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Saturday, February 6, 2010


Markos Moulitsas, founder and proprietor of THE DAILY KOS website, recently commissioned a poll of 2000+ self-identified Republicans in an attempt to find out what they believe. 36% think Obama was not born in the United States and 22% aren't sure. 63% think Obama is a socialist and 21% are not sure. 21% believe ACORN stole the 2008 election and 55% are not sure. And so forth.

There is a quite natural tendency to conclude that there are scores of millions of truly insane people in America [and that is just on the right!] Now, I do not take a back seat to anyone in my despair at the mindset of my fellow Americans, but as I mulled over the results of this poll, I found myself thinking both about the earlier poll showing that most Americans have no idea that it takes 60 votes in the Senate to block a filibuster, and about an old article on public opinion polling by David Riesman, an important sociologist of an earlier time. [I actually knew Riesman when I was at Harvard, but that is four or five other stories.]

So bear with me, as I try very hard to interpret all of this in a way that does not lead to the conclusion that America is a looney bin.

Riesman first. Very early on in the development of public opinion polling, Riesman pointed out that there is an important element of face and social standing lying behind the results of polls. What interested him was the fact that public opinion could swing so dramatically from one side of a question to the other in no more than a few weeks. His explanation was this: When a pollster comes to the door and asks for the homeowner's opinion about Red China or the Middle East or Health Care Reform, there is a good chance that the respondent won't know anything at all about the subject and will have no opinion, at least as we ordinarily understand having an opinion. But the poll taker is likely to present himself or herself as a middle class professional [we are talking 1950's here], and the person who has come to the door will be embarrassed simply to say, "I have no idea." He or she will know perfectly well that having opinions about things like that is a sign of social status. Rich people, upper class people, have opinions. So the respondent will cough up an answer, possibly choosing one of the offered possibilities on the basis of something vaguely recalled from television or the newspaper headlines. Two weeks later, when another poll is conducted, if in the interim something has caught everyone's attention that inclines in the other direction, the poll will seem to show a big sudden shift of opinion. But in fact, all it shows is that neither the respondents to the first poll nor the respondents to the second poll actually have any sort of opinion at all.

This idea is supported, I think, by that poll about filibusters in the Senate. If three quarters of the people polled don't know that it takes 60 votes to stop a filibuster, then I think we can conclude that that 75% really know next to nothing about what is going on in the public world.

Now look at the poll commissioned by Moulitsas. There are a great many self-identified Republicans who are very, very unhappy about America. They hate the fact that Obama is president, they hate the fact that people are talking openly about same sex marriage, they hate the fact that people are losing their jobs and their houses. And someone calls them on the phone [I don't think people knock on doors any more] and asks them a series of questions,. They may be ignorant, but these folks are not stupid. They understand perfectly well that a "no" to the question, "Was Obama born in the United States?" is an anti-Obama answer. They know that "socialist" is a swear word, and one that one is permitted to use in public. So, not being offered the opportunity to say, "Yes, Obama is an a**hole," they do the next best thing and say "Yes, Obama is a socialist and he was not born in this country." The informational content of that answer is nil, but the emotive content is rich and full.

I venture to guess that if Moulitsas had commissioned a poll that asked, "Do you think Obama kills little white babies and drinks their blood," some significant non-trivial percentage would have said "yes," and a much larger percentage would have answered "I don't know." It goes without saying that there would have been a big yes vote for "Is Obama in league with the Devil?" but that might just indicate a particular theological orientation.

Polls are frequently a good indicator of feelings, if properly interpreted, but they are often no indicators at all of informed opinion. On the other hand, a poll asking which American Idol candidate the respondents support, or who is going to win the Super Bowl, may very well elicit genuinely informed opinions.

Does this make me feel any better? Well, ignorant is better than crazy [I think].


Brenda said...

There's a huge question about why people choose to have an informed opinion about item A but not item B. One explanation may be lack of education about what's necessary to form an opinion that can be defended. Another might be a need to be agreeable to one's family or associates that overrides other factors. Might be good thesis topic but it should have been done already.

Ann said...

Another answer is the common idiom and cathartic appeal of sports and popular music...especially in a "consumer society" with alienated labor, perhaps.

NotHobbes said...

A recently conducted survey in the UK suggests that the majority of people questioned in opinion polls pay little regard to opinion polls ;-)

Ann said...

Further, I can refer to my usual list of "bad guys:" 1) reliance on property taxes for education finance (plus Prop 13 in California which limits those property taxes); and 2) reliance on for-profit corporations for broadcast media, including culture and the news (and a tiny public sector), degrading Habermas' "publicity" to the lowest common denominator.

That is, an informed public, with access to education and news, is necessary for the optimal operation of democracy. Even Locke and Rousseau said so!

You see, it is the "system" that is "bad," and the people are completely good and innocent! :-) or at least redeemable....

Although hard to say with Tea Party conventions!

Brenda said...

An "informed public" will reject the information if it doesn't "like"it. The question is why they don't like it. People are what they are and will resist dictatorship, no matter how well intentioned. The problem is their resistance to thinking about what they've been told and making an informed decision regardless of other influences. A psychological rather than political/economic problem.

Ann said...

These are excellent points, Brenda. There is some faith in collaboration and "collective decision-making" via the internet these days....or the original faith in deliberative bodies of elected representatives of the citizens and the potential for self-government. But, if not individually, then at least collectively we must be able to overcome irrational prejudices and resistances .... This is an essential component to democracy....and the reason that the Enlightenment assumption of "rationality" remains fraught.

Brenda said...

As a society, we do eventually get things right, but it may take much longer than either extreme would prefer. and may be a matter of collective fatigue on the losing side rather than collective wisdom on the other. The residue of resentment fuels the next round over a seemingly different subject. Reminiscent of the famous Kentucky feud--can't remember their names off hand. In any case each eruption finally passes and I can only hope that the next one will be less inflammatory.

Ann said...

Hatfields and McCoys..... :-)

I hope we can do better than that!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

At least they only killed each other.