Dave Weigel notes that John McCain has a rather idiosyncratic conception of “the will of the people,” which may turn out to be precisely the opposite of what a significant majority of the actual people wish to do. That’s not to say this idea is without pedigree. In fact, it mirrors quite closely Rousseau’s distinction between the “general will” and the “will of all”:
There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will. The latter looks only to the common interest; the former considers private interest and is only a sum of private wills. But take away from these same wills the pluses and minuses that cancel each other out, and the remaining sum of the differences is the general will. (Social Contract, Vol. IV, p. 146)
What this means in practice, of course, is that the legislator can simply do whatever he thinks is best, and still claim to be following “the will of the people” in some suitably abstract, hypothetical sense. Recall this the next time some pol or flack confidently declares what “the American People” want, demand, value, or won’t stand for. There’s a fair chance they’re referring to the ideal Platonic “American People” in their head—a population that, miraculously, seems always to hold the same views as the speaker.