Governing isn't just poll-taking
Published July 25, 2019
By John Hood
Most Democrats have a favorable view of socialism. Most Democrats also have a favorable view of capitalism. But socialism and capitalism are usually considered to be opposites. Are Democrats really that clueless?
If you are inclined to think the worst of that party, hold your fire for a moment and consider this. Most North Carolina Republicans say they favor smaller government, lower taxes, and less regulation. Most also agree that taxing imports primarily hurt American consumers, not foreign exporters. Yet most North Carolina Republicans support President Trump’s tariffs on imports from China.
I’ve just cited two recent, valid opinion polls. In the first, a Pew Research Center survey taken in late April and early May, 55 percent of registered Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said they had a positive impression of capitalism. That’s way less than the 78 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners who felt the same way, but it’s still a majority. At the same time, 65 percent of Democrats said they had a positive impression of socialism. Obviously quite a few respondents said that about both.
On the tariff issue, I’m referencing a Harper Polling survey of North Carolina voters taken in June for the Civitas Institute. Nearly three-quarters of Republicans favored Trump’s tariffs on China while only 17 percent of Democrats did. Still, large majorities of both parties agreed that consumers bear the brunt when tariffs rise. Indeed, 62 percent of respondents both strongly supported the tariffs and recognized they hurt consumers.
If you think I’m about to castigate the voters for being ignorant, inconsistent, or idiotic, you’ve jumped to the wrong conclusion. I certainly think we should all do our homework and cast informed votes. I also think surveys are very useful. But they must be interpreted carefully. And they are no substitute for deliberative, representative government.
One challenge to the notion of government-by-poll is that we don’t all hear the same words in the same way. As I’ve observed before, a basic difference between progressives and conservatives stems from how they define the term “government.”
Progressives tend to interpret it to mean something like “how society is organized” or “the things we do together.” Conservatives typically see government as one of many institutions that form a society, distinguished from the others by the fact that you have to fund it and follow its commands even if you disagree with it.
In the case of capitalism and socialism, those who view both with favor probably aren’t thinking of socialism as government ownership of the means of production. They’re associating it with social democracy, with extensive welfare states coexisting with a private economy. When reading polls, a little discernment goes a long way.
With regard to Trump’s trade policies, the views of Republicans are in tension but not necessarily contradictory. You can believe that tariffs are costly and inadvisable in general but that China is a special case because of repeated violations of trade rules and encroachments on intellectual property. Or you can think China’s strategic threat and rampant abuses of human rights should be challenged even at significant economic cost to Americans. You might have faith that a tough policy will wrangle enough Chinese concessions to justify the short-run costs. You may just support President Trump enough to assume he must know what he’s doing.
I’d disagree with you. I think the policy is unwise and counterproductive. But I wouldn’t assume you were hopelessly confused or intellectually dishonest.
Although polls can inform statesmanship, they are no substitute for it. Our republic relies on periodic elections to invest temporary power in the hands of public servants. Their ongoing job is to study, to argue, to conciliate, and to govern. They should remember that survey results depend greatly on how questions are worded and ordered. They should do what they think is right, then await the public’s considered judgment in the next election.
That’s how republics function. It’s still the best available option for both wielding and restraining governmental power.