Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

The War on Terror and Democratic Efficiency

with 2 comments

Glenn Greenwald has a post calling out those Democrats who have embraced an all-powerful presidency as long as it’s in the hands of a Democrat.  While it’s been clear for some time that this was true, in light of the recent release of the so-called ‘white paper’ (Greenwald calls it the DOJ kill list memo), a surprising number of commentators are now admitting it.  At the same time, many others have suddenly been discussing and criticizing the kill list policy despite the fact that very little new information has come to light.

In response to criticisms of these policies, it is a common retort that the public demands it. That is, it is the public, not elites that are driving this. And since we are a democracy, its inevitable that policies the public supports will win out. Greenwald demolishes this claim.

Beyond the inherent dangers of fealty to political leaders for partisan gain, this behavior has a substantial effect on the ability to fight radical government policies. Progressives often excuse Obama’s embrace of these extremist Bush/Cheney terror policies on the ground that Americans support these policies and therefore he’s constrained. But that claim reverses causation: it is true that politicians sometimes follow public opinion, but it’s also true that public opinion often follows politicians.

In particular, whenever the two political parties agree on a policy, it is almost certain that public opinion will overwhelmingly support it. When Obama was first inaugurated in 2009, numerous polls showed pluralities or even majorities in support of investigations into Bush-era criminal policies of torture and warrantless eavesdropping. That was because many Democrats believed Obama would pursue such investigations (because he led them to believe he would), but once he made clear he opposed those investigations, huge numbers of loyal Democrats followed their leader and joined Republicans in opposing them, thus creating majorities against them.

Obama didn’t refrain from investigating Bush-era crimes because public opinion opposed that. The reverse was true: public opinion supported those investigations, and turned against them only once Obama announced he opposed them. We see this over and over: when Obama was in favor of closing Guantanamo and ending Bush-era terrorism policies, large percentages supported him (and even elected him as he advocated that), but then once he embraced those policies as his own, large majorities switched and began supporting them.

Progressive willingness to acquiesce to or even outright support Obama’s radical policies – in the name of partisan loyalty – are precisely what ensures the continuation of those policies.

This should come as no surprise.  It’s long been obvious that elite activities often drive polling results (which is a measure of some phenomenon called public opinion, not the thing itself) and that there is often a broad disconnect between what the public says in polls and what elites do in both domestic and foreign policy. But using the normative idea of democracy as an unexamined lens for understanding the realities of politics obscures this. This episode is as good an illustration of the problem of the idea of democratic efficiency as one could hope for.

Democratic efficiency, used to justify elite actions by blaming the people, is a cop-out.

A couple of other notes:

Falguni A. Sheth has more on the white paper.

Crooked Timber has a post discussing post-democracy.

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Written by David Kaib

February 12, 2013 at 7:25 am

2 Responses

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  1. […] public ‘support’ for policies that enjoy strong elite support is a standard element of democratic efficiency. Nor was Kornacki alone. Such claims had been […]

  2. […] often done. I’ve objected to idea that submerged state polices are caused by the public, that the drone program and mass surveillance are products of public opinion and how death penalty opinions are […]


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