Abraham Lincoln, a prudent politician but no finger-in-the-wind type, once said: "Public opinion is everything. Without it, nothing can succeed. With it, nothing can fail. . . . The first task of statesmanship is not legislation but the molding of that opinion from which all legislation flows."
By the molding of public opinion, Lincoln meant a rational process of deliberation between political leaders and informed citizens (think of the Lincoln-Douglas debates). Today, by contrast, opinion-molding looks like snake-oil peddling, with focus groups and other forms of modern salesmanship defining the debate in contrived and easily manipulated ways.
This is a pernicious development, according to Matthew Robinson in "Mobocracy." Much of the book is devoted to media criticism -- how newspapers and TV news abuse the shockingly inexact "science" of polling to generate glib, horse-race narratives and to cast debates in a liberal-friendly light. (Readers who liked Bernard Goldberg's "Bias" will find much in "Mobocracy" to make their blood boil.) Mr. Robinson offers a detailed look at how polls are skewed by the choice of sample, the use of loaded terms and the ignorance of most respondents.
To cite just one example, Newsweek conducted a poll in January 2001 asking: "Do you think Congress should approve Bush's choice of John Ashcroft for Attorney General, or reject Ashcroft as too far to the right on issues like abortion, drugs, and gun control to be an effective Attorney General?" Respondents chose "reject" over "approve" by 41% to 37% (a narrow result trumpeted as "Newsweek Poll: Reject John Ashcroft" on the magazine's Web site). At the same time an ABC/Washington Post poll asked merely: "Bush has nominated John Ashcroft for Attorney General. Do you think the U.S. Senate should or should not confirm Ashcroft as Attorney General?" Fifty-four percent said the Senate "should confirm," only 26% "should not confirm."
In short, the polls you see in newspapers and on TV should be taken with a truckload of salt. But more important is Mr. Robinson's argument that our reliance on polling has truncated the deliberative process of republican government. Constant polling rewards "messages" that appeal to voters' emotions rather than their reason; it also makes politicians risk-averse. Though polling ostensibly gives the average citizen a voice in politics, it actually makes him cynical. Mr. Robinson cites Winston Churchill on this point. Responding to a member of Parliament who had said, in 1941, that British leaders should "keep their ears to the ground," Churchill declared: "The British nation will find it very hard to look up to leaders who are detected in that somewhat ungainly posture."
Another absurd posture comes to mind when we think of the modern American presidency -- that of leaders with their heads in the clouds. For some time, presidents have gathered "great minds" around them for counsel, conversation and ego-stroking. Tevi Troy's engaging "Intellectuals and the American Presidency" chronicles, among much else, FDR's "brain trust," the academic sycophants of Kennedy's Camelot and the thinkers who gave George W. Bush his "compassionate conservatism."
White House eggheads, Mr. Troy notes, may end up serving as ambassadors to the intellectual establishment and to history (as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. did for Kennedy). They may also lend an air of gravity to a candidate or president. But sometimes they don't help at all. Princeton Prof. Eric Goldman failed miserably in his efforts to bridge the gap between President Johnson and liberal intellectuals who opposed the Vietnam War. And it was the advice that Jimmy Carter got from intellectuals in 1979 that led to his disastrous "malaise" speech.
Nearness to power is a mixed blessing for the intellectuals themselves. It can enhance their prestige, but it can also cause them to suffer indignities. Before Goldman left Johnson's administration, he had sunk to ghostwriting speeches for LBJ's teenage daughters. Decades later, Bill Clinton cultivated New Democrat intellectuals during his campaign -- only to ignore them, upon victory, in favor of old-line liberals when he staffed his administration. In office, Mr. Clinton courted liberal intellectuals by inviting them to group chats, and they repaid the favor by rallying to his defense during the Lewinsky scandal, often proving themselves to be less independent thinkers than party hacks with Ph.D.s.
Taken together, Mr. Troy's and Mr. Robinson's books raise questions as old as political philosophy itself: Where should our leaders look for wisdom? Whom should they seek to please?
Mr. Troy notes that modern presidents use intellectuals to develop a vision for governing. This "vision thing" began with the Progressives and, especially, Woodrow Wilson, who believed that only "visionary" executive leadership could change the creaky, 18th-century mechanisms of the Founders into a sleek, 20th-century administrative state. Thus we now have "building a bridge to the 21st century" and other such twaddle. Leadership of this sort means leading people wherever they wish to go at the moment (which is where polling comes in).
Statesmanship, though, is something different. Statesmen like Churchill and Lincoln are teachers who remind their fellow citizens of first principles, not misty visions. They serve not by giving us merely what we want but by persuading us to want the right things -- to think of the public interest, rightly understood. As these books reveal, opinion polls and intellectual courtesans often subvert this difficult but noble art.
Mr. Bockhorn is associate editor at The Weekly Standard.