The Vice President's Popularity Contest
"If I were in business to be popular, I suppose I'd be worried about my poll ratings and so forth. I'm not." Vice President Dick Cheney, on Larry King Live, 7/31/07.
Americans have gotten used to President Bush and, on those occasions when he deigns to interact with the public, Vice President Cheney insulting our opinions. Polls don't matter, they insist. It's not about being popular, our elected leaders claim, with no apparent sense of irony. They don't care if a majority of Americans want U.S. troops out of Iraq. President Bush once declared he would not withdraw from Iraq even if his wife Laura and his dog Barney were the only ones left supporting him.
An outside observer watching Bush and Cheney trash popular opinion might not realize that these men are, at least in theory, elected officials in a democracy.
Cheney claims he is not in business to be popular. In fact, Cheney is only "in business" because, hard as it may be to believe, he and President Bush were once popular, or at least popular enough to win a majority of votes in the electoral college-twice.
President Bush's father had a similar contempt for popular sentiment. Like his son, Poppy Bush liked to dismiss poll results as a distraction (until a "poll" in November 1992 forced him out of office).
I was in college when the elder President Bush was in office and I remember a professor of mine who pointed out that, in a democracy, polls should matter. That doesn't mean polls should decide every issue. We have a representative democracy-we elect people to decide most issues for us on a day to day basis. But elected officials in a democracy should still care what people think, especially about the major issues of the day. Politicians who really believe in democracy should have some respect for popular viewpoints. One wonders whether men like Bush and Cheney, who are so dismissive of public opinion, truly believe in democracy -- that what ordinary people want, matters.
Most elected officials want to get re-elected, and are forced, at least some times, to be responsive to popular opinion. But even Bush and Cheney who (we should be so lucky) will never appear on a ballot again, should know better than to be completely dismissive of public opinion. For one thing, it is difficult to be a successful politician when your signature issue (for Bush, the war in Iraq) is opposed by a substantial majority of the populace. This has real consequences: witness Republicans in the Senate (many of whom will find themselves on a ballot as soon as next year) criticizing or even abandoning the administration's policy, such as it is, on Iraq.
Perhaps the most important reason why Bush and Cheney shouldn't be so contemptuous of popular opinion is, again, the fact that we live in a constitutional democracy. "Popularity" and "poll ratings" shouldn't be dirty words in our system. "We the people" are the basis, the raison d'etre, for our system-it says so right in the first three words of our Constitution. We are the source of all governmental authority. What we think is worthy of attention, even if we're not always right.
Going it alone and bucking the consensus may play well in a John Wayne or Bruce Willis movie. But our elected officials should have more respect for what's popular. They may not always agree with us-but if they disagree, they should take the time to confront our views. When Bush and Cheney dismiss, out of hand, the majority of Americans who believe the war in Iraq was a mistake and our troops should come home, they are, quite literally, telling us that they do not care what we think. In a democracy, that should be unacceptable.