Getting past polls to the real truth

You are the president, your extra-marital bedroom blunders have been discovered and happily transmitted to the entire world, your public apology has yielded even worse repercussions, so your advisers tell you to apologize again.
The advisers have figured out what the public wants to hear through polls: 1) a public apology; 2) an apology to Monica Lewinsky; 3) say nothing about Ken Starr. So you tell the public what it wants to hear. It works like a charm. Though still far from perfect, your personality and job performance ratings increase about 10 percent each. This is obviously a good thing for you, the president. But hasn’t the public been slighted, despite the fact that it has been fed exactly what it wants to hear?
Then again, maybe it would be cool to have a team of researchers and pollsters working for me, so I could figure out exactly what the public wants to read in an opinions piece.
The pollsters would ask, on a scale of one to 10, one being least interesting to read and 10 being the most, how would you rate a column topic that: 1) focused on light, quirky anecdotes we can all relate to; 2) focused on academic topics based on thorough research and fact gathering; 3) focused on politics; 4)… 5)…, etc. You get the gist.
After establishing the most popular broad category, they will then get to specifics: “Which quirky topic tickles your fancy the most (or something)? 1) squirrels 2) foot fetishes 3) Scooby Doo …” and so on.
But that would just be the beginning. Let’s just say we’ve got a couple things established, such as 69 percent of the people like quirky topics, and 78 percent of that 69 percent like quirky topics about foot fetishes. So foot fetishes would be the topic of my first column. Now the trick is to get the public to write my column for me. How do I do this? As I’m not a pollster, I can only guess. But I’d think demographics are key: How many of us are religious? This may place restrictions on how sexy I’m allowed to get.
Fifty-four percent? OK, OK, keep it relatively clean; soap-opera clean, how ’bout. Sex will have to be implied, but the details have to be omitted. Okay, now how many of us are punk rockers? Deadheads? Fratboys? Sorority gals? Country western fans? Skaters? Intellectuals? Pragmatists? Cynics? Optimists? What percentage of foot fetishes are possessed by men and what percentage by women? I gotta relate here. What kind of words do they like? The college kids, that is. Bunk; do they like “bunk?” On a scale of one to 10? Tight? How about “tight?” Groovy? Stylin’? Bonin’? Boneyard? Beefcake? Naked? Wet?
Hypothetically, if I had an unlimited amount of time and an army of egghead researchers, I could etch out the most perfectly inoffensive column ever written. Say my researchers give me the extensive data: 67 percent pragmatists, 30 percent cynics, 22 percent Greek affiliates, 25 percent punk rockers, etc. So now, with my team of egghead advisers, and with my quantified list of demographics, favorable topics, and popular words and phrases, we can begin to collaborate.
The outcome? A column that yields no complaints and a few mild compliments. Not a soul on campus gets pissed. A post-column poll is taken, regarding “my” ability as a columnist, and people approve. The next week rolls around, and the process begins again, because the public is ever-changing.
As safe as this opportunity would be, maybe it wouldn’t be so cool. To me, something seems creepy about a columnist substituting his creative freedom for sure-fire popularity. Then again, it’s really not much creepier than the notion of politicians basing decisions and platforms solely on whatever happens to be popular.
Does this mean polling is inherently bad, and we are inherently screwed because it’s never going away? No, it just means that the public needs to make a greater attempt to figure out the very elites who have figured out the public. And thanks to the news coverage of recent issues like the Lewinsky scandal, enlightenment is just a remote control button or page turn away.
According to the polls, stated Newsweek, “though we were weary of Starr’s persistence, ‘we, the people,’ wanted him to use the words ‘I’m sorry,'” we wanted him to apologize to Lewinsky, and we didn’t want him to mention Starr. Curiously, though Clinton has heretofore been a master chameleon, he ignored the first speech written by his aides. Instead, in his own speech, he ignored suggestions by excluding the words “I’m sorry,” refraining from apologizing to Lewinsky and attacking Starr. (So he didn’t pander to the polls, you’re saying … bear with me).
The repercussions were immense. His moral character ratings plummeted. Soon after, numerous congressional members denounced the president’s actions and his weak apology. According to Wolf Blitzer of CNN, Lieberman’s speech opened the doors of opportunity for other democrats to publicly distance themselves from Clinton … for the sake of saving themselves in the upcoming elections; not because they thought his actions were immoral. Then, according to U.S. News and World Report, as he sensed the cynicism of his own party and saw the cynicism of the public, he began a round of apologies, in which he — with tears in his eyes — apologized to the country, to Lewinsky and her family, and didn’t say anything about Starr.
To me, it seems awfully coincidental that he happened to base the latter apologies on the same bullet points his aides had initially stressed on the basis of polls for the first speech. News sources like CNN, Time and US News and World Report allowed the public to look into the same crystal ball of surveillance that Clinton and the pollsters look through. One would think, given all this information, that we’d learn. But his personality and job performance ratings have since escalated at least 10 points each, even though the possibility of impeachment remains in the headlines. It seems that once again, though we came so close to seeing through and not falling for, a master politician’s rhetoric, the Surveillance Genies have prevailed.
In the 1700s, sociologist and philosopher Max Weber made the bleak prediction that in time, the West would become increasingly better at acquiring ends from means based on cold calculations. This cold system of calculation, dubbed by him as rationalization, would eventually completely replace the existence of morals, beliefs and creativity. Though I’m not smart enough to assess whether his predictions are coming to fruition, some of the evidence looks fairly convincing, especially in the realm of politics.
Gone are the antebellum days of old, for instance, wherein loud-mouthed politicians stood atop soap boxes, firing loose cannons at the public. If you liked the sound of their rambling, you voted for them; if not, you ignored them. Today, however, politicians like Bill Clinton have mastered the art of knowing the popular outcome of any statement before it has even been uttered.
True, people have always been dupable. But the means by which to dupe them are much more sophisticated than they used to be. Today public officials can not only assess with significant confidence the public’s general sentiment on any given issue, they can also measure and analyze the effect that certain words have on the public with hand-held pulse meters, an asset utilized by Ronald Reagan’s campaign staff in the 1984 elections.
Such sophisticated surveillance techniques have worried today’s thinkers like social scientist Albert Cantril. As opinion deciphering techniques have improved, he maintains, “the politics of substance have been replaced by the politics of rhetorical manipulation.”
Sometimes it seems these faceless researchers with calculators and sample techniques might as well be fortune tellers, when one observes their accuracy. To me there’s something creepy about it, and it looks as though the media is trying to clue us in by reporting not only the words of politicians, but their motives behind the words as well. Maybe Weber was wrong and Cantril is just paranoid. Maybe we can figure out the very elites who have figured us out, and we can finally elect a politician who seems to truly give a damn. The first step? Let’s pay closer attention to the media’s account of politicians’ motives and not just focus on any given politician’s mere words.
Robert Kuznia’s column appears Tuesdays in the Daily.