Will Riordan Run on “English”?

Although national pundits regularly denounce our political leaders for doing whatever is popular, the truth is actually far worse than that.

We live in a constitutional republic, rather than a plebiscitary democracy, and although public sentiment may eventually dominate at election-time, our leaders are not up for election every day or even every year. Politicians may worry if their poll ratings drop; but they also know that the voters might change their minds by the time it really matters, or at least become focused on other things.

Unfortunately, if popular sentiment on an issue is not controlling, it may be overshadowed not by forces that are better—such as the actual merits of the matter—but by forces that are worse. The diffuse and mute body of a slumbering electorate is far less threatening to most politicians than the organized and determined special interest groups that feel strongly about some given issue, and can make their feelings felt. And unlike the public, these groups also have long memories.

Sometimes, the power of special interests is their money—campaign contributions, PR hirelings, independent advertising campaigns. But just as potent, perhaps even more so, are those special interests whose power lies not with dollars, but with people—determined, vocal, and organized activists, moved by the power of belief. In fact, when activists and money collide in conflict, the former often trump the latter. And compared to these two potent political forces, both policy merits and actual public opinion are far, far less significant.

Consider a member of Congress, whose constituents may number three-quarters of a million. If he comes home and holds town meetings, and three or four determined individuals make their views known on an obscure issue at each of these, he will be reluctant to take a contrary stance. Local elected officials, who usually rely on activists rather than money to win their races, are even more swayed by such things.

Just over one year ago, New York City officials considered shifting their immigrant educational policy from bilingual programs to English immersion. All the major local papers—the New York Times, the Daily News, the Post, and Newsday– -had carried numerous articles and editorials condemning bilingual failures and generally praising the success of the California’s shift to “English.” Reliable opinion surveys had shown near 80% support for such a change among residents and voters, Democrat and Republican, Anglo and Latino alike.

But then those elected officials pushing for change decided to hold a series of open forums, open to public testimony. As anyone might have predicted, fifty or sixty vocal and energetic bilingual activists attended each, completely dominated the discussion—and as a result, the politicians broke and ran, tails between their legs. Change was halted. New York City might contain 500 hard-core bilingual activists and eight million other people, overwhelmingly on the other side. But those 500 care much and the eight million care little, and the difference in commitment is what leaves the strongest impression on the minds of politicians.

Nearly four years ago, Richard Riordan, then Mayor of Los Angeles, decided to risk the attacks of California’s own 500-odd bilingual activists, and do what he believed right, endorsing Proposition 227 against the unanimous pleadings of his numerous political advisors. By the time he took this decision, most high-ranking conservative Republicans in California had already decided otherwise, and announced their opposition to the measure, including the state party chairman, gubernatorial nominee Dan Lungren, and the Republican legislative leaders. Riordan supported “English” when few others would.

Now, today, as Riordan moves forward with his own gubernatorial campaign, the “English” may well be able to repay Riordan’s courage, as I suggest in my Sacramento Bee piece below.

Riordan’s key political test may not be whether he is willing to do and say what he believes right but unpopular. Rather, the success of his campaign may depend on whether he is willing to do and say what he believes right, and is also enormously, overwhelmingly popular.

I also attach recent articles on the current progress of the Massachusetts and Colorado “English” initiatives.

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