The Wisdom of the American People?


De Tocqueville: Flattery will get you elected.

The phrase “the wisdom of the American people” appears in The New York Times’ s archive precisely 50 times. The first iteration was in 1856 (five years after the newspaper’s founding), describing an address by Senator Sam Houston of Texas, on North-South tensions; read in the light of history, it is redolent with dramatic irony: “He hoped, however, and believed they would terminate without any fearful disaster to the Union, and that the wisdom of the American people would leave some remedy for these struggles.”

It wasn’t until a century or so later that the phrase would become a trope, a box that candidates for national office absolutely had to check. Dwight D. Eisenhower kicked off his 1952 campaign by averring that “the energies, courage, endurance, and wisdom of the American people constitute a titanic force.” Since then, every president has mouthed some variation on the theme. Jimmy Carter said, “I want a government as good as the American people.” His successor, Ronald Reagan, was the greatest flatterer of all, on one occasion intoning, “I have never failed when I trusted the wisdom of the American people.”

Bill Clinton said (on the day the House voted to begin an impeachment inquiry against him), “I trust the wisdom of the American people.” And at the Democratic National Convention this past July, Barack Obama said, “The America I know is full of courage, and optimism, and ingenuity. The America I know is decent and generous.”

The evidence would suggest that these politicians are dissembling or dissociating. Five years ago, The Daily Beast gave the U.S. citizenship test to a random group of registered voters. True, 62 percent correctly answered at least six of the 10 questions, which constitutes a passing grade. Of course, that meant 38 percent failed. Moreover, 80 percent couldn’t name the U.S. president during World War I; 61 percent didn’t know the length of a Senate term; 29 percent couldn’t come up with Joe Biden as the name of the sitting vice president; and 63 percent couldn’t say how many justices serve on the Supreme Court. (A separate survey found that 65 percent of Americans cannot name a single justice on the court.)

Our ignorance is not limited to matters of state. A 2014 National Science Foundation survey found 26 percent of American think the sun revolves around the earth; 52 percent do not believe that humans evolved from other animals; and 42 percent think astrology is either “very scientific” or “sort of scientific.”

Most famously, and shamefully, as late as 2015, according to a CNN survey, 29 percent of Americans — including 43 percent of Republicans — believed Barack Obama is a Muslim.

Some might counter that it isn’t just the American people who are stupid: people are stupid. A fair point. But we are on the whole stupider. In 2014 British researchers surveyed citizens of 13 developed countries on their perceptions of various conditions in their country, such as unemployment rate, life expectancy and percentage of citizens who are Muslim. The U.S. was the second most ignorant, behind Italy.

Plato’s principal argument against democracy was that the people, individually and collectively, are too unintelligent, self-serving and venal to be entrusted with making decisions on their own behalf. Two millennia later, the Founders wrestled with the issue, ultimately creating a republican system, with a substantial buffer zone between the will (or willfulness) of the people and the actions of the state.

Still, from the earliest stages of our country’s history, observers fretted about the extent to which we were a democracy. And one of the ills they focused on was the propensity of politicians to shamelessly butter up the populace. John Adams wrote in Thoughts on Government. “It is very easy to flatter the democratical portion of society, by making such distinctions between them and the monarchical and aristocratical; but flattery is as base an artifice, and as pernicious a vice, when offered to the people, as when given to the others.”

The Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville titled his 1835 magnum opus Democracy in America, and he devoted many passages to exploring the way Americans had idealized the common man, for good and ill. In Book 1, Chapter 15, he observed that politicians “are forever talking of the natural intelligence of the people whom they serve.” He characterized their general tack as

“We are aware that the people whom we are addressing are too superior to the weaknesses of human nature to lose the command of their temper for an instant. We should not hold this language if we were not speaking to men whom their virtues and their intelligence render more worthy of freedom than all the rest of the world.”

He concluded: “The sycophants of Louis XIV could not flatter more dexterously.”

Not surprisingly, H.L. Mencken had several good innings on the topic, including this riff:

When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental … . So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost.

The notion that politicians mendaciously pander to the public is actually slightly less scary than the possibility that they believe what they are saying. Mencken thought things were moving in that direction. He cautioned:

All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

He wrote that in 1920. Currently, the Republican nominee for president is a man who all evidence suggests is the least qualified major-party candidate in the history of the United States. He was put in that position by the American people — or, rather, the moiety of the American people who voted in this year’s Republican primaries.

And that idea in itself — that the populace comprises a collection of slices — might offer some ground for cautious optimism. Sure, significant quantities of our citizens are foolish, wise, bigoted, humane, and in possession of most any quality one could name. But maybe it’s true that the populace, as an entity, can transcend such contingencies. In recent years the “wisdom of the crowd” has been much discussed — the phenomenon whereby a bunch of observers, none of whom individually has a clue, can collectively reckon the number of small beans in a big jar, and perform other impressive mental feats.

Maybe all those politicians were and are on to something. Maybe as short-sighted, ill-informed and wrong as American people might be, the American people possess a clearer vision, possibly even wisdom. It could be our last best hope.

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