"There is no such thing as society," Margaret Thatcher memorably said; instead, "there are individual men and women and there are families." We could cut through a lot of pabulum with our own version: There is no such thing as "the American people."
But don't tell politicians that. If there's one thing elected officials from both parties agree on, it's that "the American people" want certain things and don't want other things. It just so happens that they want whatever the person speaking wants, and they are horrified by the things he doesn't want. If you watched C-SPAN for a day, you'd hear dozens of invocations of "the American people," with nary a whiff of ambiguity.
The truth, though, is that "the American people" don't have opinions or beliefs or judgments. Each one of us does, and subsets of us share some things in common, but the idea of a collective national will is a fantasy.
Unfortunately, in a representative democracy, everyone has an interest in acting as though such a collective will exists. This happens particularly after elections, when the side that came out ahead insists that "the people have spoken," as though an electoral outcome in which 51 percent of voters say one thing and 49 percent say something else represents a consensus judgment of "the American people." No matter how close an election was, the victors don't say, "We won, and that gives us the right to govern," which is absolutely true. Instead, they say things like "The American people rejected the Obama administration's policies," as Republicans are saying now.
Keep in mind that movements in public opinion or mobilization that are relatively small -- an increase of 5 percent in the turnout of one party's most reliable voters, for instance -- can have dramatic political consequences, changing the outcome of an election. Such a change can't honestly be characterized as an enormous shift in the beliefs of "the American people." Nevertheless, we tend to act as though any change in power only came about because of a wholesale change in the public's policy preferences. If a party increases its vote total from 46 percent to 49 percent, it's supposed to mean that nothing has changed, but if the party increases its total from 48 percent to 51 percent, then "the American people" have changed their minds in some important way. And with a perennial interest in defining what's happening right now as momentous and transformative, the press tells us that every election represents something new and different, a remarkable shift in the beliefs of the public. The elections of 2008 and 2010 were important for many practical reasons, but they hardly meant that "the American people" had become radically more liberal and then two years later became radically more conservative.
It isn't just that a country of 300 million people couldn't possibly agree on anything. More problematic is that public preferences tend not to be grounded in coherent principles and to be connected to logic by only the barest of tethers, internally inconsistent, and maddeningly fickle. Discerning what "the American people" as a whole want is so difficult a task that one might as well just project one's own beliefs on to them -- which is what everyone wants to do anyway.
Let's take an example. The question of the proper size and role of government is at the core of our politics, always has been, and likely always will be. What do "the American people" think on this topic? It's awfully hard to tell. Does the person who yells "Keep the government's hands off my Medicare!" at his congressman want more government or less? Does he think government is doing too much or not enough? Depending on how you ask the question, you can get almost any answer you want.
Not everyone is so confused, of course. But elite political discussion takes place among people who both know a lot about politics and have fairly coherent ideological beliefs. Neither of those characteristics is true of most Americans. According to the National Election Studies, for instance, only two-thirds of the public can tell you which party is the conservative one, which is about as basic a piece of understanding as one can imagine. Less than a quarter know which party favors a stronger government in Washington. But at least there's some self-awareness: Two-thirds also agree with the statement, "Sometimes politics and government seem so complicated that a person like me can't really understand what's going on."
Which in many ways it is. Policy can be complex, and we are regularly presented with situations in which one value we hold comes in conflict with another value we hold. Furthermore, many people just don't find it all that interesting, and if politics doesn't interest you, you won't bother to keep up with the parties' suddenly differing positions on the Fed's quantitative easing policy. But in order to operate as a citizen of a democracy, you need at least some grounding in the basics of politics and policy, even of the simplest sort. You need the ability to take in new information and place it in some sort of context so that it can be understood. And you need enough of a baloney detector to reject spectacularly absurd claims when you encounter them. (If you lack the latter, you're in Glenn Beck's target audience. He recently told his fans that invasive pat-downs at the airport were part of an elaborate scheme by President Barack Obama to create a "private army" for his personal use. Seriously.)
Too few of us have any of those things, much less all of them. So some years ago, political scientists studying public opinion got interested in the question of what the public would believe if it had complete information, rather than what the public actually does believe. They began holding "deliberative polls," in which subjects would be brought together to hear detailed analyses of different courses of action to address public-policy challenges, ask questions, and discuss matters with each other. The results of these civil and informed debates varied, but in most cases, the opinions at the end of the process were far less divided than they were at the beginning. Given idealized conditions of democratic debate, the public does seem to converge on what looks like the best way to solve problems, and the will of "the American people" can be discerned.
Unfortunately, our actual political debate is nothing like that model of deliberation. The various ways of assessing the American people's desires, whether through opinion polls or elections, produce contradictory and confusing results that look nothing like a real agenda. Few politicians will say so, of course; they're more likely to pretend that "the American people" are perfect in their wisdom and specific in their beliefs, and all we need do is consult them and the proper course of action will become clear. The truth, however, is that once you get power and have to begin governing, all the rhetoric about what the American people want isn't much help.