Alyssa Battistoni has an article in Salon today about why politicians are right to distrust voters. Her argument is that polling only gives us peoples’ opinions, which is not expertise. I think it is a fairly obvious position to take to most who follow closely; that the electorate is largely ill-informed about the intricacies of policy is no surprise. But I have never thought about how that might affect how politicians choose to cast votes, even though I have been quite skeptical about relying on opinion polls as evidence about public support for a policy position (and they certainly have no bearing as to whether a particular position is “right”). The issue, as Battistoni puts it, is that politicians are unable to make the difficult policy choices that need to be made for fear of opponents using it against them in a campaign:
Take defense spending. Politicians know that no matter how many voters say they support cuts in the defense budget, anyone who actually tries to reduce defense spending will be vulnerable to soft-on-defense attacks from opponents. And voting to reduce defense spending only to see another terrorist attack occur — as one almost inevitably will, no matter how much we spend – is many politicians’ worst nightmare.
Tough choices need to be made, which means some programs will need to be scaled back. The question is: Who will have the courage to do what must be done? I can only say that I have no reason to believe that it will be the Republican party that chooses to exercise this responsibility. Sadly, the antics of that party and its supporters will make it difficult for the spineless Democrats to take up that responsibility, as well.