Suppose there were a kingdom where divorce and blasphemy were illegal. The king foolishly decides to reform the government in a democratic direction. Radicals agitate for, and get, a popular vote on the divorce and blasphemy laws. The public votes to abolish them, and the country sinks into an Americanized sewer. Conservatives lament, “If only we had not voted on the divorce and blasphemy laws, we would still have a faithful and pious people.” Liberals retort, “The fact that the public voted to abolish your laws proves that they were already unfaithful and impious, but were only prevented by force from acting on their vices. What you miss was only an illusion.”
No doubt we’ve all heard arguments like this. It sounds convincing, but it’s wrong. First, it assumes that only freely-chosen good behavior is valuable, but that’s obviously not the case. Often, bad actions have bad effects, and we make laws to avoid the bad consequences of others’ misbehavior, regardless of what’s going on in their souls. We might wish to preserve a pious public space even when most of the public doesn’t appreciate it; we might wish to protect children from the effects of divorce that their parents are too selfish or stupid to see. In addition to this, I would say that the public affirmation of the good, and condemnation of the bad, has moral value in itself.
But there’s another reason why these sorts of arguments are wrong. We assume that, because people voted for X when they got a chance, they were in favor of X before it became a political issue. I think, though, that the very act of putting something to public vote and making it a matter of public debate alters the perception of the populace. A population that has a vote on whether to keep its monarchy has already abolished its monarchy, because a king who exists only by popular desire is no king. If a people debates whether to embrace chastity or hedonism, it has already chosen hedonism. The moment one steps outside the demands of chastity and considers, between the chaste and hedonistic ways of life, which one gives us the most benefits, that moment one has already adopted the hedonistic perspective. We may not judge chastity; chastity judges us, or it is not chastity. A nation may, to a man, be willing to lay down their lives to defend their king, because they see it as their God-given duty. When revolutionary forces overthrow the monarch, revolutionary media agitate for a democracy, and the public is asked to vote, they may very well choose democracy. The very act of being asked has made them democrats. I would say, because I think being a democrat is a bad thing, that an injustice has been done to them. The nation is left with a poorer sense of authority than it had before. The people should not have been asked. As de Maistre said, a people should be surrounded by dogmas, i.e. unquestioned truths.
Why does the public always vote for some branch of the revolutionary party? Why is it unthinkable that a genuine conservatism could be electorally successful? It’s because, when the public is asked to vote on things that should be independent of popular will, it has already adopted the liberal stance. If tradition and natural law are not binding, they can only be justified as advantageous to our private preferences. But a society designed to satisfy our private preferences is liberalism.
Does public opinion exist before polls and voting booths measure it? I suspect in many cases that it doesn’t. The media, and democracy–the means by which the media rules, creates opinions by framing them and prompting them. Then they announce triumphantly that the majority of the population supports, say, sodomitical civil unions. Even if the media did not themselves manufacture this opinion (and, of course, they did), the reporting of it creates a new social fact. The sexual libertarians are thrilled to find their opinion ratified by the populace, and those who don’t think perversion should receive any positive recognition learn how marginalized they are.