“Never has anyone ruled on this earth by basing his rule on any other thing than public opinion.”
In these words, Jose Ortega y Gassett, most famous for a book entitled Revolt of the Masses, affirmed the eternal truth and problem of rule by consent. Ortega y Gassett, a classical liberal theorist from Spain, spent his career warning readers of the dangers presented by unmediated majorities. One rules only when and how the public allows, and so, in the modern era, one must rule in a manner the masses find acceptable. The result, he argued, has been cultural degradation.
According to Ortega y Gassett the masses, by which he meant all those of commonplace mind who are satisfied to be commonplace and seek to impose their commonality on all of society, had come to rule in Europe during the early twentieth century. Masses, now deeming themselves capable and rightful in ruling, came to see themselves as possessed, not merely of instinct and tradition, but of ideas. Yet these ideas, he argued, were vulgar intellectualisms; they lacked culture and understanding, particularly regarding the role of higher authorities in formulating rational responses to human circumstances. The result was a kind of barbarism, with “ideas” merely the product of self-satisfied self-reflection. For the sake of civilization itself, he asserted, the masses ought to surrender direct control over politics to cultivated individuals of strong, independent mind.
Ortega y Gassett was overt and honest in his call for rule by educated elites as opposed to destructive mass movements. Yet, as he knew, the rule of the masses never can be direct. Demagogues and party officers may manipulate them at least as easily as educated elites might come to rule them.
Long before Ortega y Gassett, Scottish philosopher David Hume observed that all rule rests on opinion. He made clear, however, that this opinion need not be “public” in the modern sense. Roman emperors, for example, often ruled at the whim of their praetorian guard. The masses mattered little in maintaining the “absolute” power of the emperor, but woe to him who lost the support of his military retainers. The same might be said of many military dictators throughout history. Monarchs of a softer sort, meanwhile, might depend on the support of a wider, more dispersed nobility and the generalized support, or at least acquiescence, of the people. Or not. For much of history, monarchs ruled less in solidarity with their nobles than in opposition to most of them, looking to the commons and various related factions to counterbalance the powers of local landowners. This factionalism often decreased rather than increased liberty because the monarch’s goal was to eliminate countervailing forces. Thus, for example, Henry VIII carried out merciless cullings of his nobles, in part in an attempt to eliminate the private armies so many of them controlled and used to oppose his totalitarian programs. The Church also, of course, was Henry’s victim in his drive for absolute power. But a new class of nobles, dependent on Henry for their lands (confiscated from the Church and from “treasonous” nobles) and their station were utterly dependent on him, so they put their own forces and powers at his disposal.
Such machinations may seem to have little to do with opinion; politics rooted in such factional strife seem to have much more to do with power. But it is important to note the close relationship between the two, especially when examining the role of public opinion in electoral politics today. All governments today claim legitimacy on the basis of some sort of popular consent. Even dictatorships claim to be democratic and often orchestrate mass demonstrations to “prove” that they enjoy public support.
Representative republics like those in the United States and Europe more clearly rest on public consent for their legitimacy. This makes electoral corruption (at least if it is well-known) a de-legitimizing factor, and supports a massive polling industry claiming to measure public support for various candidates and policies. Leftist critics, long used to losing free elections, have painted both elections and polls as a tool of the ruling class used to manipulate the masses. More mainstream liberals and progressives tout the value of constant measurement of public opinion.
This election in particular seems to be undermining faith in the polls. More importantly, it is showing much greater doubt and even cynicism concerning those who interpret the polls. One need no longer be a warmed-over Marxist to doubt the neutrality of pollsters and journalists, and even to see those who cover politics as people attempting to manipulate politics.
Conservatives in particular are accused of putting forward “conspiracy theories” regarding biased reporting in the mainstream media. Claims, for example, that the press has helped Hillary Clinton cover up her health issues, minimize damage from her misuse of classified information, and manage the release of information on several Obama Administration scandals (from VA corruption to IRS targeting of conservative groups) are summarily dismissed. But it is undeniable that the mainstream press would prefer to see Mrs. Clinton elected; numerous press spokesmen have said as much, even claiming that bias against Donald Trump is called for by his bad character and policies.
This election will show, as much as anything else could, how far the power of the press goes in shaping public opinion. The mainstream press today is clearly siding with one candidate and using its considerable power and influence on her behalf. And yet, at the same time, a smaller set of media outlets, from Breitbart.com to the Drudge Report, to talk radio and opinion commandoes like Ann Coulter, are acting in an equally though more openly partisan role on Mr. Trump’s behalf.
Does this mean that “the press” is no longer the univocal framer of public opinion it once was? Clearly there is reason to doubt that outlets like the New York Times, the Washington Post, or network news operations will ever again have the consensus-building power they once had in the United States. Indeed, the loss of this position may be one significant reason why the “lamestream” media (as its opponents often refer to it) is filled with somewhat angry and confrontational figures unable to understand why their opinions are no longer given their traditional deference.
Many Americans no doubt welcome the disassembling of the once-mighty liberal monolith of mainstream press opinion. But it is important to remember that it is not being replaced by a genuine free marketplace of ideas. Certainly the constant refrain from liberals in the media and academy that talk radio and the internet are filled with “echo chambers” of scurrilous right-wing thought crime are overblown. But there is an important and troubling kernel of truth to such self-serving charges: Americans increasingly diverge from one another, not just in their political opinions, but in their choice of sources of news and opinion. Few who follow the liberal media also follow the conservative media, and vice-versa. The “echo chamber” is much more effective on the left than the right, of course, because the left holds the “respectable” ground of high-profile, elite positions. Thus, there is an economic and educational class divide, with those on the left claiming that only the ill-educated trust news sources other than their own. And this advantage is reinforced by the overwhelming over-representation (often 12:1 or higher) of leftists on college faculties.
If the “smart people” all follow CNN and the New York Times, then obviously anyone supporting a candidate found reprehensible by these sources “must be” stupid, venal, or both. Thus, Hillary Clinton can denounce Trump supporters as “a basket of deplorables,” and count on being defended in the mainstream media for her remark. The impression, then, is that “the masses” are uneducated white people who are racist, sexist, homophobic, and possessed of many other phobias as well. They must be shamed into supporting their intellectual, cultural, and moral betters. Not surprisingly, many of those whose opinions and characters are thus maligned are rather averse to falling into line under such conditions, but the hope is that many of their fellow “deplorables” will in fact be susceptible to shaming.
The polarization of American politics has been much remarked. Equally noteworthy is the polarization of opinion-makers and opinion-evaluators. To the extent that the public opinion on which representative republics rely for legitimacy is fragmented, that legitimacy itself is fragmented. This means that laws and even national symbols and ceremonies no longer have the power to unite (note recent controversies concerning NFL players and the National Anthem). The end result will be that there is no one “public” whose opinion can be counted on to support any particular administration or government.
Historically, electoral cleavages could be dealt with relatively well in the United States for the simple reason that the national public existed—needed to exist—only on a rather small number of issues. Most people most of the time were more concerned with more local publics. The great and horrible exception, here, was slavery and, more, a host of issues regarding trade, internal policing and the rights of states that were influenced by disagreements over slavery. Today, while few recognize any single issue of the centrality of slavery, racial tensions are merely the most obvious salient among dozens of issues no longer dealt with by local publics. Today, most of public life is national life, at least in the electoral sense. And this means that the fracturing of public opinion bodes ill for the health of the republic.
This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on September 18, 2016.