In the terminal stages of the Roman Republic, there was a Latin phrase whose meaning and importance hangs like a baleful shadow over our own times and our own institutions, “Vox populi, vox dei,” that is, “the voice of the people is the voice of God.” While it is popular to blame leaders for bad decisions made within nations and institutions, all too often leaders are themselves weathervanes responding to polls and seeking to pander to the people for popularity. The relationship between people and their leaders is a complicated one, and one that is difficult to manage successfully. All too often leaders can ignore the people in matters of great importance while pandering in matters that are ultimately harmful to the well-being of people themselves.
In many cases, where leaders ignore the wishes of the people, it is done for their own reasons and their own well-being. Many times, leaders consider themselves to be a part of a political and cultural elite shared with the leaders of large businesses, cultural icons in music and entertainment, as well as the leaders of other nations and international institutions. Even without any direct collaboration between such leaders, which can be difficult to attain (witness the brouhaha over spying on political leaders by the National Security Agency, for example, or the frequent squabbling in the United Nations or any supranational institution or conference), there is often a similarity of interest and worldview between leaders of countries and institutions that leads to a great degree of common action that is not shared in common with the ordinary population of the world.
At least as common as the actions taken by leaders because of their own identity and closer ties with those they consider their own people rather than those people whom they lead and rule, who have very different but far more diffuse interests, are those actions taken to pander to the people by those leaders. A leader who truly has the best interests of their people in mind may at times have to act in the best interests of those people by opposing the specific wishes of the people. People often want things that are not good for them, and sometimes it is the job of leaders to restrain people from their own folly. Of course, this can be done through a variety of tyrannical means, but most effectively it is done by persuasion, showing others how the immediate wants are contrary to their ultimate happiness and well-being. If those leaders have shown themselves to be trustworthy and genuinely interested in the well-being of others, their instruction has a good chance of being ultimately accepted with a good deal of grace.
Why do leaders pander to the people at times, then? Sometimes this pandering is due to the fact that the immediate wishes of the people and the long-term strategic goals of the leaders correspond to each other. In this way, leaders who lack genuine concern for their people can use the immediate political passions of the people to support their own distinct plans and aims, pretending to listen to the people while pursuing their own desires and schemes that are ultimately harmful to the well-being of the people. This is a common technique of dictators, for example, who foment quarrels within and outside of a society or institution in order to preserve or increase their control by claiming to act for the benefit of the people. The same phenomenon is true when it comes to government support of entitlement programs that lead to the increasing dependence of people on government (increasing its power and societal influence) while leading to the decline of rival institutions and the increase of taxation increasing the amount of public funds a government can control, whether or not it has the competence to do so wisely.
At other times, pandering is an attempt by leaders who lack legitimacy to attempt to prove by their works their concern for the people. Even where rulers lack legitimacy, they can act in ways that are ultimately beneficial to their people anyway. For example, in the waning days of the Soviet Union, the policies of openness and gradual liberalization helped provide a window of opportunity for an improvement from the long decades of Communist misrule. Even if this did not ultimately prove enough to preserve the survival of the Communist regime, it did allow certain elements of the Soviet elite to survive the wreckage of the Cold War to retain a position of legitimacy when freedom proved to benefit oligarchs and lead to a sense of anarchy among many Russians. Even a corrupt order can seem appealing when one has to face the problems of chaos and disorder in one’s life.
While governments may try to give the people what they want for reasons that are either legitimate or illegitimate, ultimately speaking we have to accept responsibility for our own worldviews and our own behavior. Leaders will have to bear responsibility for their motives and their actions. We will have to bear responsibility for our own actions as well. Wherever we turn, responsibility cannot be avoided. In light of this responsibility, it is little surprise that human beings tend to seek after distractions from such matters, and to retreat from the troubles that we have to face whenever we think about matters of larger social interest. Only time will tell if the spirit of “vox populi, vox dei” in our time is as baleful a sign as it was in the times of the Roman Republic, but the signs do not look good.