December 15, 2008

Go to the Polls

"As students, scholars, and the general public gain a better understanding of polls, they will have a greater appreciation of the service polls can perform in a democracy. In my opinion, modern polls are the chief hope of lifting government to a higher level, by showing that the public supports reforms that will make this possible, by providing a modus operandi for testing new ideas…Polls can help make government more efficient and responsive; they can improve the quality of candidates for public office, that this a truer democracy."

George Gallup

The problem however is that polls have been used for decades by skilled experts to contrive misleading or just downright false “debates” in order to effectually neutralize the demos. Polling guides not just candidates, policies, and campaigns but big-business advertising, and pretty any much anyone who wants to sell something to “the public” by monitoring its moves. Polling is not at all about having an open honest discussion with people – it is convenient shorthand for “documenting” the behavior of some demographic in order to know how to push its semiotic buttons. And while the nexus between polling, advertising, politics, and behavioral science has deep roots, going back to Political Scientists Charles Merriam and Harold Laswell, the figure of George Gallup is particular revealing. For according to the blurb of Susan Ohmer’s George Gallup in Hollywood, published by Columbia University Press, 2006,

“Gallup's polling techniques first achieved fame when he accurately predicted that Franklin D. Roosevelt would be reelected president in 1936. Gallup had devised an extremely effective sampling method that took households from all income brackets into account, and Hollywood studio executives quickly pounced on the value of Gallup's research. Soon he was gauging reactions to stars and scripts for RKO Pictures, David O. Selznick, and Walt Disney and taking the public's temperature on Orson Welles and Desi Arnaz, couples such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and films like Gone with the Wind, Dumbo, and Fantasia."

While I have always been of the Arianna school of just saying no to polling, the following piece from Sarah van Gelder, “What Americans Really Want: 10 Policies We Can All Agree On,” appearing in Yes! Magazine, 12/13/08, is a little refreshing.

But today the discourse of “polling” and "surveys" which leads the professional media culture at large has proliferated to such a degree, (from politics, celebrities, dieting, and sex,) that the ostensible “public” has become little more than a simulation. We are constantly told what we think, what we want, and what we believe. Yet ordinary folks are not at all aware as to how “methodologically” prejudiced polls can truly be: “do you favor A or B?” renders X irrelevant, just as “Should parents get A even if D means M?” again renders X immaterial. Most damaging, discourse gets structured around the parameters of certain bells and whistles which tend to culminate in "predictions," and the skewered language of realpolischtick. And so, with our apparent help, those in the public eye carefully denude their language of anything "controversial”, and “stay on message” with euphemisms and the overall warm-and-fuzzy.

While some may easily contest that polls have brought unprecedented amount of information it cannot be forgotten that most of it is simply pure junk. Perhaps more importantly, the defining issue today is not so much access to information but something much deeper: the credibility of opposing viewpoints. Public discourse is simply dominated by the show-business of "respectable" mainstream media conglomerates, not Amy Goodman, not Phil Donahue, not Bill Moyers, not the blogs. And until the fine print, and all that the public needs to know, is no longer conveniently tucked away underneath all those bells and whistles, and presented instead in a clear, open, and jargon-free manner for Everyperson to understand, then it is hardly "objective" to seriously argue anything about what "the public" supposedly chooses or wants.

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