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Printer Friendly Page Public-Interest Polling, Heart and Brain of Democracy ~ #54

Public-Interest Polling, Heart and Brain of Democracy ~ #54

By Alan F. Kay, PhD
2005, (fair use with attribution and copy to authors)
July 27, 2005

When hired by candidates for high office, pollsters work hard and generally earn their keep.  They are well paid to ferret out public responses that help to frame the personas and issues of their candidates for both success during the campaign and when they occupy office.  A part of pollster responsibility requires seeking-out and qualifying voter sectors that will best support the candidate.  The pollsters endeavor to convince themselves, the candidates, their advisors and the candidates' financial backers that they have qualified a number of voter sectors to be "friendly" that is pre-disposed to both vote for the candidate and satisfy the backers.  By way of examples, column #43 presented those voter sectors that got the most media attention from all candidates in each of the six most recent national elections: "white males (1994), soccer moms (1996), waitress moms (1998), white, married, working moms (2000), office park dads (2002), and NASCAR fans (2004)". 

Pollster's questions in surveys explore many of the tens of thousands of exploitable possibilities based on combinations of the candidate's story, record, background, appeal, character, personality, etc., in all different ways, as diverse as the commercial pollsters themselves.  Such questions are tested within friendly sectors for almost any advantage for the candidate.   Also tested is the candidate support from well-heeled sectors, like "wealthy executives" or "trial lawyers", that may supply many backers.  Backers typically get from five to 20 times return on their investments in candidates, whether by tax breaks, government contracts, approval of mergers or other means (See "Spot the Spin", p. 5, Chapter 1).  Some of the government's money sticks to the backers' fingers.  Politicians frequently say to voters, "It's your money.  You know better than the government how to spend it."  But the money, rather than sticking to the fingers of the backers, could better be spent in whatever the people want their tax money to buy.  Commercial pollsters tend to avoid touching on what the people want for governance when the findings might be used to attack pay-offs to backers e.g., polls that clearly show the public does not want what Big Pharma wants.  Commercial pollster questions seldom are relevant to what is at the heart of public-interest polling, what the public itself wants for governance.  This is the fundamental dichotomy of commercial polling and public-interest polling. 

Political leaders clearly have little interest in or understanding of public-interest polling.  Among those who do understand it are Hillary and Bill Clinton and perhaps George W. Bush.  These three, as well as most other political leaders, when running for office and seeking polling advice, use only commercial pollsters.  Here is an example of how Bill Clinton handles the dichotomy.  Policies that both the people want and, at the same time, the politicians (of both parties) agree they do NOT want are dismissed.  Clinton (as recently as July 8, 2005 on C-Span) calls such policies "non-voting" issues and ducks what that means.  I say issues are "non-voting" only because officials, aided by the mainstream media, will not allow an opportunity for the public to vote on them.

If political leaders favor a policy and are asked by a reporter for their perception of whether the public is with them, invariably they say yes.  (The thinking is biblical, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?").  In all other situations it's easy for leaders to stay off-course on what the people want, since they give minimal attention to, and will not to deal with, the public's views.  Their attention is on their own views.

Pundits seem to handle polls better.  When they quote poll results, they're usually right.  When they speak about what the public believes without having relevant poll data to back them up, pundits tend to leave out key qualifiers or other specifics of the public's true position that often send the pundits way off-course too.  The only poll findings that get through the mainstream media to the public that a majority of both Republicans and Democrats accept as valid are those that have been tested with essentially identical results by multiple credible pollsters who are perceived collectively as canceling out bias.  To be accepted as correct by a truly large majority of both parties, essentially identical findings must be (1) carried by a wide range of mainstream news media and (2) provided by a large number of pollsters covering the major party viewpoints.

The two parties are so polarized that they truly cannot imagine any serious justification for the views of the other party.  Public-interest pollsters, when they are designing and testing questions, must be able to see clearly both parties' views and so their findings are curiously useful in exploring how both major parties present issues.  Top leaders of the major parties use three different, ingenious and often effective ways that induce significant portions of the public to support them.   The two parties use the same ways, but use them differently and in widely varying degrees.  If I am correct, staunch supporters of one party will believe that the other party uses these ways for their benefit, but their own party does not do that.  This is true for both Republicans and Democrats.  They cannot both be right.

The First Way. (Political memory loss by the public)  This way depends on a mainstream media characteristic, the 24-hour, competitive news cycle in today's world of instant communications.  Radio, TV, and daily print media seriously endeavor to cover every political news development of the day but not with equal amounts of coverage and, yes, often slanted.  By means of wire services and syndication, daily news media almost never have scoops or miss a story that the media organizations find by their own standards "fit to print."  Scoop and missing story days are over.  If the same story has new developments on following days, the cycle is repeated and the story is updated.  If not, the story disappears to make way for the constant barrage of new stories. 

Most ordinary people do not have much recollection of news that has been "out-of-sight" for a few days, even a day.  In that short time a leader can take an important new position without a word about making that change.  Although many people will notice the switch, there are people in the tens of millions who do not.  Typically such people follow politics only by occasionally glancing at some print news, or while waiting for the start of a TV/radio show, are subject to a bit of political news.  Most Americans do not have the time or interest to follow all national political developments closely enough to remember much.  They rely on the daily media to inform them when top leaders change their positions.

Today's daily mainstream radio/TV/print media, interested in enhancing their own power and money, accept no such responsibility and, in fact, the information they provide is often perceived, in some cases by Republicans and in others by Democrats, as disinformation or lies.  Internet bloggers are beginning to counter public memory loss.  They have succeeded in keeping important political stories alive for a few days, despite the daily mainstream news efforts to bury yesterday's story with today's new news.

The Second Way.   (Forget top leader's errors, misleading and lying)   If a top leader is believed by many to have made bad errors in judgment or have mislead the country or lied, and the leader is accused by some who are (1) credible and (2) have significant access to directly reaching a substantial support of the public (say over a million people), this is a situation that normally brings the leader down.  The leader may still keep the support of many people by pursuing two courses: (A) never admitting any culpability, aided by a large amount of secrecy, while (B) the leaders' supporters, perhaps without approval, go to great length, planting in the media whatever lies are necessary to discredit the accusers. 

This approach keeps many people (millions but not a majority) supporting the leader.  They remain unsure/confused as to who is right.  This works psychologically for some because such people can temporarily dismiss the issue by believing that, if guilty, the leader would ultimately be forced to accept at least some part of the accusation.  When the leader never admits to any culpability whatsoever, millions of unsure/confused people accept faulty reasoning that since guilty leaders are ultimately punished, if a leader goes longer and longer without being held accountable, the leader must be innocent.

The Third Way.   The way the Washington political system works, top leaders massively, but not necessarily conspiratorially:

Am I kidding?  No, believe it or not probably many people, a few tens of millions, cannot bring themselves to think that their own government would do these terrible and unthinkable things.  Such massive, dysfunctional behavior goes unacknowledged by top leaders.  Incurred in other contexts such behaviors have been tagged "BIG lies".  Thankfully BIG lie adherents now are not yet a majority and, if subjected to lots of sunshine, their numbers are capable of shrinkage.

All three ways work synergistically.  Many people will continue to support top leaders, particularly those who use all three ways.

Conclusion.Understanding and acceptance of public-interest polling emerges ultimately as the key to achieving true democracy to a degree that has never been seen on the planet. Good polling, by a collaboration between experts and the people in the design, execution and analysis of surveys, can uncover social, economic, and political directions that are the wishes and fervent desires of not just a majority but of a consensus of the whole country and ultimately of the whole world too. People are using their hearts and their minds. This idea is encapsulated in the title of this column #54, "Public-Interest Polling, Heart and Brain of Democracy."

>>> 2.5  The Polling Critic

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