It’s an age-old question in representative democracies: Should leaders vote for what their constituents want or for what they think is right?

Sometimes this question poses a real dilemma, especially on those rare occasions when voters are taken in momentarily by a notion that is both popular and wrong. This is not a problem when it comes to missile defense. Protecting the American people from missile attack is clearly the right thing to do, and not surprisingly, the American people want to be defended. In this case, doing the right thing is popular.

A recent poll conducted in New Hampshire by the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance confirms the popularity of missile defense. When asked whether the United States should have a missile defense, 75 percent of 600 registered New Hampshire voters said it should (63 percent felt strongly about it). Only 21 percent opposed such a defense.

Those politicians who think this is an issue where they can safely ignore the voters should note that 61 percent of the respondents in the New Hampshire poll said they are more likely to vote for a political candidate who strongly supports deploying a missile-defense system. Voters in New Hampshire -- indeed, voters throughout America, if other polls are any guide -- expect their leaders to do their duty and protect us from missile attack.

Fortunately, the news is good on this front. During the last three years, our leaders in Washington have been taking strides toward fielding the missile-defense system our nation needs. First, they withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with the defunct Soviet Union -- a crucial first step, given that the treaty barred us from fielding an effective missile defense. Second, they restored funding to the missile-defense program -- funding that was cut by the Clinton administration. Third, they outlined a missile-defense program that would effectively protect Americans from missile attack, as well as protect our friends, our allies and our troops deployed abroad.

The result: An initial defense capable of countering small-scale missile attacks could become operational by the end of this year.

All the progress we’ve witnessed over this three-year period contrasts sharply with the three decades that preceded it. During that time, our leaders failed to change the fact that the American people remained completely -- and deliberately -- vulnerable to missile attack, as part of a policy aptly named Mutual Assured Destruction. This history raises the question: How could Washington, for almost 30 years, sustain a policy that was both wrong-headed and unpopular?

The answer is found in one word -- a word relevant not only to historians. That word is arrogance. Self-described experts in Washington convinced themselves that they knew more about the requirements of national security policy than their constituents and so discounted their desire to be defended.

This remains a pressing issue because arrogance remains a prominent feature of the political class. For example, presidential candidate Howard Dean’s Web site states: “A Dean Administration would be guided by the notion that [the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) arms control initiative] and related programs are a more urgent priority than National Missile Defense and would transfer $1 billion per year from the over $8 billion ballistic missile defense budget to CTR and related programs.”

In other words, Gov. Dean would return the government to its earlier MAD policy that made a virtue of your vulnerability. At the same time, the political class thinks its vulnerability is not so virtuous: So-called continuity-of-government programs -- designed to keep our leaders safe in case of an attack -- will ensure they are protected.

Don’t get me wrong. I support the continuity-of-government program. But Americans should ask their elected representatives about what I call the continuity-of-society program. This is what missile defense is all about.

Fortunately, our Founding Fathers gave you and me a tool for confronting such arrogance. That tool is called an election. Its purpose is to make Washington stop, think, and act responsibly. We should use it. The people of New Hampshire are leading the way.

Baker Spring is the F.M. Kirby research fellow in national security policy at The Heritage Foundation.