The will of the people and other illusions

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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45 Responses

  1. Trumwill says:

    I used to be one of those “partisanship is terrible” people. And I still don’t like it. But I think the best way to look at it sometimes is through the same sort of adversarial position our legal system has. The system is made better by defense attorneys and civil litigation attorneys whose job it is to defend the position of their client whether they think their client is right or wrong. The same can be said of partisanship where it’s the minority’s job to paint everything the majority does as crypto-totalitarian. Of course, the problem with this is that it’s always the minority doing it!Report

    • MFarmer in reply to Trumwill says:

      The problem is that we’re divided – as we fight partisan battles and government changes parties every so often, the State itself grows in power. It will take a unified, concerted effort from the private sector, liberals, conservatives and libertarians, to beat back Leviatan.Report

  2. MFarmer says:

    “TSA or no, we’re likely to be saddled with some oppressive, privacy-killing security apparatus no matter what we do.”

    Yes, there’s little comfort in being right or wrong about privatization. Truly private security, with the threat of competition, would be better, but as long as government is setting the rules, we’ll have what we have. We’re being frightened into expansion of State power and silence regarding two unjustified wars. We have border security keeping the world safe from Willie Nelson’s smoking preferences, though — and we have law enforcement helping teenagers devise bombing plots so we can actually arrest a “terrorist”. Actually, there is no comfort.Report

  3. Mark Boggs says:

    In other words, millions of liberals can live with indefinite detention for accused terrorists and intimate body scans for everyone else, so long as a Democrat is overseeing them. And millions of conservatives find wartime security measures vastly more frightening when they’re pushed by Janet “Big Sis” Napolitano (as the Drudge Report calls her) rather than a Republican like Tom Ridge.

    Was it Jeanne Kirkpatrick who once justified the U.S.’s relationship with a dictator by saying something to the extent that, “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” That sounds like the partisan mindset of which Douthat speaks. And it seems that, in many cases, we justify our support for these guys because “they still support (insert one or two pet causes) with which I agree and know damn well the other side would work against these things. So, yes, my guy is utterly disgusting on these 7 or 8 issues and in many ways is indistinguishable from what the other guy would have done or was doing, but I gotta support him because he still supports X. And…he’s a (insert political party name here).”

    This two party thing sucks.Report

    • Trumwill in reply to Mark Boggs says:

      Like democracy in general, it’s the worst possible thing except all other things on the table. I’ll take the two-party system over its alternatives.Report

      • Mark Boggs in reply to Trumwill says:

        Well, I’m certainly not arguing for a one-party state. However, I think the system might actually be more productive, and I mean that in a good sense, if there were more than one alternative.Report

        • Simon K in reply to Mark Boggs says:

          The problem is that more than one alternative doesn’t mean you really get more than one alternative. It means that instead of potential governing coalitions being formed before the election and presented to the people as two viable options, everyone gets the luxury of voting for their principles by selecting the tiny party of their choice, and then the governing coalition is formed after the election without any input from the electorate.Report

          • mark boggs in reply to Simon K says:

            But Simon, I get the sense that this may actually compel politicians to get out of their binary pattern. Since it isn’t a matter of us v. them anymore but an us v. them v. them v. them and them. It seems that if two guys who hate each other are left in a room to make decisions, neither will yeild an inch, no matter if the idea is good. But if you have three, four, or five guys in a room, you might be able to actually come to a consensus that circumvents the us v. them bitterness.Report

  4. Barrett Brown says:

    Although I agree with the assertion that this is in some way what the American people asked for in a general sense in the aftermath of 9/11, I agree with you that we should be a bit more nuanced in describing anything the government does as “the will of the people.” Certainly these policy implementations are translations of a message that the populace at large sends by virtue of voting for, funding, and otherwise supporting individual candidates and parties, but they remain just that – translations, undergone via a necessarily imperfect process of instituting the will of the majority that is corrupted from conception by the populace to implementation by the state through a thousand dynamics. Individual citizens – even a majority of them – do not sign off on each policy, and of course most are not even aware of the policies to begin with. So, yes, in a general sense, what the government does is a manifestation of the “will of the people,” but not in any exact sense. Having said all of that, the people in this case deserve much worse than they’ve gotten so far; 9/11 was a test of whether those who claim to prefer liberty to security really mean it, and it turned out that a lot them did not.Report

    • 62across in reply to Barrett Brown says:

      I’m with you completely here.

      Any thoughts on how to move “the people” off this mindset?Report

      • Barrett Brown in reply to 62across says:

        No, I’ve given up on that. Instead, I’m involved in the development of a parallel institution intended to integrate large numbers of people of the sort who do not need their hands held through history into a single distributed entity based on a schematic I’ve designed for the purpose of allowing them to collaborate on the various situations that need addressing. The entity is capable of growing perpetually without suffering any measurable loss in the average quality of its participants and without any further central direction from myself.Report

    • MFarmer in reply to Barrett Brown says:

      You could say that the “will of the people” was expressed when Obama and a Democrat majority were elected, and that Obama ran on ending civil liberties violations and dealing with terrorism in a much dfferent fashion — this is supposedly what gained him the independent and libertarian votes — closing Gitmo, bringing troops home, reforming the Patriot Act violations- how does what’s happening now square with the “will of the people” if that will elected Obama?Report

      • Barrett Brown in reply to MFarmer says:

        I think you can look at it as the “will of the people” having been misguided to the extent that the people wanted those civil liberties restored and believed that Obama would restore them upon taking hold of the executive branch.Report

      • North in reply to MFarmer says:

        In the order you present the examples:

        Close Gitmo: He tried but a unified GOP opposition, voter indifference when it came down to it plus utterly feckless congressional Dems and his own unwillingness to spend serious capital on the issue caused him to fail.

        Bringing the troops home: He partially has, drawing down in Iraq but either the people at the Pentagon can make a really good arguement against withdrawing completely or he’s terrified of causing a ‘Nam redux because he’s since reversed course on that in Afghanistan.

        Reforminging the Patriot Act/draining the tourture swamp: He never tried. He had a choice; commit his first term entirely to unravelling Bushes abominations and the conflagration that would ensue if he confronted it or punt and then have the time and energy to persue other goals. Obama chose the latter. History will judge whether it was a feckless choice or a prescient one.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Barrett Brown says:


      a message that the populace at large sends by virtue of voting

      Wrong. There is in fact no message. See Condorcet’s Paradox and Arrow’s Theorem.Report

      • Scott in reply to James Hanley says:


        I think you are the one that is wrong. Don’t both Condorcet’s Paradox and Arrow’s Theorem require a situation where there are three choices? In an American election there are usually only two choices, either Dem or Repub.Report

        • Heidegger in reply to Scott says:

          Scott, you’re correct. This paradox can only exists when you have three choices. You can’t arrive at a symetrical impasse/paradox otherwise. The “will of the people” clearly does exist whether you agree with the messsage or not. The most recent election results were certainly a very good example of the “will of the people” speaking out, as was, Prop 8.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to Scott says:


          Dem and Repub are compilations of multiple underlying choices. They make the system functional by restricting the number of choices presented to the voters, but they don’t make those underlying issues go away. E.g., voting Democratic doesn’t actually reveal where a voter stands on each of the Democratic Party issues of national health care, cap-and-trade, stricter environmental regulations, higher business taxes, repeal of Bush tax cuts, pro-choice, affirmative action, etc. In my own case, I voted for Barack Obama, but it was actually a vote against McCain/Palin, and was cast despite my opposition to Biden’s vice-presidency and what I predicted would be Obama’s economic policies.

          But even in an election with precisely two options, neither more nor less, we can’t speak meaningfully about the will of the people, unless the vote is unanimous, because the will of some of those people remains unfulfilled. If a group of, say, 6 of us, are traveling, and we stop in a podunk town for lunch, and the only two options for dining are Bubba’s Burgers and Sally’s Salads, and the vote is 4-2 for burgers, is that really the will of “the” people? Are the salad eaters not part of “the people”? Does their will not simply get outvoted, but actually disappeared? It’s precisely because of that marginalization of what is often a very large subset of the population that I think the whole concept of “the will of the people” is simply ridiculous at its best, and potentially very dangerous at its worst. (“The people have spoken. It is the will of the people that homosexuals be executed.”) I really don’t see the value of ever using a term that is, at best, simply ridiculous, unless we are consciously using it for the purpose of ridicule.

          [Heidegger: Note that you simply assert there’s such a thing as “the will of the people.” You don’t actually provide an argument for why we should discount dissenting wills from the collective we call “the people.”]Report

          • Heidegger in reply to James Hanley says:

            James, unless you’re living in a country ruled by Hitler, (or Saddam), electoral unanimty does not exist as a possibility. Which, if I understand you correctly, means such a thing as, “will of the people” cannot ever be a reality. It’s not that the losing side is dismissed or discounted, it’s just that their views and positions are not represented by the majority of elected officials. “Will of the people” can only, therefore, be considered as a majority of +1. Sucks if you’re on the losing side, but what could be the alternative? National Socialism?Report

            • Heidegger in reply to Heidegger says:

              James, Re: Will of the people. I’m wondering, what happens to a conquered people? Who runs the store? The banks? The treasury? The police? Can the conquerors simply go into an art museum and take any works of art they happen to like? Can they go, willy nilly, into homes and kick the occupants out? Does such a thing as private property cease to exist under such circumstances? Thinking of Hitler’s rout of France–to the victor go the spoils. How does a conqueror gain total administrative control of a conquered country? Do they pay taxes to the conqueror’s country? Sorry—too many damned questions!Report

  5. James Hanley says:

    There’s no sense in which the “will of the people” is a meaningful construct. And I, for one, sure as hell didn’t ask for these particular security measures, and I’ll thank Ms. Potts not to take it upon herself to speak for me anymore.

    Or am I not “one of the people” by virtue of my objections?Report

    • James K in reply to James Hanley says:

      And let’s not forget Arrow’s Impossibly Theorem either. One of the corollaries of the theorem is that there’s no such thing as coherent collective preferences. As such the “will of the people” is an entirely incoherent proposition.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James K says:

        James K,

        And yet people persist in imagining that there is such a thing as a public preference that is perfectly transitive.Report

        • James K in reply to James Hanley says:

          What can I say? The Divine Right of Popular Opinion is one of our foundational social myths. If there was no such thing as a collective preference, then majority rule starts to look a little arbitrary.Report

  6. MFarmer says:

    Another way of looking at this is that “the will of the people” is not what America is supposed to be about. Our form of government was designed to prevent tyranny of the majority — a limited government prevents the “will of the people”, as it relates to promoting government intervention, from being enacted, as bad as that sounds to many.Report

  7. Geoff Arnold says:

    James Fallows has effectively exposed the rank hypocrisy of the Douhat column. See Your enthusiasm for it is frankly inexplicable.Report

    • MFarmer in reply to Geoff Arnold says:

      Actually Fallows is making Douthat’s point. Anyone who can’t find partisan hypocrisy among liberals is truly partisan-blinded.Report

      • tom van dyke in reply to MFarmer says:

        The blowback on President Obama himself has been nil. Had the last president implemented this, mentioning “jackboots” would be de rigeur for any commentary from the leftosphere.

        Fallows on Douthat, running the gamut from A to B.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Geoff Arnold says:


      Actually, it’s the Fallows column that’s inexplicable. He says;

      But are there any cases of movement the other way? Illustrations of liberals or Democrats who denounced “security theater” and TSA/DHS excesses in the Republican era, but defend them now? If such people exist, I’m not aware of them

      How about the L.A. Times editorial telling us to “shut up and be scanned”? The L.A. Times has indeed become less liberal of late, but it’s hardly the Weekly Standard.

      Or how about Michael Kinsley, who says he wants his junk to be touched?

      Or Slate columnist William Saletan?

      OK, I don’t know where these guys stood before, but they’re all liberals or represent liberal publications, so Fallows isn’t looking very hard if he thinks there aren’t liberals defending the current security theater shenanigans.Report

      • Trumwill in reply to James Hanley says:

        The problem is that we don’t know where these guys stood before. If they weren’t denouncing Bush for clamping down on the airports, it’s quite possible (maybe likely) that they were quietly supportive. In which case, they’re guilty of selectively voicing up their opinions and not necessarily guilty of changing them depending who is in power.

        It’s a pretty human thing. If someone you don’t like is doing something that doesn’t bother you, you’re more likely to keep quiet about it. But when your guy is doing it and people you don’t like are criticizing him for it, it becomes a bigger deal.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Geoff Arnold says:


      Anyway, my rejoinder to Fallows would be something like the following:

      The editorial boards of the various newspapers would qualify as “liberals” who argued against such things as warrantless wiretapping and so on who are now telling folks to shut up and get their junk touched.

      Fallow’s article talks about Republicans who have jumped from the pro-TSA to the anti-TSA side… but what about Democrats who have jumped from anti-TSA to pro?

      Well, that’s because the left has long been fans of the TSA… and if you don’t mind me conflating the left with “The Nation”, I have evidence of that here:


  8. trizzlor says:

    Given how much authority is concentrated in Washington, especially in the executive branch, even a hypocritical and inconsistent opposition is better than no opposition at all.

    This seems like a summarily idiotic statement. Inconsistent and hypocritical opposition is clearly worse than no opposition not just because it is wrong on its face but because and it also drowns out those voices who are not hypocritical and actually make valid points. If all I did was watch cable news and see Krauthammer – of all people – flying the “don’t touch my junk” flag I would rightfully assume that all opposition to the new TSA procedures were a cheap partisan attack on Obama and I would be much less inclined to trust the valid arguments. This kind of “all opinions are good opinions” mindset is exactly why government is so stagnant right now; and a stagnant government is worse than no government.Report

  9. Michael Drew says:

    Millions of people who opposed things that Bush did also lived with them. No one ever seriously put rebellion on the table that I was aware of. The same people (and others) are doing the same things under Obama – opposing policies while living with them. If you can find people explicitly arguing the opposite position from the one they did under Bush on the same exact question question, then okay you have some evidence. Otherwise, the differences in views and actions of millions of unnamed “liberals” under the two regimes are being overstated by Douthat et al. If the point is just that the politicians themselves flip-flopped after taking power from the positions they took while out of power, well congrats, you’ve made an astute observation. Trying, however, to lump together the views of private, unnamed masses of people under an applied ideological label with the actions of readily identifiable politicians is not responsible. These are two separate questions.Report

  10. Simon K says:

    The problem with “The Will of the People” is that its fickle and self-contradictory. People want to be convinced that they can fly safely and they want to get through the airport in half an hour without anyone fondling or ogling their private parts. We want to be able to afford health insurance for their families and to be able choose any doctor they like and have whatever tests and procedures they feel inclined towards that day paid for. We want the government to provide a decent social safety and to have to pay only a small amount of taxes and to have the government not a run a persistent budget deficit. We want a decent return on our savings, low inflation, and the government not to bail out banks. Oh, and a pony.

    People may want these contradictory things to different extents and therefore join on coalition or another, or they may just pick an team and stick with it even when it collectively turns on a dime and changes its mind. But fundamentally, we all want all of these things, and we tend to demand that the state provide them. When times are tough, the contradictions in the demands just get louder and more pronounced.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Simon K says:

      All great examples of self-contradictoriness in individual person’s wills. But the problem with the “will of the people,” I reiterate, is that there is in fact no such thing, and cannot be such a thing. A group cannot actually have a will, in the sense that an individual can, because it has no discrete mind. And the aggregate of people’s individual wills cannot create a group will because there is no aggregation method that can accurately represent in a single utility function the multiple utility functions of those people.

      Rather than say “the will of the people is self-contradictory,” it is better to just emphasize that “the concept of the will of the people is self-contradictory.”Report

      • Simon K in reply to James Hanley says:

        I agree that a group can’t really have a will. Pretending it can is a sort of rhetorical convenience that sometimes works, but rarely on the scale of 300 million people. Does it help to acknowledge this, though? People tend to reject circumstances that force them to make distressing choices, so, for example, pretending that all tax cuts enhance revenue, or that the social security trust fund is something other than a claim on future tax revenues.

        But more importantly, we still have to make those distressing choices. Even if we limit the decision to people who acknowledge there’s a decision to be made and that unicorns and fairies won’t show up to do the dishes and take out the trash, we still don’t actually agree with each other or really have any procedure for resolving conflicting preferences between contradictory goods. This actually comes down to Arrow’s Theorem, now I think about it – there is no decision procedure we’d generally acknowledge as fair and sensible to decide which option to choose.

        We can try to restructure things so there are as few such decisions as possible. In some fields that’s clearly possible – for example in healthcare we could certainly do better. But in others we have to resolve things somehow and some members of some group will not have their preferences accounted for. I mean, we could poll the passengers on any given flight to see if they wanted to be strip-searched by the TSA or if they trusted one another sufficiently to forgo the indignity, but whichever way the vote went, some people would still feel aggrieved, and probably write to their representatives and/or make YouTube videos about it.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to Simon K says:

          Simon K,

          Arrow’s theorem…you must be related to James K (see above). You share a common last initial and an understanding of Arrow’s theorem. What more evidence is needed?

          I suppose in a football stadium dominated by the home team’s fans, we could talk generally about a will of the people. But beyond that, I do think it’s important to acknowledge the fallaciousness of the idea, because then we can talk seriously about what the real costs and benefits of policies, without resort to mystical hand-waving. And if the idea was more widely understood, politicians couldn’t make political hay out of the phrase, but would be laughed at when they employed it. Then they’d have some more incentive to make substantive arguments to justify what they want to do, rather than rely on the simplest of all rhetorical shills.Report