There is an old joke about the basketball team owner who takes aside a troubled player who once had brilliant prospects. "I can't figure out what your problem is," he says. "Are you ignorant or just apathetic?"
The player lackadaisically responds, "I don't know, and I don't care."
When it comes to politics, the average American is like that player. It is hard to find out where ignorance ends and apathy begins. Still, every day on television and on the front pages of the nation's newspapers, public-opinion polls are presented as if voters sit bespectacled and disciplined, watching two-minute speeches from the House floor on C-SPAN and pondering what to do about the Chechnya situation.
Nothing could be further from the truth — or have greater implications for the proliferation of polls in American democracy. Consider the following findings when polls probe knowledge about politics, not just opinion:
Fewer than half of Americans can even name their representative to Congress. And not one in 10 voters can identify a single policy connected to his or her elected official. In April, Harris released a poll that showed 38% of Americans could not identify one specific policy difference between Democrat Al Gore and his rival candidate for the Oval Office, Republican George W. Bush. (Of those who could cite an issue, abortion was the top — with 5% seeing that as a point of conflict.)
What do polls measure?
The day-to-day business of government and elections continues apace, of course. The problem is that polls are a powerful force in the political process. They are used to nudge political debate, judge politicians and even propel media coverage. That means that ignorance and apathy can drive policy. Yet the debate about the sandy foundations of public opinion is largely ignored. In such an environment of obvious ignorance, media pundits and political players insist on invoking polls as the judge, jury and executioner of modern policy disputes. Often, this can lead to absurd results.
For more than a decade, conservatives and liberals have fought over the issue of school choice. That battle is flaring up again, now that the question is on the ballot in Michigan and California this November. Although such programs may vary in detail, the arguments for and against remain more or less the same. Conservatives say vouchers would let low-income parents send children to the school of their choice, adding competition and accountability to the education system. Liberals counter that vouchers would rob the schools of scarce resources, lead to dangerous inequalities and ultimately destroy public education as we know it.
Both sides cite public support for their positions — on TV, in newspaper articles, in campaign commercials. And for years, we have seen media polls report results that claim to have found the pulse of the American voter on the issue. But a recent poll by New-York based Public Agenda showed that Americans have not the slightest clue what a voucher is: Only 17% of adults could give even a basic definition. But there is good news. Eighty percent of those polled humbly admitted that "they need to learn more about vouchers before they can form an opinion."
Any study of polling reveals that the wording of questions is the decisive force in "measuring" public opinion in such a knowledge-poor environment. When voters have no understanding or fixed attitudes about policy, they fall prey to manipulation more easily. He who writes the questions defines the debate.
"The public, having no fixed true opinion, implicitly relies on the particular question it has been asked to determine what exactly the issue is what considerations are relevant to settling it," writes UCLA political science professor John R. Zaller in "The Nature and Origin of Mass Opinion."
So, then, what exactly are polls measuring?
Impressions. Gut feelings. Prejudices. Call it what you will. Just do not call it informed opinion.
Ignorance is bliss
Media pollsters and many journalists deflect such criticism of the polling process, claiming that polling augments democracy. It lets the little guy be heard. "News polls are a mirror to the public, permitting individuals to understand where they fit into the political system," says Kathleen Frankovic, director of surveys for CBS News. "Reporting public-opinion polls tells readers and viewers that their opinions are important, and can be even sometimes more important than the opinions of the elite."
Others, such as University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, disagree. "Polls are created for those who know the least and who think the least," Sabato says. "Polls are built for the least interested and least informed citizens." Adds Rogan Kersh of Syracuse University, "social scientists seem inclined to overlook or explain away the dangers accompanying an uninformed populace."
Last year, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-NY, complained that the constant grind of polling forces Congress into being "careless" with the Constitution. The high polling numbers in favor of a line-item veto, for instance, assured its passage despite its unconstitutionality. And the House managers who prosecuted the case against Bill Clinton similarly warned about the misleading nature of polls, boasting that they stood for principle in the case against the president.
So what is the point of polling Americans on questions in which they have shown little knowledge or interest?
At the height of the Monica Lewinsky mess, the press churned out story after story — eagerly seized upon by the White House — about the public's support for censure as an alternative to impeachment. Yet, according to the Polling Company, only 24% of voters even knew what censure was. Not only do polls feed off ignorance, it appears they can broadcast it.
A republic, not a direct democracy
What does that say about the health of our democracy? We should not write it off just yet. But as long as media present polls as concrete measures of public thinking, democratic debate and deliberative leadership will be undercut.
Polls are held up as a purer form of democracy. They take a random sample of the American people and use the results to represent public opinion throughout the nation.
But isn't that what the people's representatives are for? The drive toward direct democracy — whether it be through constant use of media polls to direct politicians or Ross Perot's proposal for a national electronic plebiscite — doesn't just seem illogical with such ignorance. It is more like suicide.
In the republic envisioned by the framers of the Constitution, elected officials are not randomly selected by lot as in ancient Athens. The system is built to cull together the best the nation has to offer.
The founders feared direct democracy precisely because the public can be unstable, oppressive and even self-destructive, with citizens making decisions based on emotion or ignorance. The founders were not anti-democratic. But they did understand that the "temple of tyranny" had two doors — the authoritarianism of the despot and anarchy of mob rule.
James Madison argued in Federalist No. 10 for "an extended republic" with a representative structure to "refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens" and protect the public interest from "temporary or partial considerations."
Similarly, Alexander Hamilton wrote,
When occasions present themselves, in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of the persons whom they have appointed, to be the guardians of those interests; to withstand the temporary delusion, in order to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection.
The framers advocated two-, four-, and six-year terms of office so that the House, president, and Senate would learn, deliberate and lead, as well as be responsible to the people. It was the job of the citizen to remain vigilant, informed, and educated so his voice could be heard on Election Day and keep leaders in check.
The problem of republican (small-r) government is the problem of education. When voters cannot answer basic questions about their government or the issues of the day, it is the duty of the media and elected officials to talk more about substantive issues to educate the electorate. Otherwise, voters will lack enough knowledge to make polls meaningful. And the inevitable conclusion will be that these meaningless numbers will be used to make bad laws.