Poll Vaulting into the Abyss

According to a recent poll, most Americans believe in polls. (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Part of the reason that America and the other western democracies are circling the drain with increasing downward velocity is the vicious cycle that has been set up between polls and policy. Aided and abetted by industrial money, this process has done more than any other technique to dumb down the country’s policy discussions and cripple the government’s power to reign in corporate power.

A favorite, recent example: CNN reported that a Pew Research Center poll conducted last week, regarding the military intervention in Libya, found that “Sixty percent of those surveyed said military involvement will last for some time compared with 33 percent who said action will end quickly and seven percent who did not know.” Really? Are we really to assume that the people who were surveyed (only seven per cent of whom admitted they did not know the answer),

  • knew where Libya is, who Gadaffi is, and had some inkling of the history and culture of the country;
  • understood the nature of the uprising and its ramifications in the region and for the world;
  • knew what the intervention consisted of; and
  • knew how long “for some time” was, and how quickly “quickly” would come?

Of course they did not. A great many of the people directly involved in making and explaining our foreign policy could not meet the above standards of quality, let alone randomly selected citizens.

Polls have their place. If the sample is large enough (usually at least 1,000 people, and the Pew people surveyed 1,002), if the respondents are selected randomly, without artificial exclusion (a standard that is increasingly difficult to meet, given our increasingly fragmented, cell-phone-using, call-screening society) and if the questions are phrased and analyzed carefully (the ones cited above are so vague as to be meaningless); if all of this is done well, the result will be a snapshot of what some typical (make that typically under-informed) Americans thought about something at a time in the recent past.

Yet CNN reported this bit of empty-calorie “news” as earnestly as any other “breaking” story, and one suspects that people in the White House may have taken it into consideration as they wondered how “the American people” were going to react to their policies.

To a dismaying extent, polls have replaced thought in American political campaigns, and political campaigning has replaced governance. The candidate consults polls to find out what statements are popular (among the uninformed), then makes those statements to assure his election. Once elected, the governor or legislator does only those things that, polls assure her, will be popular (among the uninformed). And thus does the deadly downward spiral, from uninformed opinion to stupid policy, spin on.

Consider what polls have “taught” us in recent months: that most Americans:

  • approve of the intervention against Gaddafi’s forces in Libya;
  • approve of detaining suspected enemy combatants in their Guantanamo Bay concentration camp forever;
  • think public employees have too much influence;
  • oppose government efforts to weaken the collective bargaining rights of public employees;
  • doubt that Obama is “serious” about cutting the federal budget;
  • approve of Obama’s handling of the presidency;
  • believe Obama is a “socialist”;
  • don’t approve of extending tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans;
  • believe nuclear energy is safe;
  • like Valentine’s Day;
  • see no connection between overheated political rhetoric and the attempted assassination of a member of Congress;
  • believe marijuana use should be legalized;
  • believe in the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial beings that have contacted humans, and that the government is concealing what it knows about this.

So when we know what the polls know, what do we know? When asked if they approve of Obamacare, most Americans say no; but when asked if they approve of any specific part of the recent health care reform legislation, they say, overwhelmingly, yes. Are the people for, or against, public employee bargaining? Yes and no. This is pretty slippery stuff to form a basis for government policy or legislation.

As depressing as this dumbing-down cycle is, it is made worse by dumb journalism. To cite a case that is trivial in content but not in execution: in a 1990 Roper Poll of 6,000 Americans, 119 answered in a way that the analysts thought indicated they had been abducted by aliens (the tortuous language means, one guesses, that the respondents didn’t actually say so). Applying this interpretation, and the ratio of 2% of respondents, to the entire population, the researchers guessed that perhaps four million Americans had had the experience. Most of the reporting on the poll ignored the weasel words and the weak-kneed extrapolation to write headlines that said, to quote just one: “3.7 million Americans claim to have been abducted by aliens.”

In fact, however, it is not the case that elected officials slavishly respond to public opinion. If they did, they would long since have raised the taxes on the rich and legalized marijuana, for example. But it’s more complex than that.

Polls are what give a candidate something safe to talk about, that is popular and will likely get him elected, so that he can accomplish his real objective, which almost always is to serve the interests of the people who gave him the cash with which to conduct the polls and run the TV ads that got him elected and will keep him elected. Meanwhile, the same sources of cash fund polls whose questions are phrased, and samples selected, and analysts primed, to deliver up as wisdom received from the masses precisely what the money wants the masses to think.

The tragedy is that polls can be changed overnight by leadership. Just a few years ago, if asked whether America would elect a black president, a random sample of our peers wold have said, overwhelmingly, “No!” Then we met Barack Obama, and the previous polls were immediately inoperative. Now, that same Obama is governing by the polls, tacking to the various winds that blow, when he himself, actuated by his own convictions and character, could be the mightiest wind of all, and require the polls to conform to him.

Even the one that says most Republicans think he is a Muslim.

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