posted 2012-04-06 04:52:14

Voting By The Numbers

A Critique of Polling and Politics

Julian Cosma

Staff Writer

Throughout the 1980s, the Reagan Administration reformed the tax code in much the same way that the guillotine reformed Louis XVI. The administration trumpeted polls in which Americans came out in favor of their actions as justification—proof that their policies were legitimate. In contrast, polls regarding the administration’s continued support of the Nicaraguan Contras—which were consistently negative—were ignored by the administration. Within this juxtaposition even the most doe-eyed observer can see that something is amiss. The populist, democratic mechanism used for the justification of one policy is quickly dismissed when it contradicts the agenda of the administration. Should this surprise us? Not in the slightest. The ethos of polling is fundamentally bankrupt.

The stormiest season of the poll coincides with that special time every four years- election season, where the middle class is pandered to, the unemployed are promised to in saccharine tones, and the wealthy are reassured in their position. Polling has become, by and large, the most interesting and ersatz substitute not only for real reflection and analysis, but also for interrogation and research. It is a mathematical assurance of euphemism. It allows for semi-authoritative glibness from and among people who otherwise are too apathetic or lack the capability to form a coherent opinion. It also gives the pollsters and their clients a numerical bible to pound down upon, and one that updates itself continuously.

To see this panopticon in action one must only look as far as the fatuously named website, “RealClearPolitics.” The name alone impresses all the dubiousness of the woman who must refer to herself as “ladylike.” One of the prominent functions of this website is the assemblage of numbers regarding the answers to what are genteelly referred to as “forced choice” questions. A forced choice question is, “Do you approve of Obama’s job as President?” Immediately, anyone with a pulse feels the strong inclination to ask (at least to themselves, if not out loud):”What the hell is that supposed to mean, and why should I answer it?” This type of answer is usefully known as an “inconsistency.”

The term pollster was coined as an insult of sorts (note the phonic similarity with huckster) in a 1949 book written by political scientist Lindsay Rogers. Rogers was concerned that if only the right questions were asked, then the most favorable answers would in turn be received by whatever party set up the inquiry. This would tend to incrementally contract the debate by framing not only the questions, but also the answers. Thus the possibility, or rather probability, that an unaccounted-for opinion may emerge becomes increasingly rare. So, the end result is twofold: first, polling is an easy way to “get a story.” It is a garnish that may be strutted right below and to the left of the headline. The paper can then in turn congratulate itself for providing the readers with a salubrious portion of “objective information.”

The reality is, once you have committed yourself to a particular side, you have made what may be the least interesting about yourself a point of the utmost importance.

Once you say, “I am anti-war”, you are tagged like an endangered bird, and become effectively only that. It is that single point of interest, the “forced choice” that gives polls such power. More and more, the democratization of polls and their results leads less and less to the democracy that a pollster would make you believe it serves.