Governing by ‘Mass Passions’

We're hearing a lot these days from President Clinton regarding why he should not be impeached—mainly because he's sorry about "misleading" the American people. But last weekend he gave us a new reason that Congress should not vote to impeach. According to the polls, the president said, "around three-quarters of the American people think [censure] is the right thing to do." And, he rather testily suggested, Congress should not go against what the people want. So our policies are going to be set by the polls? Well, if that's what we're going to do, I have a few questions to ask the president—questions inspired by my good friend Bill Bennett. First, if we're going to determine policy by the polls, when is the president going to support a ban on partial-birth abortions? After all, the polls show that 88 percent of all Americans support such a ban. The president nonetheless has vetoed it every year. Second, when is the president going to throw his support behind school choice? Most Americans—83 percent, according to one poll—support greater choice in schools. The president adamantly opposes it. And when is President Clinton going to support a school prayer bill? The polls show a strong majority of Americans support such legislation. The polls also tell us that 74 percent of all Americans support parental consent when it comes to abortion. But the Clinton administration strongly opposes any such law. The truth is you can't have it both ways, Mr. President. You cannot say we should govern by the polls only when the polls are on your side. But of course, we don't—and shouldn't—govern by polls at all. Our Founding Fathers would have been horrified at the very idea. In fact, James Madison knew that the greater good often required going against popular opinion. In The Federalist Papers he explained the dangers of pandering to popular opinion. "There are moments in public affairs," Madison wrote, "when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage... may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn." Madison's answer to human frailty was republicanism with a small r. In a republican form of government, you see, the people don't decide important questions directly. Instead, they elect leaders who decide on their behalf—leaders, who should be endowed with virtue and wisdom. Our Founders were fearful of direct democracy. The idea was that representatives, unaffected by the demands of "irregular passions," could take a longer-term view of policies. They would sift popular passions through a process of reasoned and principled debate, until a consensus was reached. The Founders designed this safeguard because they were heirs to the Christian tradition with its belief in fallen human nature. Today—thanks to mass communications—popular passions are stirred up more swiftly than ever. People are polled about issues they may know little about—and politicians use those polls to inflame public passions for partisan purposes. That's why you and I need to help our neighbors understand why our leaders—not the polls—ought to determine whether or not the president is impeached. And by the way, Mr. President, if you're still determined to rule by the polls, I'll make a deal with you: I'll stop pushing for impeachment if you'll push for a ban on partial-birth abortion and get behind school prayer and school choice. Better yet, let's both forget the polls—and encourage Congress to do the right thing.  


Chuck Colson



  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary