Sunday, November 2, 2008

Post No. 63: How Political Polling Potentially Does a Disservice to the Democratic Process

© 2008, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

Over the past 18 months, we have been bombarded with all sorts of polls regarding this Tuesday’s presidential election. Probably most of you assume, with the exception of the Fox News polling organization, that most polling organizations are reasonably ethical, professional, and honest.

You know, cynicism is a terrible thing. It encourages us to think less of others. It discourages opening ourselves up to information, experiences, and most regrettably, other people. It encourages us to think less of the potential positive influence which we can have on others. It can also lead us to think that corruption is so deeply entrenched in the fabric of our nation, that there is little chance that things can improve.

What is the ultimate tragedy of such disillusionment? Giving up.

Fortunately, none of the people with whom we have personally come into contact who read this blog, and even those who comment and with whom we have not come into personal contact, are quitters. But there is something about which we should be concerned, and which we need to address.

Believe it or not, Fox News has actually done our nation a great service. It has revealed to us that seemingly responsible and well educated people can appear on our media vehicles, and with a straight face, argue the position which advances the interests of one side of the political and societal spectrum, and call it “fair and balanced.” Its success and popularity have alerted us to the same potential in all other media vehicles to disseminate a slanted message, and that’s a good thing.

Earlier this year, it occurred to some of us here at the Institute that the Fox News polls might not exactly be the most useful vehicles to use in gauging public opinion about various political issues J. However, being the optimists that we are, we assumed that the other polling organizations were, to borrow a phrase, “fair and balanced.” (To borrow another phrase from one of our Senior Fellows, the Logistician, “Silly us.”)

At a minimum, one would hope that the Gallup poll, with its long history and prominence in our nation, would lead us in the right direction. Au contraire mon frere. (We imagine that given the instructions by the client, the service provider complies.)

As we are generating this piece, we are simultaneously watching C-Span2 Book TV (http://www.booktv.org/program.aspx?ProgramId=9812&SectionName=Politics&PlayMedia=No.), as former Gallup Senior Editor, David Moore, discusses the flaws in our polling system. Moore, now a Senior Fellow at the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, has written a new book, The Opinion Makers: an Insider Exposes the Truth behind the Polls. The bottom line: As currently structured and implemented, the polling process does a disservice to the democratic process.

(Moore is also the author of How to Steal an Election, http://books.google.com/books?id=3lRQHgAACAAJ&dq=%22how+to+steal+an+election%22&ei=mN4NSdDHGJOOM4qnnZcE, and The Superpollsters, http://books.google.com/books?id=DXlxHAAACAAJ&dq=%22the+superpollsters%22&ei=Fd8NScXrHYHEMrTeqLQE.)

Interestingly, Moore claims that in the 1920s, there was an intense debate about whether the American electorate was too disinterested and too uninformed to really involve them in the political process. Many apparently felt that the world of politics should be left to the intellectual elite and the power brokers.

We also learned from Moore’s discussion that political primaries were created to wrestle the elections away from party bosses, and give more control to the voting public. Polling emerged from that same sentiment.

In the 1930s, George Horace Gallup (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Gallup) wanted to monitor the “pulse of democracy,” or what the voting public was thinking. Unfortunately, according to Moore, that laudable goal has evolved into an industry that manipulates the public, instead of moving us closer to direct democracy.

In today’s political environment, polling organizations manipulate us through the manner in which the sample group is selected or defined, and the phrasing of the questions posed. Instead of forcing the respondents to (1) come up with an opinion, (2) state that they do not currently have an opinion, or (3) state that they are totally disengaged and do not anticipate having an opinion, polling organizations dictate the resultant “opinion.”

Furthermore, administrations use their press releases and conferences, and their Press Secretaries, to introduce a notion into the minds of the American people. Polling soon follows. The result is, according to Moore, the completion of a spin cycle initiated by the administration. This, concludes Moore, does a disservice to the democratic process.

We have heard with increasingly frequency, from political commentators and talking heads, who will never face voters, that the American voting public consists primarily of the uninformed and unsophisticated, and thus they need not be consulted. (It also explains why the victims of Katrina will soon be forgotten, even though their basis needs have not yet been addressed.)

Occasionally, one goes so far as to suggest that some members of the uninformed and unsophisticated class should have their right to vote taken away.

That potentially explains, apart from greed, why our elected officials apparently do not listen to common citizen, but grant large corporations, the Jack Abramoffs of the world (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Abramoff), and other large special interest groups, all with money, an audience.

It also potentially explains, in a sentence, why we still have the Electoral College (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electoral_college) system.

Arguably, not much has changed since the formation of our nation, although there have been substantial technological advances in communication. We just can’t say certain things in public, especially before a crowd. Can you imagine a candidate saying that to a crowd, “You’re uninformed and unsophisticated, and that’s why were going to do what we feel is in your best interests!” Isn’t a desire to become part of the club which runs things and therefore have a say, what motivates most newcomers to join the ranks of elected officials?

However, rarely are they of the group which Sarah Palin represents, and with whom she connects. Just last evening, John McCain was questioned as to whether Palin was the correct choice, and bolstered the ticket. During the course of his response, he suggested that she was the spokesperson for a segment of the populace long ignored, and whose voices deserved to be heard. It’s only the members of the purported educated class, whose interests she does not advance, who find Palin inappropriate.

The common person, with some degree of justification, probably feels that a commoner in charge could have lead us into the economic crisis in which we currently find ourselves. Why should faith be placed in the elite?

(At least the British are honest enough to come right out and call a segment of their population, “commoners.” And as much criticism was leveled at the caste system which existed in India for years, at least there was no delusion about the class to which one belonged.)

And thus we have polls, controlled by the elite and the ruling class, to make the masses think that they are doing the bidding of the masses, and what is in the best interests of the nation as a whole.

Moore was careful to note that both Republican and Democratic administrations have been equally guilty of misusing polls to their advantage.

Earlier this week, we realized that the Republicans want to tell people what to do with their lives and bodies, and what relationships they should accept. The Democrats want to tell people how to spend their money and their priorities, once they take your money in the form of taxes. Maybe the Libertarians have it all right.

The good news is that Moore believes that we can structure polls to actually serve a useful and honest function, and truly determine the pulse of democracy. Some bi-partisan organization needs to take the lead in that regard.

© 2008, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

9 comments:

  1. The most evolved project for a hybrid direct/representative democracy is led by former Sen. Mike Gravel. Registered voters can now vote to ratify the National Initiative for Democracy at http://Vote.org, much as citizens ratified the Constitution at the Conventions when the Legislatures wouldn't!

    "On the most major issues we've dealt with in the past 50 years, the public was more likely to be right...based on the judgment of history...than the legislatures or Congress." -George Gallup, Sr.

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  2. Thanks much Evan for providing a constructive comment and providing us with further information to advance the cause. Gravel was on C-Span last week promoting the concept, which has been quite some time in the making. We look forward to continuing visits by you.

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  3. Polls are used to move people to believe something is true which may not be true and thereby control the voting process.

    I usually do not pay much attention to the polls because the only one that is important is when I move into the voting booth and record my vote.

    I encourage you to vote for the people who reflect what you believe not what the press wants you to believe.

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  4. Thank you for commenting Pastor Lars. I could not agree with you more that what is really important is what the individual citizen feels about the candidate. However, can you envision any legitimate and constructive use to which a poll could be put which would advance the interests of the voting public?

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  5. I would suggest you do yourself a disservice when you consider Foxnews to not be fair and balanced. Check the most recent studies regarding the treatment of candidates among the several networks. You might be surprised at the results.
    Great blog, by the way, but how to I "Follow" it? In the meantime, I will simply Bookmark this site and try to keep up.

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  6. Further comment:
    It is not just the administrations, as Moore says, that do their best to manipulate public opinion. It is all interested parties in our political system. Each political party does the same; each sends out press releases, holds press conferences, sends its spokespeople out to political (and seemingly non-political) talk shows, has a stable of pundits it draws on, and so forth. This is how a democracy works. This is how free speech is best served. Present all sides. We need to educate the public on how to view all the information in a critical manner. I fear we do have segments of the electorate who do not think before voting, my hope is that there on sufficient numbers in opposition to each to mitigate any adverse effect.

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  7. Thanks again Douglas for visiting our blog.

    If you will glance down toward the bottom of the light green column of the blog, in the area which does not change with the posts, you will find two methods to become a follower of our blog.

    Just this past weekend on C-Span, someone mentioned that the reason that the main stream media appears to us to lean to the left is because of what they do, their education, their experiences, etc. It was suggested that the more contact that people have with anything, the more "progressive" in thought they become. While I am not sure that I agree with that theory, it is one to consider.

    News organizations, in our opinion, should not preach a party line, no matter which party. There are facts and there are opinions. We believe that the news organizations should only present facts, and when they choose to present an opinion, clearly delineate it as such. Arguably, just the selection of topics to discuss, and the manner in which they are reported, contributes to a subjective or bias presentation. However, I think that the goal should be to pursue as fair and balanced a presentation of the facts, and if there is analysis, as fair and balanced an analysis, presenting both sides for consideration.

    If at the end of any presentation, one feels that the media outlet has advocated or taken a position, there is a problem, no matter which side of the fence on which you sit.

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  8. Thanks again Douglas. On free speech, the workings of democracy, and the presentation of all side, we could not agree with you more.

    Everyone is entitled to make their presentation and to create a stage or platform for their views. However, we should simultaneously recognize that there are some inequities associated with getting one's message out. A politician, a professor, a journalist, a movie star, a singer, and a professional athlete all have the ability to disseminate their message, more so that the typical plumber, taxi-cab driver, fast food or grocery store clerk, etc. We need to be cognizant of that. Additionally, if I am speaking to a group of 12th graders vs the homeless vs college students vs the elderly vs those with English language difficulties vs the extremely educated, I need to be cognizant of how the message will be received, and the choice of words I use to communicate it.

    There's incredible complexity here. Perhaps the best that we can hope for is that people respect the values and opinions of others, agree on some common enunciated goals, remind themselves that nothing is more liberating than the truth, and realize that reasonable people can differ.

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  9. The most evolved project for a hybrid direct/representative democracy is led by former Sen. Mike Gravel. Registered voters can now vote to ratify the National Initiative for Democracy at http://Vote.org, much as citizens ratified the Constitution at the Conventions when the Legislatures wouldn't!

    "On the most major issues we've dealt with in the past 50 years, the public was more likely to be right...based on the judgment of history...than the legislatures or Congress." -George Gallup, Sr.

    ReplyDelete

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