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Wherever law ends, tyranny begins

05 JAN 99 — William Schneider, who interprets polls taken for CNN TV, was smiling when he recently said that "if it weren't for polls, Bill Clinton would be long gone."

He was making the point that the rebuttal to every fact dealing with the unfitness of Bill Clinton is the claim that a strong majority of Americans want him to remain in office.

How does the U.S. Senate handle its constitutional duties when confronted with strong evidence that the sitting president may have committed impeachable offenses and strong polls that reflect that the people don't want him convicted?

As a general matter, Americans are increasingly confounded by information overload and propaganda. They look to public opinion polls to help them get their bearings.

This has the insidious effect of promoting bandwagon behavior. People unsure of themselves are impelled by polls to situate themselves safely in the middle of the herd.

If the herd stampedes, even in the direction of a cliff, the temptation is to run with it. Surely, so many would not be going that way unless it were the right way to go.

This is dangerous thinking. If we assume the validity of polls, what they measure is what people think at a point in time.

What people think at a point in time might represent the end product of serious study and objective thought. It is also true that what people think at a point in time might be the end product of disinformation, lies, biases, intellectual laziness and utter ignorance.

In today's America, considering the state of political connivance, public cynicism and media ineptitude, polls may be measuring half-grasped ideas and other forms of intellectual junk.

The creation of "bandwagons" onto which confused people will jump has become an art form.

The political spin put on the November elections was that Americans had sent a clear message to Republicans to call off the impeachment hearings. It was all over. The people had spoken.

You heard the propaganda: The people don't want Bill Clinton impeached. What you didn't hear was this: If the election really was a referendum on impeachment, the people voted for it, not against it, by returning control of both houses of Congress and a large majority of state houses to Republicans.

A new Gallup poll has found that Bill Clinton is the man "most admired by Americans." The political spin: Bill Clinton is a beloved president. What you probably didn't hear was that while Clinton came out on top, he was chosen by only 18 percent of the respondents. Eighty-two percent picked somebody else.

When the stock market went down during the impeachment hearings, you heard report after report that the instability being created by Congress was having a negative effect. After Clinton was impeached, the market soared. You never heard that this bullish reaction was caused by the impeachment.

What have we measured when we measure the impact of media slant and political spin?

We have allowed ourselves to be convinced that it is none of our business when a government executive commits adultery with a young subordinate in the workplace during working hours. We have allowed ourselves to be convinced that every president was a liar, a sexual predator and a scoundrel. Why pick on this president?

What have we measured when we measure these jaundiced beliefs and delusions?

Historians and scholars have warned us about the dangers of democracy as a form of government.

In his book, "America: Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," Charles R. Baecht writes that we have " ... a constitutional republic whereby every citizen is guaranteed certain rights by written law. Hence the idea of government of law and not of men."

James Fenimore Cooper, novelist and patriot, wrote: "It is a besetting vice of democracies to substitute public opinion for law. This is the usual form in which masses of men exhibit their tyranny." The philosopher John Locke agreed: "Wherever Law ends, Tyranny begins."

The framers of our Constitution understood the vulnerability of the masses to rhetoric and incitation that would cause them to turn their backs on what is right and lawful. Alexander Hamilton declared, "We are a Republican Government. Real liberty is never found in ... the extremes of democracy."

Horatio Seymour, two-time governor of New York, understood the danger posed by the unbridled "will of the people." He wrote, "The merit of our Constitution was, not that it promotes democracy, but checks it."

Wrong about many things, trade unionist Eugene V. Debs was right when he said, "When great changes occur in history, when great principles are involved, as a rule, the majority are wrong."

Hawk Talk