The Irrelevant Public
I'm doubting that there ever has been a time in American democracy when the preferences of majorities seemed to matter less to elected officials than is the case right now.
Following the UN resolution passed Thursday night, the US military is about to intervene in Libya despite majority opposition. (Admittedly, the "no-fly zone" option has majority support in the underlying poll. The skepticism of the most prominent voices against intervention largely is based on the idea that intervention has an inexorable logic that will take us beyond no-fly enforcement and lead to casualties and expenses incurred.) There's no ambiguity about our role in Afghanistan despite unambiguous public opposition. The conversation domestically is only about cutting expenditures, and largely about cutting entitlements, despite strong opposition there. Majorities favor higher taxes on the wealthy—and always have—but no “serious” official suggests as much. (Sorry, Rep. Schakowsky; sorry, Senator Sanders. That what you're saying makes absolute sense and probably would come close to polling a majority among *Republican* voters doesn't matter.)
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that public opinion should entirely drive policy. In a representative democracy, I believe leaders are elected to lead, and that the great ones actually move public opinion in their chosen direction through a combination of persuasion and the demonstrated efficacy of their policy choices. But at the least there should be some effort to convince the public, or acknowledgement of the roads not taken. We don’t even have that.
I would guess that part of the explanation for the current irrelevance of majority opinion is that those who study politics as practically applied have concluded that partisan polarization is now so irreversibly advanced that maximum mobilization of one’s "own" voters, and demobilization of the other side’s, is the winning strategy. I kind of get this: increasingly bitter and disappointed as I am over Obama’s aping of the Republicans on security-state policy choices, lacking the courage of Democratic convictions on a whole range of domestic policy issues, and generally failing to lead in the manner described above, it’s just north of unimaginable that I won’t vote for him. (Not that this matters in non-competitive New York, but all that means is the addition of the words "just north of.")
There's a truism in politics that the most vicious fights come between factions that are largely in agreement. I'm not sure I'd characterize the Democrats and Republicans that way in philosophical terms: at bottom, the Republicans want the mainstream family/community arrangements of the 1950s with the economic context of "Blade Runner," while the Democrats want the economic context of the 1980s (when unions were starting to die but not nearly dead, regulation was far more lax than 10-20 years earlier but still valid and viable, etc) with the family/community arrangements of present-day Scandinavia. Tactically, though, both parties are looking to throw our military weight around and move the country back toward fiscal stability on the backs of the poor and middle class rather than the wealthy who continue to get wealthier.
That underlying philosophical debate, which is both far more interesting and ultimately far more important than the tactical fights over how much to intervene and how fast to cut government, we never quite have. Perhaps, if our society weren't structured such that it's so easy, in political terms, to start wars because only a tiny slice of the public bears the greatest costs, and that the rich as individuals and in their corporate aspect exert such an outside role in the country's politics, we might.