Connected: public opinion and political organization

From the archives:

Wise political leaders throughout American history have understood that public opinion is king. In the past several decades, however, shrill organized interest groups and a left-leaning press have made it a challenge for supporters of Republican principles to sway public opinion.

Of course the rise of talk radio and the Internet has created avenues for connecting with the public and overcoming the barriers presented especially by the old media. But anyone who thinks that that has been sufficiently translated into political action hasn’t been paying attention to both the spending in Republican controlled Washington D.C. a few years ago or the white-flag Republicans in Springfield.

Right now the status quo of ever-growing government must be changed. The only organized powers on the field are those that profit from that growth. Whether it is government contracts or the salaries that fuel public sector unions, their primary interest in governmental policy is measured in dollars. They are easily organized and easily motivated, and are largely uncontested.

Americans who earn their living in non-governmentally funded work typically don’t gather together to lobby elected officials. So the people who want big government are organized; those who don’t — aren’t.

Steven Malanga outlined the new reality in his book “The New New Left – How American Politics Works Today“:

Politics in America today is not only a contest between left and right. A new political dynamic has slowly been emerging over the past forty years, a face-off between those who benefit from an expanding government and those who must pay for it — the tax eaters versus the taxpayers. The vast expansion of the public sector is finally reaching a tipping point, giving tax eaters the upper hand, especially in America’s cities.

I’ve written that the role of the modern Republican legislator is not what it used to be, like it or not. I repeat, public opinion is job number one.

Unfortunately too few elected Republicans realize there’s also a job number two: political organization. Instead they merely do what they have to do to get themselves elected, while they view the Party apparatus and friendly advocacy groups as an annoyance and someone else’s responsibility.

That approach creates the situation where they fear showing leadership by supporting or opposing important legislation when the pressure is on. Since they’ve failed to muster an army to get their back, they lack the courage to advance policy reforms.

Republican state legislators who support real Republican principles seem to want that army to form up without their participation. It doesn’t work that way. Their efforts are required. Those who would back them up with campaign contributions and Election Day votes are busy living their lives outside of the tax and spend arena.

However, many “grassroots” groups have sprung up both in Illinois and around the country without the active participation of political and party leaders. These groups will never constitute a sufficient force capable of checking the expanding size and power of government.

We decry the lack of effective Republican leadership in Illinois because they do not organize, support, or participate with that potential army.

What can be done now? First, Republican elected officials must be held accountable for failure. Second, more rank and file Republicans must get in the game and help create a ready counter-force able to provide the votes and dollars in support of right action.

We must as Churchill told the Brits in 1940, “brace ourselves to our duties” — that is, be ready for the fact that not everything we have to do is going to make us feel good, especially in the short term.

First published September 2008.