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The Fourth Branch

This is response to the numerous critics who have suggested that the Democrats were somehow unethical, anti-democratic or even tyrannical to enact their health care policy at a time when it polls poorly in most opinion surveys. I find this argument to be exceptionally weak. You can certainly argue that the health care bills are bad policy and that enacting them in spite of what seems to be substantial opposition is foolhardy — and it absolutely is unusual for Congress to enact bills of this magnitude with such tenuous public support.

But unethical? Was the “will of the electorate” breached? I think any such framing has to contend with the following 14 arguments:

1. That Obama and Democratic Congress were democratically elected by very robust majorities on a platform which expliclitly included health-care reform and has since time immemorial.

2. That the voters have almost immediate recourse in the form of midterm elections that will take place in eight months and a Presidential election that will take place in two years — both of which come before the most substantial parts of the legislation are enacted.

3. That polls show the overall concepts of reforming the healthcare system and providing for universal coverage were popular at the start of the process and remain reasonably popular now.

4. That polls show that the specific details of the Democratic plan are (mostly) popular, and that when a neutral and accurate description of the contents of the bills are read to the respondent, support usually increases to plurality or majority levels.

5. That substantial elements of the public lack basic knowledge about verifiable facts of the bill, sometimes because of deliberate misrepresentations on the part of the bill’s opponents.

6. That history suggests that endeavors of this nature (Medicare, Social Security, Romneycare) generally become popular and are appreciated by the large majority of voters at some point after they become law.

7. That a tangible percentage of those who register as opposed to the bill oppose it from the left — probably enough to form a majority with those who support it — and may nevertheless prefer it to the status quo (the more explicitly a poll compares the current proposals with the status quo — see Question 25 here — the more favorable the results tend to be).

8. That opinion polling is an inexact science — especially on complex questions like health care — and that it is sometimes conducted by those with perverse incentives.

9. That maniuplating the opinions of voters in order to affect instantenous public opinion surveys has become a more-or-less explicit goal of all parties in a legislative negotiation, and that the winner of the “game” of manipulating public opinion will often simply be the most skilled craftsman/technician (of course this is also true to some large extent of electoral politics).

10. That the polling is impacted by the fact that the health care bills tend to help a small number of people greatly (the uninsured) while potentially hurting a larger number of people slightly (such as through higher deficits and taxes) — and that these inequities stem not from the “state of nature” but from arbitrary policy decisions made by past U.S. governments that benefited certain groups (such those employed by large businesses) at the expense of others: Is this also a kind of ‘tyranny of the majority’?

11. That the groups who would benefit the most from health care reform tend to be politically disenfranchised and may not have their views reflected by polls, especially those of registered or likely voters.

12. That only a relatively small minority of the public wants the Congress to give up on health care reform, but that there are few obvious alternatives to the current proposals that are both politically tenable and fiscally responsible.

13. That the United States is a constitutional republic rather than a direct democracy.

14. That were the Congress closer to a direct democracy — such as by having proportional representation of Senators, non-gerrymandered congressional districts, and a norm for majority-rules procedures in the Senate — health care reform would have been signed into law months ago and would likely be substantially more liberal and sweeping than the reforms that have in fact been enacted.


But never mind all that. The three branches of government are no longer enough for the electorate to express itself: the pollsters, it seems, should get a veto too.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.