Who really is the majority?

Antiwar advocates put on a good show recently with hefty crowds turning out in many cities. Demonstrators sent a clear message that opposition to armed conflict with Iraq spans a wide geographic area of this country. But does the peace movement have any significant depth?

The currents of public opinion flow in many directions, and I've always been suspicious of anyone who claims to have a way of pinpointing the ebb and flow of national attitudes. Rallies and marches look impressive on the evening news, but they aren't definitive forms of measurement. Surveys also get a lot of media coverage, but warning bells go off in my head whenever I hear a story that begins with, "A new poll finds that a majority of Americans favor x."

Pollsters and political consultants can make all the random phone calls they want, but I honestly don't believe there's any reliable way of knowing what the majority of citizens believe at any given moment. And the constant barrage of polling data obscures an important truth: Throughout American history, majorities didn't carry the day when crucial issues were at stake.

Anyone who is surprised by that fact should go to a library immediately and pick up David McCullough's wonderful biography of President John Adams, a patriot who never doubted that independence from England was the right choice even though a majority of colonists were either opposed or indifferent to the idea. Adams also worried that direct democracy was the first step toward mob rule. He didn't want mere popularity to be the deciding factor in choosing a president, and after the revolution often found himself vilified in the press as a monarchist.

So it goes in the land of the free. We like to talk about unity and consensus-building but political reality frequently doesn't mirror our good intentions. George W. Bush is chief executive now even though more ballots were cast for Al Gore. But most eligible voters in America didn't even bother to show up at the polls on election day 2000. Are those people the new silent majority?

I don't think so. America has become so populous and diverse that generalizing about who we are and what we're thinking seems almost old-fashioned. We're all over the place. Take a look at a magazine rack in any supermarket and you'll see publications for people who like to work out, play video games, go rock climbing, work on cars, plan weddings, watch movies, hunt and fish, or upgrade their computers. So many exciting activities to pursue. Too bad there isn't a magazine called "Informed Voter."

The controversy over our Iraq policy shows every sign of being a long-term situation, and many voices will claim to speak for a majority of us. I just keep reminding myself that all the people I see on the news are only the frontline troops in this debate. And I don't think anyone on either side has a clear picture of what's happening behind the lines.

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