From the birth of the American Republic, its citizens have been at the same time idolized and cursed, respected and distrusted, admired and feared, praised and damned. The question of the people's capacity for self-government certainly troubled the Constitution's authors. Cynical about human nature, Alexander Hamilton split his compatriots into two camps:

All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well born; the other the mass of the people. The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second....(1)

Aghast at the prospect of "ochlocracy" (mob rule), Hamilton strove to limit access to the levers of power. Direct democracy, he once declared, was a "disease" and a "poison."(2) Were he alive today, he would no doubt pale at the idea of plain folk participating in life-and-death decisions like nuclear proliferation.

Countless others have shared Hamilton's skepticism. Although these skeptics have not always been as biting, they too have expressed reservations about putting government in the hands of the common people. Walter Lippmann, one of the foremost journalists of the twentieth century, worried that democracies inevitably decay. The reason? Unrestrained public opinion. Statesmanship, Lippmann argued, requires wisdom, patience, discipline, deep knowledge of national and world affairs, and willingness to weigh the long-range consequences of an act against its immediate benefits--virtues that the public lacks. Hence, popular opinion and enlightened leadership invariably collide. Unfortunately, Lippmann concluded, the public was often "destructively wrong at...critical junctures" of American history and was sufficiently powerful that politicians had no choice except to "placate, appease, bribe, seduce, bamboozle, or...manipulate" their constituents.(3) This pandering to the masses created a "morbid derangement" of government, a potentially fatal "malady" unless people realized that society remains free only so long as its leaders have sufficient latitude to exercise their judgment.(4)

Opposing these skeptics another school holds the populace in higher esteem. Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend in 1816: "We both consider the people as our children. But you love them as infants whom you are afraid to trust without nurses; and I as adults whom I freely leave to self-government."(5)

Jefferson too has allies. One astute observer of American politics, V. O. Key, Jr., agreed that democracies might decay but questioned whether the cause lay with the public. Look instead, he recommended, at the nation's leaders:

...democracies decay, if they do, not because of the cupidity of the masses, but because of the stupidity and self-seeking of leadership echelons. Politicians often make of the public a scapegoat for their own shortcomings; their actions, they say, are a necessity for survival given the state of public opinion. Yet the opinion itself results from the preachings of the influentials, of this generation and of several past generations.(6)

Skeptics Versus Optimists

Out of this debate two schools of thought emerge. One, the skeptics, maintain that human frailties make mass participation in politics both impractical and undesirable. Ordinary people simply lack the requisite knowledge, skills, and motivations to act responsibly.(7) They place immediate gratification of wants ahead of the long-run interests of the commonwealth. Conceding that the populace is the ultimate source of political authority (popular sovereignty, in the language of Chapter 1), these doubters nevertheless believe that the affairs of state are best left to trained, experienced, and dispassionate public servants. Periodic elections, interest groups, the media, and town meetings suffice to keep leaders in line and air grievances. A large dose of apathy is healthy for the country, in fact, since the masses can be overly demanding and tempestuous and, unless reined in, are likely to trample political insitutions. In a nutshell, this school takes a dim view of the public's capacity for self-government.(8)

The skeptics' rivals, the optimists, recognize the public's many shortcomings but still insist that most citizens have more intelligence and decency than critics realize. Furthermore, the common people's flaws result not from inborn weaknesses but from defective social and political institutions that limit information and discourage participation. The body politic can govern itself responsibly if given the chance, and therefore "average" men and women should become more, not less, involved in public affairs.

The debate between the two schools is particularly heated in the area of foreign affairs. The disagreement is worth exploring because so much of what government does involves international relations and because it is an area the common person often avoids.

Foreign Policy: The Moody American

What do average people know and think about the world? When Gabriel Almond posed that question more than 30 years ago, he arrived at an unsettling answer. Americans, Almond concluded, react to foreign policy in a moody, rather than thoughtful, way. The mood may vary from indifference to fatalism to anger, but it was almost always a "superficial and fluctuating response."(9) Almond did not intend to be uncharitable to his compatriots; he simply believed that they were so involved with their immediate private concerns that they lacked the time and energy to stay abreast of world events.(10) Nevertheless, writing as if describing a smoldering volcano that periodically erupts in a storm of fire and ash, he described the public mood as "essentially...unstable" and prone to "dangerous overreactions."(11) Others have shared his concern. George Kennan, a principal architect of U.S. foreign policy after World War II, said:

...a democracy is uncomfortably similar to one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin...he is slow to wrath--in fact, you practically have to whack his tail off to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed; but once he grasps this, he lays about him such blind determination that he not only destroys his adversary but largely wrecks his native habitat.(12)

Another postwar diplomat, W. Averell Harriman, feared that his fellow citizens would simply wash their hands of events taking place overseas and "go to the movies and drink Coke."(13)

Hard numbers seem to back up these impressions. Charles W. Kegley and Eugene Wittkopf cite data indicating an ignorance of and disinterest in foreign affairs: 28 percent of the respondents in 1964 did not know that the Communists controlled the mainland of China; in 1950 and again in 1966 only about one-third of the samples could identify the secretary of state; and less than half of the individuals interviewed in 1978 said they were "very interested" in reading about international relations.(14)

To the skeptics the lesson is unmistakable. Since the masses are simultaneously tempestuous and poorly informed, their involvement in decisionmaking would only muddy the water. Better that they stay out of the way so leaders have the room to conduct the delicate negotiations essential for successful diplomacy.

Optimists, however, challenge the mood theory head on. Their research indicates that changes in public attitudes are quite reasonable and understandable and should not be attributed to shifts in "mood." Instead, spcific international events and political circumstances "quite naturally" shape citizens' views of what policies the United States outht to pursue.(15) Similarly, William Caspary and John Mueller, two political scientists working independently, contend that the masses have consistently backed their government's foreign policy.

In Caspary's words, "American public opinion is characterized by a strong and stable 'permissive mood' toward international involvements."(16)

A key question for students of American government, then, is: How much can ordinary citizens actually know and do to influence the decisions that ultimately shape their lives and futures? Since the skeptics and optimists answer so differently, it is extremely important to find out who is right. For as mentioned at the outset, public opinion lies at the heart of democratic theory. To understand who governs and indeed decide how much democracy is possible in a large industrial nation, one must first analyze common people's attitudes and beliefs, not the Congress or the bureaucracy or the courts. This topic is discussed here and in the next chapter. First, though, it is helpful to have a conceptual framework--a toolbox of sorts--for analyzing attitudes, because the public's opinions, it turns out, are not as easy to fathom as they first seem.

1. Alexander Hamilton, "Speech on the Constitutional Convention on a Plan of Government," in Selected Writings and Speeches of Alexander Hamilton, edited by Morton J. Frisch (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1985) p. 108.

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2. Quoted in Gerald Stourzh, Alexander Hamilton and The Idea of Republican Government (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1970) p. 40.

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3. Walter Lippmann, The Public Philosophy (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1955), pp. 20, 27.

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4. Ibid., p.27.

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5. Quoted in Democracy, edited by Saul K. Padover (New York: The Greenwood Press, 1939) p. 56.

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6. V. O. Key, Jr. Public Opinion and American Democracy (New York: Knopf, 1964) p. 557.

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7. Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, 3rd ed. (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1975) pp. 260-61.

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8. For an argument along these lines but expressed in a far more sophisticated manner, see Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba, The Civic Culture (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1963) pp. 479-87.

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9. Gabriel Almond, The American People and Foreign Policy (New York: Praeger, 1960) p. 53. (Originally published by Harcourt, Brace, and Company, Inc., 1950.)

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10. Ibid., p. 76.

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11. Ibid., p. 53.

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12. Quoted in Sheldon Appleton, United States Foreign Policy (Boston: Little Brown Co., 1968) p. 43.

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13. Quoted in Daniel Yergin, The Shattered Peace (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Co. 1977) p. 172.

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14. Charles W. Kegley and Eugene R. Wittkopf, American Foreign Policy 2nd ed. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982) pp. 272-73.

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15. Benjamin I. Page and Robert Y. Shapiro, "Changes in America's Policy Preferences, 1935-1979," Public Opinion Quarterly, 46 (Winter, 1982) p. 34.

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16. William Caspary, "The 'Mood Theory': A Study of Public Opinion and Foreign Policy," American Political Science Review , v 64 (June, 1970) p. 546. Also John E. Mueller, War, Presidents and Public Opinion (New York: John Wiley, 1973).

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