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Thursday, 27 May 2010 05:38

The One Thing Cheney Was Right About: Governing Based on Public Opinion Polls is Ridiculous

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by Meg White 

One of the most popular rallying cries of Republicans and tea partiers alike this election year is that Democrats are not listening to the will of the American people. They can point to polls on many hot-button issues, from immigration to the environment to trying terrorism suspects and say that the "majority of Americans" disagree.

Well, count me as one American who disagrees with that entire premise. On this particular issue, I'm with former Darth Vader Dick Cheney's sentiment that public officials shouldn't "be blown off course by the fluctuations in the public opinion polls."

Let's start with immigration. Despite the massive public outcry over the Arizona immigration bill, all we hear about in the media is about how the majority of Americans support it. Well, that is, 51 percent of the 1,079 people who were asked about it in this one poll said that they backed the new law. Yet when asked in that same poll what they think should be done with illegal immigrants found in this country, a whopping 64 percent of respondents said that they should be allowed to stay here under some kind of work and/or citizenship program. 

The Democrats response to this in an election year? Send $500 million and 1,200 National Guard troops to the border in the hopes that such an action will placate these scared, confused Americans and the obstructionist Republicans who are holding the breaks on real immigration reform.

Or, let's take the whole offshore drilling issue as an example. Before BP's giant oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (which just today has been declared by government scientists to be the worst oil-related disaster in U.S. history and perhaps twice as big as the Exxon Valdez disaster), Americans favored offshore drilling by around 70 percent. Now that the number of Americans supporting the practice is falling quickly, Democrats finally feel like they can call for the end of offshore drilling.

What's changed? The industry was just as corrupt and unsafe two months ago, but back then very few lawmakers would bother to stand up against President Obama's call to expand offshore drilling in his State of the Union address.

On the use of military tribunals to try terrorism suspects, another "majority" says "9/11 terrorism suspects should be tried in military courts rather than in civilian courts," and that "terrorism suspects should not receive all of the constitutional protections afforded by a civilian trial." Yet do any of the people polled even know what the difference between a military tribunal and a civilian court is? Do they know which "constitutional protections" they're denying suspects? Do they know how much more effective civilian courts have been in securing and trying terrorism suspects in the past? Do they know that the U.S. demands civilian trials be conducted in other countries, but not in our own?

I consider myself a populist in many ways. And I think government should be more responsive on all levels. But -- for many different reasons -- they should be responding to real people and actual facts, not polls.

First and foremost, Americans are grossly uninformed, making it easier for them to become misinformed. With the ascension of the pundit, who will exclude crucial facts and even right-out lie in order to gain converts to his or her cause, the once (sort of, sometimes) reliable source of unbiased information we had in the media is all but drowned out.

Polls often don't take this into consideration. Exceedingly few polls ever ask respondents about how knowledgeable they are on the subject at hand. Sometimes they don't even give people the choice to respond with an "I don't know," and the questions are often framed with misleading buzzwords that make them akin to push polls, even if that is not the intention.

Second of all, the polls themselves are highly suspect, even when they come from supposedly reputable sources. Seemingly insignificant things such as question order or the respondent's opinion of the person asking the questions can make for serious inaccuracies.

Finally, consider this: I'm a person who votes every time the civic duty comes up on her local calendar, yet I've never been consulted on any media opinion poll at any of the various phones I've answered over the years. For those of you who say that my votes don't count, I hope you're also ignoring the results of opinion polls.

The irony here is that for how poor of a representation of prevailing views they are, opinion polls are quite expensive. The media spends a lot of time and money formulating these questions, contacting people, crunching numbers... So when the results are in, they do a big write-up for the public, along with a press release to other news organizations (hoping they'll get their results printed up elsewhere) about the shocking results they've uncovered about how a "majority" of Americans (dis)approve of X.

Yet, the average opinion poll distorts the political process infinitely more than it helps us understand the world we live in. If the media would only spend this time and money educating people, wouldn't we have a much more informed and engaged electorate, and thereby a more responsive government?

But that's a criticism for another day. Getting back to my original statement, it's not totally accurate to say that I concur with everything Cheney was saying in that one interview question about public opinion polls. If you look at the statement in context (emphasis mine):

CHENEY: On the security front, I think there's a general consensus that we've made major progress, that the surge has worked. That's been a major success.

RADDATZ: Two-third of Americans say it's not worth fighting.


RADDATZ So? You don't care what the American people think?

CHENEY: No. I think you cannot be blown off course by the fluctuations in the public opinion polls.

It's clear by Cheney's "no" that he really didn't care what Americans thought. And that's where we differ. I do care what the American people think. I just don't think that elected officials should cater to every wild-eyed media report of what 51 percent of 1,000 or so Americans happened to be thinking at any given time. That's not leadership.

And for those Democrats who can't tell the difference between what they should act upon and what they shouldn't, here's a clue: Ideals have merit and elections have consequences; opinion polls have neither.