Giving Up to Rule by the Few

It is disconcerting to think that the possibilities for personal freedom and well-being intended by the founders at the birth of our republic have not been realized in the way or to the extent they envisioned. Their experiment in democracy became a work-in-progress for succeeding generations, and we still haven’t quite got it right.

In fact, the tenor of our partisan politics at the moment suggests we have neither the political nor the moral will to complete the task of securing “liberty and justice for all.” As citizens who are the ultimate source of sovereignty in this nation, we have given up and given in to a factionalism that pits interest-group over against interest-group, majority against minorities, class against class, in ways that for some amount to a form of socioeconomic and political tyranny. “We the people” have become “we the vested interest groups,” each of whom is more interested in gaining or consolidating advantage and acquiring or retaining control of the “system.”

One of the major issues debated by the founders was whether citizens were actually capable of self-government. On the one hand, Alexander Hamilton did not believe people had the requisite knowledge, sophistication or attention span to exercise responsibility in governing. In his remarks to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he said, “All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well born; the other the mass of the people. The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second; and as they cannot receive any advantage by change, they will therefore maintain good government.”

On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson also believed human beings were divided into two groups. In a letter to Henry Lee in 1824, Jefferson declared: “Men by their constitution are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depositary of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves.”

Unlike Hamilton, Jefferson did not think that an oligarchy of the wealthy, even in a democratic form, held out the best way to realize the vision of personal and social liberty. In a letter to Dr. Richard Price in 1789, Jefferson noted that “whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”

It is disconcerting now to think that Jefferson’s confidence in the ability of the people to govern themselves has given way to Hamilton’s vision of rule by a socioeconomic elite, but we have become unstable, fickle and unruly, just what Hamilton observed about the body politic of his day. Rather than being well-informed, we are, for the most part, woefully uninformed—and easily led astray into deeper factionalism by the political elite who do our thinking for us.

In his article in a recent issue of The Hedgehog Review, Charles Taylor argues that for a democratic state in the modern world to thrive it is necessary that its people express a strong collective identity, greater solidarity, and a higher level of commitment to one another. If this be not possible or if it is diminished, the vacuum created by its absence will be filled with a variety of forms of tyranny, despotism, and authoritarianism, i.e., the forms of government the founding of our republic was intended to reject.

Perhaps one reason we have failed to realize this communitarian vision is our socioeconomic, ethnic, and religious diversity; this should be our greatest strength, the multiple strands in a braided social-civil cord. Instead, these are the fault lines that demarcate our most important boundaries as groups and the varied and divergent interests we hold. Just as importantly, another threat is our occupancy of narrow, unreflective, and partisan default positions on issues of concern affecting many, and in some cases, all of us. Making such boundaries more porous and cultivating informed engagement are certainly challenges for us at this moment in our history. Without these kinds of alterations, we have little prospect for any meaningful change.

It’s not enough to “believe in” the principles on which this nation was founded, or even to be favorably predisposed to them, or to hold them in high regard. Believing in freedom, equality, individual responsibility, to say nothing of limited government and free-market capitalism, means nothing even if these are shared and accepted by all citizens and residents. What is important is that these principles be enacted in the structures and systems of our socioeconomic order so that all can benefit and thrive. At the moment, however, that is precisely what is not happening as these principles are held hostage to the machinations of the political elite to whom we as citizens have ceded our responsibility.

In a seminal 1964 article with the title “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” Philip E. Converse undertook a study of American voters that has turned out to be a classic in the study of voting behavior. His study led him to conclude that the vast majority of people do not have a clear and comprehensive set of beliefs, attitudes, and values that inform their socioeconomic and political understanding. Rather they have an undisciplined, unreflective, and largely random collection of views and opinions that they piece together as occasion requires. Moreover, one’s “political sophistication” or ability to recognize, understand, and evaluate circumstances and information regarding specific policy areas, and to connect this knowledge with policy positions in other areas, was correlated positively with age, level of education, grass-roots participation in political activism, and the quantity of information consumed.

If the assumption is that people hold distinctive and deliberate positions on policy issues because they are knowledgeable and informed (i.e., political sophisticates), Converse’s research—and that of other social scientists—shows that this assumption is false. Rather, Converse identified five kinds of publics, each of which has remained fairly stable in size or percentage of the general public in the intervening years. First, there are those Converse called “ideologues.” These are the political sophisticates who can conceptualize, analyze, and evaluate political issues and their significance. Based on his study, Converse estimated that 4% of the public fit into this category.

Second are those who are aware of an “ideological spectrum” to political positions, but either disregard the positions taken along this spectrum or give evidence of not understanding the issues at all. This group numbered approximately 12%.

Third, there is a group that seems unaware of the ideological spectrum but whose political choices are consciously shaped by the political interests of a particular group (e.g., farmers, ethnic groups, unions, small business owners, health care workers, physicians, etc.). Parties and candidates and issues are voted on based on the expectation of favorable treatment of the group; matters not germane to the group and its interests are typically unimportant and poorly understood. This is the largest of the five groups at 45% of the public.

Fourth, about 22% make political decisions without regard to political ideology, policy issues, or group interest. In fact, these seem to have no understanding of such distinctions. Instead, their preferences are based on whether they are living in good times or bad times.

Finally, there is a group whose preferences, evaluations, and decisions have “no shred of policy significance whatever.” These respondents are “people who felt loyal to one party or the other but confessed that they had no idea what the party stood for. Others devoted their attention to personal qualities of the candidates, indicating disinterest in parties more generally. Still others confessed that they paid too little attention to either the parties or the current candidates to be able to say anything about them” (217). In Converse’s study, this group represented 17% of the public.

The work of Converse and others who study public opinion and voter knowledgeability begs the question of whether we can really be a self-governing nation if by that we mean a body politic that knows and cares and is involved in public life. If Hamilton and Jefferson pose two alternatives for us, then certainly we have to say our experiment in democracy is leaning more toward the Hamilton side at the moment: We are neither prepared for nor capable of ruling ourselves and realizing the unfettered equality envisioned by our founders.

In this continuing experiment, there can be no place for free-riders, those who accept the benefits without meeting any of the responsibilities of participatory democracy. Among other things, these responsibilities include becoming an informed citizen, one who is capable of examining and weighing alternatives in relation to goals more inclusive and communitarian than individualist- and group-centered.

It is remarked by many that one of the strengths of this country is the freedom to form an opinion without fear of reprisal by our fellows or our government. We are literally free to believe whatever we may want, to think and judge however we may chose, and to hold to whatever and whomever we ensconce in the place of greatest importance. But running through the history of this great experiment are strands of sociopolitical naïveté, gullibility, indifference and, on occasion, demagoguery. So while it is possible to hold any thought or view or opinion one may want, it is not necessarily conducive to realizing the common good—unless there is full, open, honest, thoughtful democratic debate.

Better we should foster an environment of open and frank debate where all views can be reasonably engaged than remain entrenched in partisan ideologies. Better we should take a view in which our politics is rooted in an organic sense of our community and our interdependence, committed to fostering the good and noble lives of all rather than just the few. To achieve this, it will undoubtedly be necessary to acknowledge that on occasion, the views and opinions we hold are misguided and inaccurate, and quite possibly the result of the biases and manipulations of others. Or we may find that there is a via media, a middle course that can conciliate extremes. In either case, we may discover that a change of mind is needed.

Having the right to an opinion is one thing, regardless of whether it is an informed or an ignorant opinion; being enslaved to it is something else entirely. Here, perhaps, a sentiment expressed initially by Thomas Paine in his The Age of Reason might prove helpful. In his statement to U.S. Citizens in the opening of the book, he declared: “I have always strenuously supported the Right of every man to his opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.”

How is it that our opinions, however correct or fallacious they may be, come to be so strongly and immovably held? That is the subject of the next blog in two weeks.

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