The Readings for Democracy in America unit
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Unit 11 Readings, Public Opinion: Voice of the People
- IntroductionPublic Opinion: Voice of the People
- Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Political Associations
in the United States
- Paine, Common Sense
- Federalist Papers: Federalist No. 10
- Hahn, Student Views of Democracy: The Good News and Bad
What did Tocqueville suggest was the constitutive element
How did Paine distinguish between society and government?
Within whom does the freedom of the state reside in a republic,
according to Paine? In what way is it determined?
How did Tocqueville explain the prominence of social organizations
within the United States?
IntroductionPublic Opinion: Voice of the People
President George Bush derisively dismissed President William Clintons
administration as governing by polls. While there is no evidence that
the Bush administration was any less interested in the polls than
previous administrations were, this claim does reveal a public perception
of the use and abuse of polls. While everyone would agree that government
should do what citizens want it to do, if administrations follow the
dictates of the polls too slavishly they appear to lack leadership.
Tocqueville explained that above the governments institutions,
and beyond all these characteristic forms, there is a sovereign
power, that of the people, which may destroy or modify them at its
pleasure. The many ways that the sovereign people influenced
the government was a central concern for Tocqueville. It remains
to be shown in what manner this power, superior to the laws, acts;
what are its instincts and its passions, what the secret springs that
retard, accelerate, or direct its irresistible course, what the effects
of its unbounded authority, and what the destiny that is reserved
for it (179). Here at the beginning of the twenty-first century,
the power and presence of public opinion polls challenges constitutional
government and, in connection with the growth of mass culture, threatens
individualism and difference.
The Constitution creates and limits the institutions of government.
The reliance by the government on opinion polls for support and legitimacy
undermines the role of the Constitution in creating governmental legitimacy
by giving the branches the power to do whatever the people will allow.
For example, in the twentieth century, the executive branch has become
the branch of government most involved in war-making. This flies in
the face of the constitutional grants of war-making power, most explicitly
the power of Congress to declare war. This function is now routinely
performed by the presidency. This fundamental constitutional change
occurred without a change in the actual document.
Tocqueville noticed that in America there was a tendency for people
to look to mass culture for opinion. The pressures of equality, Tocqueville
believed, would make authority less appealing to Americans to such
a degree that that they would be less willing to take direction from
local authorities. He believed, similarly to Madisons account
in Federalist No. 10, that local communities and differences
would become less important and less valued as the attention of American
citizens was commanded by the national public. This identification
with the national government, Tocqueville and Madison believed, would
reduce the power and saliency of local identifications and reduce
the political activity of American citizens. The production of national
polls can emphasize this tendency to look to an abstract national
identification for guidance and authority.
The readings for this chapter cover several aspects of this problem.
The central challenge to democracy foreseen by Tocqueville and institutionalized
by Madison constitutes the core reading. Caroline Hahns article
on the surveys of school children reveals some interesting opinions
and beliefs of school children in an example of an interesting opinion
survey. These readings contribute to any attempt to understand the
destiny of the people.