More than half of Americans, 54 percent, continue to believe Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or a program to develop them before the United States invaded last year, according to a poll released Friday.
Evidence of such weapons has not been found.
Half believe Iraq was either closely linked with al-Qaida before the war (35 percent) or was directly involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on this country (15 percent).~ The Associated Press
Americans are raised to have confidence in the wisdom of the people. It has become a stock phrase and commonplace opinion among many conservatives that ordinary people are generally sensible and are not only more in tune with the real world than the elites who run government, media and academia but are also more capable of judging the encroachments of government and the propriety of policies. Concerning his own interests, the average person is the best judge, and over the long term I am convinced that inherited folk wisdom is better than learned suppositions, because this wisdom has been proved through the test of experience and found worthy. But an equally important and unavoidable conclusion that all discerning people must draw is that the general public is quite unsuited to understanding and deciding many major questions of policy, most of which turn on fairly sophisticated knowledge of a number of subjects.
The faith that the people would catch out abusive governments and punish them at the polls, which is the only ultimately safeguard against abusive government in our presently consolidated system, is premised on two completely unreliable assumptions: that “the people” value good government, and that they will not slavishly fall in with what their government tells them to be the truth. If either was true once (and even this is questionable), it is no longer true, at least not for a broad section of the population of this country. Our educational system long ago abandoned any pretense to producing genuinely liberal and critical minds, and without this sort of training the average citizen is easy prey to the disarmingly solemn liars who pretend to have the best interests of the country at heart. In a nation of people generally ignorant about much of the world, and a people given to trusting their government to an inordinate degree, is it any wonder that outright falsehoods will continue to circulate as truth for years after they have been disproved?
Set aside for the moment the fact that the “general will” or “will of the people” is pure fantasy, that “popular sovereignty” is a contradiction in terms and that the idea of government based on a contract is a bad myth. What the poll results above show is that the majority is simply too incompetent, uninformed and swayed by momentary passions to govern well, as anti-democrats have rightly argued for centuries. This time, tens of thousands have paid with their lives because the public was too ignorant, too trusting and too servile to stop a war that did not have to happen–how many will pay the next time? How many hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of Americans have paid with their lives because the public meekly submitted to foreign policy decisions that in no way serve our country? Modern mobs have gone beyond the passion of the throng, though, and have become fully fledged intellectual robots with their programming directing them inexorably on to fulfill their political tasks without any thought. Or perhaps they are more like intellectual zombies, muttering their slogans and catchphrases as they mindlessly roam across the political landscape, occasionally pausing to devour the unlucky, thinking dissenter who falls into their hands.
It seems to me that governments of the Old Regime were much more frugal with the lives and property of their subjects when they believed that the land and state belonged to the ruler, who therefore had a personal stake in the preservation of both, than modern governments have been when they imagine that the land and state belong to the people. Is this greater propensity to accept confiscation and violence on behalf of the democratic state really because the modern governments receive that much more consent and zealous support from the people (and if there is so much consent and zeal, why does conscription only come about in the democratic age?), or is it that the people have been conditioned to be that much more slavish in their political habits as their government has become ostensibly more their own and somehow supposedly more “free”?
Was the Loyalist who rather feared three thousand tyrants a mile away more than the one tyrant three thousand miles away not the wisest of Americans of his time? Would you rather contend with a few relatively well-informed officials, or a roomful of constantly agitated FoxNews viewers? One may reason with a king, even with a tyrant, and seek redress of grievances or offer a petition. One cannot reason with a crowd–this is why emotionalism, sloganeering and political pyrotechnics and “magic” are the successful phenomena of mass politics. One may only form one’s own equally irrational crowd and concoct equally fatuous and absurd slogans. Persuasion fails with a crowd–there are only the responses of incitement, apathy and hysterical enthusiasm. As persuasion goes, so go the chances for a free order and ordered liberty.
The most important immediate lesson to take away is this: if the majority of people can be so completely, unforgiveably wrong about even the simple facts concerning something so vitally and basically important to the country as starting a sizeable war, how can it be trusted to judge any matter with even the slightest wisdom or accuracy? This is to say nothing of the limited, nay, non-existent ability of “the people” to seriously interpret the facts once known.
Conservatives abhor abstractions, but mass, majoritarian regimes live by abstractions and slogans as their means of conveying and gathering information. Honest and good government requires patience, sagacity, critical thinking and a breadth of knowledge–“the people” possesses little or none of these. Perhaps recognising their own limitations, “the people” entrusts its fate to increasingly arbitrary leaders, who inevitably mislead them because there cease to be any consequences to misleading them and who inevitably abuse their power because they will have a loyal coterie of followers according to party no matter what they do.
Perhaps there is something in the human constitution that lures us to this excessive willingness to trust powerful people whom we do not know, and this tendency seems to only be strengthened when the powerful people whom we do not know claim to “work for” us. While this putative relationship of employer and employee (or perhaps master and servant is more apt) should make us less tolerant of politicians’ incompetence and wrongdoing, it actually makes us more indulgent. Is this willingness to trust in “leaders” a religious impulse gone awry, the replacement for a decayed faith, or a means to increase one’s own importance by some association with an ostensibly great personage? No one can say for sure. But the overall conclusion could not be more clear: mass participation in the political process strengthens all of the worst tendencies of government to commit abuses and guards against virtually none of them in any effective way.
The same evils exist in other regimes, but none of the others so seductively ensnares the subjects with the promise that they are the ones who actually rule, and therefore none of them induces such base and disgusting servility in the face of blatant wrongdoing. So long as the public is lulled into the sleep that the government answers to them, they will not rail against injustice but become the more resigned to its actual practice in the false belief that the system will eventually root out abuses and punish those who violate the public trust. No other sort of regime lends what would otherwise be recognised as the most dreadful, dishonourable and dishonest actions the air of credibility and virtue that popular approval bestows.
In our current regime, until such time as an overwhelming majority repudiates the lie (and it was a lie–there is no other word for it) that Iraq had WMDs or ties to al-Qaeda or 9/11 the other side of the debate is forced to take this ridiculous opinion seriously, and its purveyors continue to be respected as intelligent and informed individuals. This is perhaps the greatest mockery and the most astonishing aspect of mass majoritarianism.
The average citizen, led on by his chosen demagogues, will believe the demagoguery he finds more soothing to his preconceived notions. As the latest polls indicate, those who refuse to believe the President was wrong will not be swayed by anything so secondary as evidence. Critical thought is not even in the picture. This is why liberals fell over themselves to call for Serbian blood when Clinton was bombing Yugoslavia and why Republicans have made such fools of themselves backing up every single falsehood put out by this White House. None of them is interested in truth, and none of them is primarily interested in the national interest properly understood. The chief interest is in silencing the opposition, ridiculing it and dismissing it to the fringes. That is perhaps a reality of political life, but we should cease kidding ourselves that it provides us with either good or accountable government. It creates two rival gangs of slaves who grapple with each other to amuse and gain honours for their owners. Let’s not have any illusions about what parties are: they are systems of owning one’s allegiance and one’s own will, but in a way that offers no reciprocity, no promise of protection, no care for dependents. Our fathers warned us against faction. Once again, they knew better than we.