shortly thereafter the New York Times and the Washington Post lost most of their serious local competition. At about the same time, a new generation of editorial executives assumed control of the newsweeklies. As a result, American journalism, from having been a diverse set of essentially local institutions, became a much less diverse national institution; it acquired a national audience, addressed itself preeminently to national issues, and soon started to exercise national influence. And it has changed the entire structure of American politics.

The national press’s effect on campaigning, on the political party, and on the process of mobilizing an electoral majority is widely acknowledged; officeholders today are more responsive to ideas and images and less beholden to, or at any rate less bound up with, local institutions and local interests. The national press is also having profound effects on the shape of the American political sensibility and the conduct of public discussion. It has intensified the public’s awareness of ideologies and “issues.” It has also increased awareness of conflict, which in turn has raised levels of demoralization. Perhaps above all, the press, especially the national press, has taken the adversary style to heart.

3. Electoral praetorianism. Once upon a time a candidate for office typically found himself in an environment whose chief characteristic was a scarcity of the resources necessary for getting elected. Thus candidates had to depend on local organizations, and typically on the local political party, for the necessary labor, campaign skills, money, and the like. This dependency created linkages between the officeholder and his constituency, and these linkages guaranteed a kind of answerability.

Increasingly this is no longer the case. In recent decades the typical candidate has found at hand a growing fund of politically relevant resources that are not controlled by the local party or constituency organization. The new technology of politics gives him opinion pollsters, computers, direct mail, professional fund raising, and professional campaign management. Incumbents have additional staff, research, and other resources provided at the taxpayers’ expense. The advent of public financing of elections carries this trend further. Increasingly, therefore, the candidate is on his own, beholden to no one (usually, anyway, no one local), and more capable than ever before of blurring the process of accountability. As Josiah Lee Auspitz and Clifford W.Brown, Jr., have put it, we are moving from an era in which a “representative” ethic prevailed to one in which “strategic politics” has become the norm. Such a politics thrives on the misleading definition of an issue—what Sir Henry Sumner Maine called the “hasty generalization.”



The growing influence of these three institutions—the adversary style, the national press, and electoral praetorianism—is altering the entire character of American politics. Representative institutions are being cut loose from their constituencies; the traditional, locally-based, interest-aggregating system of representation is giving way to a form of plebiscitarianism in which individual candidates appeal directly to mass audiences on the basis of images. And public discussion, the environment in which these plebiscitarian appeals take place, is increasingly cut off from the empirical and moral reality of political life in a liberal democracy. Increasingly it is unable to convey the intractable conflicts of interests and values that are the stuff of liberal democracy, insisting instead on seeing politics as a kind of Armageddon pitting the whole against the parts.

Under the influence of this kind of politics, government cannot govern. Issues and problems cannot be recognized for what they are, and thus policy cannot be shaped or administered in a way that will allow it to become both effective and legitimate. Government will vacillate between ineffectuality at the one extreme and draconianism at the other. Not being in control of the effects of its programs, government will be unable to organize consent for them, or ultimately for itself. Hidden policy—those unintended or unacknowledged effects of programs fashioned in the unreal atmosphere of plebiscitarian public discussion—will come to dominate the society. Thus government will become an instrument increasingly available to those whose purposes, if stated openly, could not get public backing. Government will find itself increasingly at odds, even at war, with society.

There are also profound consequences for public opinion in this state of affairs. The constant resort to the adversary mode stirs conflict, lowers trust, and demoralizes citizens. And the effort of plebiscitarian politicians to find safe, consensual positions and appeals creates incoherence in public opinion, which in turn empties it of its competence to control the conduct of public life.

So what the results of the public-opinion polls and the recent course of public discussion are telling us is not that the people are incompetent by nature, or that democracy is out of harmony with the nature of things. The incoherence of public opinion, the people’s low esteem for their representative institutions, and their generally demoralized state are signs, rather, of the erosion of the institutions of liberal democracy and the rise of a new set of institutions founded on illiberal ideas of political life. To begin with, this new system will seem democratic. In the end, it may well not be.

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