Too many polls are apt to harm a democracy

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Following and trying to manipulate public opinion too closely can lead to a superficially participative democracy. As the recent example in California demonstrates, in this context the emergence of inspirational leaders is unlikely.

California has the world’s most participative democracy. The recall vote is a novelty, but there have been endless referendums on specific propositions and a wide range of public jobs is subject to political appointment. But in democracy, as in so much else, California demonstrates that you can have too much of a good thing.

When you seek public opinion on individual issues, there is no reason to expect that the public opinions you discover will be either consistent or coherent. Californians want to use more electricity, they want it at low prices and they do not want new generating capacity built anywhere near them. They cannot be blamed for these preferences: they are also mine, and probably yours. But you cannot have all these things at once, and that is why California has suffered widespread blackouts. The responsible politician explains why you cannot have it all: the responsive politician acts as mouthpiece for the conflicting demands of his electorate. When things go wrong, you look for scapegoats – such as the hapless Gray Davis.

The ideal of democratic politics is the town meeting, still feasible in small communities and Swiss cantons. But participative democracy is impossible for heterogeneous groups of tens of millions of people such as California or the European Union. Political activity is time-consuming and, for most people, tedious. Those who take part are unrepresentative because, if they were representative, they would be at home watching television.

So the mechanisms of participation are taken over by special-interest groups, ideologues and those who are obsessive about specific issues. These are the people you find at a modern public hearing, inquiry or meeting. The one group not represented is the public. The repetition of set-piece speeches can never establish truth or create consensus. And this process of interest group representation is, by its nature, interminable. There is always more to ask for.

The paradox is well described in The Future of Freedom, a recent book by Fareed Zakaria. The US is the most thoroughgoing participative democracy in the world. Yet its government is in thrall to corporate lobbyists; political influence, appointment and favours are on public sale; congressional legislation is like a Christmas tree on which there is a present for everyone.

The more superficially participative a democracy, the less able it is to distil a public interest. That distinction between representative and participative democracy was never better expressed than by Edmund Burke, before America was invented: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment: and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

The town meeting finds its true modern expression in representative democracy. The ideal was never an assembly of discordant voices, each one shouting “give me more”. The ideal was of debate directed towards truth, mediation directed towards consensus. Its heroes were responsible citizens: public-spirited individuals for whom civic leadership was a responsibility to be feared rather than a prize to be sought. If this sounds Utopian, that should remind us how far from the democratic ideal is the world of spin, electronic referendums and focus groups.

Successful democracy is not based on constant monitoring of the pulse of public opinion. Its characteristics are quite different. Its values are sufficiently reflective of its members to command widespread acceptance. Its government enjoys a legitimacy that ensures minorities that press their selfish concerns too far can be forced to defer to the public interest. It is not a society in which the will of 51 per cent can be imposed on everyone else.

Successful democracies find leaders who frame public opinion but neither follow it cravenly nor manipulate it aggressively. The exercise of leadership is contestable: but, as Burke explained, if that leadership is contested every day, or every year, its quality and its responsibility are fatally weakened. If you wonder why a society with so many talented people as the US recruits political leaders of such low calibre, the current footage from California provides all the explanation you need.

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