Herbert Storing on the Problem of Democracy by Joseph Bessette

Joseph Bessette, Political Science Reviewer 29 (2000).


In July of 1977 (less than two months before his death) Herbert Storing made one of his very few forays into the public policy arena by testifying before the U.S. Senate against replacing the electoral college with the direct popular election of presidents. His attack on this perennial “reform” proposal targeted the key “underlying premise” of the reformers: “that government is good so far as it is responsive to popular wishes: the business of democratic government is simply to do whatever the people want it to do.” He called this view–this “erroneous understanding”–“simplistic democracy.”‘

No theme in Storing’s writings or in his classroom teaching was more prominent, nor more central to his contribution to the study of American government and politics, than the problematic character of democracy. Here Storing stood shoulder to shoulder with the framers of the Constitution of 1787 and squarely against the zeitgeist of his age. And now, just over two decades since Storing’s death, the practice of American politics seems even more firmly in the grip of both a public philosophy of simplistic democracy and of those who are expert in gauging and manipulating public opinion. As President Clinton is reported to have said to Jesse Jackson as the House impeachment investigation deepened in the fall of 1998, “Well the polls are in our favor…. Our strategy is to keep the poll numbers up.”‘ Confirming the importance, and perhaps decisiveness, of public opinion to the resolution of the impeachment controversy, Congressman Paul McHale of Pennsylvania, one of the few House Democrats to split with his party’s leader, complained that “We’ve become captive to polls and focus groups.”

Intercollegiate Studies Institute [pdf]