In particular, the process of democratic deliberation and decision making has been disrupted by a combination of technologies and distorting information flows, often abetted/created by mass media, a process that was underway well before the advent of the internet, and which has been shifted into overdrive by technological capabilities driven by market forces with only glancing consideration of the fabric and aspirational values of our society. I have taken plenty of shots at the media generally in previous postings, so I want to target one particular angle here: public opinion polling. Thus, not “Vox Populi,” (the “voice of the people”) a traditional formulation of the basis of democratic culture, but “Vox Polluli,” a Latin-abusing neologism for looking to the polls as the basis of democratic culture.
Modern polling dates from the 1930s (a famous Gallup survey called the 1932 election for Al Smith over FDR), connected to the rise of modern advertising/marketing/consumerism of the early 20C. Today it’s a whole little industry of its own with academic studies, dozens of polling organizations and extensive media coverage of policy and political issues. Technology has advanced from “please return the postcard with your opinions” to live, real-time assessments of Presidential debates and speeches.
“Public Opinion” (as apparently discovered and authoritatively articulated by such polling) is regularly reported on and seems to be relied upon as a basis for public policy decision-making by elected officials. There are several problems with this:
First, polls are simplistic and life is complicated. Generic expressions of broad philosophical principles are of little use in diagnosing problems or the real-world crafting of policy.
Second, few members of the public spend much time understanding even the first-level specifics of tax policy or education expenditures, much less the extensive complexities that each areas entails. In a world of eight-second-sound bites, the thought of more than one percent of the population taking half an hour to understand the mechanisms of trade relations with China is, to be mild, highly speculative.
Third, poll responses are often/mostly driven by ‘feelings,’ not facts. Disapproval of Presidential performance ratings, for example are usually more a function of economic sentiment and psychological security than an assessment of what the “Leader of the Free World
du jour is actually doing or is capable of doing. Indeed, there is a good argument that pollees (i.e., the people being polled) more-or-less consciously use polls for this purpose (i.e., as a “venting” mechanism rather than as a substantive expression of preferences for policy or candidates).
Fourth, things change—events, negotiations, compromises all happen too fast for most of us to keep up with.
All of these are, in effect, arguments for intelligent representative government with policy decisions made by folks who are chosen to spend the bulk of their time sorting through options and coming to conclusions about desired outcomes. In other words, to whatever extent direct democracy might have worked in Athens 2400 years ago, or in a New Hampshire Town Meeting today, it’s wholly inadequate for the modern world and groups of more than a few thousand. This is the same rationale for avoiding plebiscites on policy (e.g. referenda and public votes on detailed legislative public initiatives).
Our current polling culture short circuits the process of democratic representation by providing instantaneous answers which are then supposed to “guide” policy makers. Bad questions, bad answers, bad information; even if we had good legislators/officials, what could go wrong…? Of course, the media is less concerned with quality policy than with “news,” even if it’s meaningless, the “blah-blah” mouthings of innumerable candidates that you have to “trust the judgment of the ‘American People’ notwithstanding.
The media’s counterpart to the public opinion survey (wearing its coat of statistical validation) is the apparently non-scientific spectrum coverage article which takes quotes and views from a full range of opinion. It’s of no more value than “some people like green and others prefer pink;” but it does enable the news outlet to ensure the public that it is listening and presenting everybody’s point of view, without apparent bias or spin (or value).
The upshot of this aspect of our political culture reinforces the corrupting influence of money by ensuring that those elected can claim to be “representing the people,” by listening to the polls, rather than their more fundamental job of leadership and public education on why they (and not their PACs) have taken the stances that they have why the complexities and compromises inherent in any democratic political system have worked in practice and why simplistic thinking doesn’t help anyone.
On top of this, is the obsession with speed and “breaking news,” best exemplified in the reporting on “exit polls” so that the apparent winner of an election can be designated a full 12 hours or so ahead of when results might otherwise be available. More media filler, more non-news; Pavlov would be proud.
As with most of modernity, there’s not much use in seeking to put the polling genie back in the bottle. It would be great if there were less and slower results. I’m not sure what public purpose is served by pre-election information on where the candidates stand, nor by post-election information on what “the people” “think.” Is it too much to hope that media outlets stop feeding the adrenalin junkies and give due (i.e. less) attention to such matters? I suspect it is. Every country, as Joseph de Maistre said (1811), “has the government it deserves.” We have the media and political culture we deserve, alas.