Democracy—And the Common Man


By GEORGE GALLUP, Director, American Institute of Public Opinion

Radio Broadcast, July 24, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 687-688.

THE fundamental premise of democracy is belief in the common man. One of the most important results of this war is the proof it has given to justify that belief. The Axis propagandists would have us think that the American people are torn by strife, greed, and disunity, and that all democracies suffer from a paralyzing psychological anarchy which renders them incapable of action. Therefore, the dictators have abandoned the belief in the common man and belief in democracy with it.

History will one day record that this blind and stupid denial of the intelligence of the common man was Hitler's greatest mistake.

The heroic resistance of the people of England in the dark days of the blitz bombing, the high morale today which is indicated in widespread public demand for a second front in Europe, all bear witness to the unity and courage which is making democracy work in England. Here in the United States the people are displaying a fierce and persistent determination to get on with the war. There is no disunity. Moreover, and this is a fact often overlooked, there never has been any fundamental disunity among the people themselves so far as this war is concerned. Public opinion surveys show that every step leading up to the war was approved by a majority of the people. While there was no eagerness generally to get into the fight (people in democracies never do want to start wars), nevertheless the overwhelming majority of Americans believed as early as 1940 that the United States would enter the war. Moreover, they believed all along that bringing about the defeat of Hitler was more important to us and the world than staying out of the fight.

Issue Is Self-Government

The fundamental issue of the war is the question whether the democratic principle of self-government, of rule by the people, is to survive. The answer will depend on two factors—first, whether the democratic system can prove itself efficient and capable of swift, decisive action in a crisis; and second, whether the common people have the wisdom and capacity to govern themselves.

One of the chief advantages claimed for the Fascist form of government is its administrative efficiency. When the will of a nation is in effect the will of but one man, speedy and decisive action is possible—problems can be met and handled without delay. At least there is short term efficiency. In a democracy, on the other hand, the whole people, by means of the ballot, have the right to pass final judgment on important political policies. In a world which moves so rapidly as the modern world does it is often desirable to know the people's will on basic policies at frequent intervals. With such knowledge the efficiency of democracy is greatly increased because the leaders can proceed to formulate their plans with a sure knowledge of public sentiment and without having to wait for the mandate of the next election. The supplying of this continuous knowledge of public opinion is the chief function of modern public opinion surveys. It seems to me significant that already four countries besides the United States have established such surveys— Britain, Canada, Australia and Sweden, the last three since the outbreak of the war.

Are the opinions of the common man worthy of respect? Can the people in our democracies be trusted to govern themselves?

Public Opinion Sound

On that point the results of thousands of public opinion surveys yield a most eloquent and convincing answer in the affirmative.

In the course of conducting our surveys here in the United States, we have talked to hundreds of thousands of people selected with extreme care in such a way as to reflect accurately the views of the whole country. In the course of this work we have talked to farmers along the sun-baked back roads of Arkansas and Kentucky, to workers in the great industrial centers of Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and elsewhere, housewives, white collar clerks, to business leaders in skyscraper offices, to thousands of plain people of this country in every one of its 48 states. Throughout the length and breadth of the land we have rubbed elbowswith the common people, seeking always to discover with scientific accuracy what these people are thinking and saying about the great problems which confront our government today.

I say with all sincerity that the common people are less likely to be wrong than any individual judgment of any superman or the judgment of any group made up of the elite. Here in the United States we speak of this quality as common sense—a quality of judgment which characterizes the plain people of all nations when they are told the truth and are able to think and act on the basis of truth.

I do not mean that any single common man is wiser than any expert. I am talking about the collective judgment of the people of a democracy.

Let me give you an example. There was once a professor of physics who drew a line on the blackboard and asked the members of his class to guess the length of the line— which was actually five feet. Some members of the class guessed seven feet, some eight, some four, some only three. But the curious thing was that the average of all their guesses proved to be exactly correct—five feet. Individual judgments may be wrong, but the sum total of all judgments is usually surprisingly right.

I could cite many instances to show the abundant good sense of the plain people and their ability to size up a situation and come to conclusions as to what should be done. Here in the United States the public correctly appraised the value of airpower even before many of the experts themselves. The people were in favor of military conscription before their political leaders or Congressional representatives had advocated the plan. The American public has cheerfully accepted the burden of heavy wartime taxation and, in fact, is ready to shoulder an even greater load than the government has yet proposed. Can that be said of people in the dictator countries? In the whole battle against inflation the people are ahead of their government, desiring a program more drastic and far-reaching than anything yet attempted here. For at least four years before Pearl Harbor the majority resented and opposed the sale of American oil, scrap metal and other war supplies to the Japanese.

Views Far-Sighted

Current surveys show the people taking a sober, far-sighted view of the war. Alternate good news and bad news from the battlefronts has not led to exaggerated swings of elation and depression. The majority believe that it will take at least two more years of grim warfare to smash the Axis, and the people do not revise their estimates up and down with each day's war communiques.

This country is in an aggressive, fighting mood. There is a strong tide of sentiment in favor of opening a second front against Hitler NOW. The dominant attitude is that the present is the opportune time to strike even though all the equipment may not be ready, or the last bolt tightened on the last tank. Although Japan was the first to attack our soil, the attitude of the majority is still that Germany is our No. 1 enemy.

President Roosevelt enjoys the confidence and support of the vast majority of his fellow countrymen, 80 per cent of whom approve of the way he has handled his job as war president.

For many years the impression prevailed abroad that America was a land torn by sectional jealousies, that New England thought one way, the Middle West another, and that the resulting clashes kept the country permanently divided. Under the cold analysis of public opinion surveys that theory has proved false. These surveys have shown no sectional differences of any importance so far as the common people are concerned. The American Middle West, once considered the cradle of isolationism, is today just as much behind the war effort as any other section.

Favored League of Nations

A great deal of thought is being given here to the whole question of the post-war world and America's place in it, After the last war a bitter political fight arose over the question as to whether the United States should join the League of Nations. If that one issue had been put directly to the people, there is good evidence to believe that they would have voted to join the League. But the country's political leaders decreed otherwise.

Today, while we are engaged in another even greater world war, there is strong sentiment here in favor of having the United States participate in a world organization of nations when this conflict is over. Probably the most remarkable fact is that the rank and file of the Republican Party—the party whose leaders fought successfully to keep America out of the League last time—are now in favor of American participation in a new league by the overwhelming majority of 7 to 3.

I hope Herr Goebbels or his Nazi propaganda minions are listening to this broadcast. They had better learn now that the American people are tough-minded, that they are united as never before, that they display a collective judgment and common sense against which the futile bleatings of Axis propaganda are likely to make about as much impression as rose petals falling in the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River.