Politics & Policy

Who’s Da Peeps?

Polls are a stupid way to set policy.

It’s very rare to hear a politician with public opinion on his side say, “I don’t believe in polls.” It’s only when the public disagrees with him that a pol will say polls “don’t mean anything.” This is especially true during elections. A candidate down in the polls will either dismiss polls as “meaningless” or cite some minor finding–a huge surge among diabetics named Todd–as proof of underlying momentum. But once the polls–or even a show of hands at the local Jiffy Lube–favor him, suddenly the polls are divine.

And I don’t use the word “divine” lightly. Because it is a bedrock article of faith among the political classes that the authentic voice of “the people” is sacrosanct, and the polls are the modern equivalent of oracular goat entrails. Even if 65 percent of “the people” say a policy stinks worse than a dead aardvark wrapped in old socks, those who benefit from the policy will say the question was worded “misleadingly”–even if the question is asked point blank: “Yes or no: Do you think such-and-such stinks worse than a dead aardvark wrapped in old socks?”

The reason: Politics is a people-pleasing business, and the customers are always right. Oh, sure, many on the Right are happy to say the gay-tree-hugging peaceniks are wrong. (I know, I know, here comes the e-mail: “Why are you afraid of gay trees? You’re an arboreal homophobe.”) And many on the Left are perfectly comfortable saying the evolution-denying-warmongers are wrong. But this is usually because these politicians don’t need many of “those people” to win, and vice versa.

But “the people” qua “the people” are never wrong.

And yet, this is flatly untrue. “The people” are often wrong. And I don’t mean this solely in an ideological or partisan sense. I mean it in terms of cold, hard fact. According to the polls, “the people” are liars. Big, fat, honking liars. Just one example among many: John F. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960 with 49.7 percent of the vote. This is as close as we get to a historical fact. Indeed, that might overestimate things, since many believe Kennedy stole (i.e., invented) votes in Illinois and Texas. Yet, as Bob Dole might say, “whatever.” By 1963, 59 percent of Americans told pollsters they voted for him. And after JFK’s death, 65 percent claimed to have done so (much like the huge numbers of French who remembered fighting for the resistance only years after the war ended).

In other words, “the people” lied or honestly deluded themselves. Or at least 15 percent of them did. But we don’t know which 15 percent and we never will, just as we don’t know how many Americans lie, fudge, or mislead pollsters. We know a large number must, because pollsters are constantly asking “the people” about incredibly complex issues and “the people” almost always pretend to know what they think.

I’m sorry, I may not be smart enough to understand why Anchorman isn’t a classic of American cinema. But I do know a lot of really smart people, and when I ask them the same questions pollsters regularly ask (Should Israel trade land for peace? Is the war in Iraq going well? Is Social Security partial privatization a bad idea? Why is Charmed still on TV while Angel and Buffy were cancelled?) and I usually get six-part answers, festooned with ifs, ands, buts and on-the-other-hands. But “the people” always seem to have a fully formed opinion handy.

And this leaves out the fact that a big chunk of “the people” are grotesquely ignorant of their government and current events. And I’m not just referring to that running segment on The Tonight Show where Jay Leno asks people to figure out what Flag Day celebrates. Just this month, the ABA (hint: the lawyer thing, not the bunch with the red, white, and blue basketball), released a poll that found that 22 percent of Americans think the three branches of government are Republican, Democrat, and Independent. In 1991 another ABA survey found that one third of Americans didn’t know what the Bill of Rights is. In 1987, 45 percent of Americans thought Karl Marx’s dictum “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs” was in the U.S. Constitution. In 1964 (!) only 38 percent of the American people knew the Soviet Union wasn’t in NATO.

Now, I don’t think the American people are as stupid or confused as all this suggests. But if they aren’t, the polls must be. Maybe people panic when they talk to pollsters. Maybe the methodology stinks like that aardvark-sock thing. Maybe respondents are distracted by the pollster’s annoying habit of tapping his glass eye with a ballpoint pen while awaiting an answer. Who knows?

What I do know is that, even if the polls were 100-percent accurate, they would still be a stupid way of setting policy. Why? Because “the people” only exist on Election Day. Before and after that, they’re just a bunch of individuals spouting off to strangers.

(c) 2005 Tribune Media Services


The Latest