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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Matt Bai's "Survey Says" New York Times Magazine Column

Writer Matt Bai’s Sunday The New York Times Magazine column “Survey Says” deals with polling and politicians, inspiring me (not surprisingly) to reflect on three of his main points, as follows:

1. Politicians selectively use poll results when they are favorable to their cause.

This is most certainly correct -- albeit not a startling revelation, as I can testify after years of watching people applaud or ignore polls depending on how they serve their political purposes.

I might generalize. Politicians will selectively use almost any data or information in a way that furthers their cause. Politicians will also ignore or criticize data and information which is negative to their cause. Polls are part of this process.

Bai notes that in the healthcare situation Republicans have been very quick to quote polls showing that a plurality (they often incorrectly say a vast majority) of Americans are opposed to the healthcare reform bill. He notes that Republicans have, on the other hand, been quick to say that polls don’t matter in other circumstances -- for example during the Bush admininstration.  Bai doesn't get into specifics, but we certainly had one instance of this as President Bush pushed for the surge in Iraq while polling showed that Americans were more interested in pulling troops out.

I would offer another more current example. As I’ve discussed, Obama has positively cited poll data showing that Americans support individual planks in the healthcare plan even if not the overall plan. Obama has also criticized those who would cite poll data showing after the bill passed that a majority of the public still doesn’t support it.


Again, it's no great shock to conclude that most politicians will selectively cite/use polls to fit their political agenda.

2. Politicians shouldn’t pay attention to poll results, but instead should do what they think is right, subject to the public’s vote at the next election.

Another of Bai’s points touches on the enduring philosophic argument about trustee versus delegate models of democracy, long a centerpiece of discussions of the nature of political representation. I devote a great deal of space to discussing this issue in my book Polling Matters.

Bai jumps on the trustee side of this argument in his piece. He says: “Ultimately, the job of our elected leaders isn’t to poll the majority and act accordingly, like responsive droids. It’s to make choices and then to persuade us that those choices were right for the country.”

Here Bai echoes the 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke who famously said, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

This is a fascinating area of debate. And as noted, one of many centuries standing. I certainly come down on the side of elected representatives paying a lot of attention to the opinions of those who elected them. Bai’s trustee-type position clearly tilts in the other direction.

Elected representatives are not legally required to follow the desires of the public between elections. I think that’s beside the point. The key: elected representatives would be wise to pay attention to public opinion between elections simply because it leads to better decisions -- whether they have to or not.

CEOs today don’t have to listen to what their customers and employees are saying and thinking. But wise CEOs have learned that to gather and analyze this information because it helps them make better decisions. Same thing re: military leaders. They don’t have to listen to the views of the soldiers, sailors, or Marines whom they command. But wise military leaders have learned that it makes sense to pay close attention to what their subordinates -- often closest to the action -- have to say about the implications of pending command decisions.

Wise political eaders can usefully make the same choice.

Those (apparently including Bai) who push the trustee model appear to hold the wisdom of our elected representatives in great esteem, assuming that if left alone to their own devices, these leaders will arrive at eminently wise and profoundly effective and appropriate decisions.

But our eminently wise elected representatives still have to make their decisions on some basis. These include their own prejudices, the influence of party leaders, the desire to channel the philosophic positions of ideological champions, the strong positions and influence of interest groups and other entities with financial stakes in the outcome, and their own backgrounds. It’s hard to argue that these inputs are the only ones that should be used for decision making.

I certainly believe that adding in the views of the average citizens of the country as a major component of decision-making input can substantially enhance the quality of decisions made by our representatives. Polling is the way we assess those views.

There are challenges inherent in the use of Americans’ collective opinions as an input into policy decisions. Having been involved in measuring, then dissecting, and then attempting to summarize public opinion for decades, I’m certainly aware of most of these. There have been and always will be problems in the process of effectively measuring and summarizing public opinion on complex issues. But these challenges can be addressed.

Many elites (and those who embrace a trustee model of representative democracy) appear to have little respect for Americans’ opinions (in between elections). I disagree with that. I have a great deal of respect for the collective opinions of the American public.

Further, it is of interest to note, Americans themselves at the moment have little respect for the opinions of the representatives they elect to go off to Washington to represent them. Job approval ratings for Congress have now improved significantly from a few months ago -- but are still less than 25%. Americans rate the honesty and ethics of members of Congress down near those of car salesmen. Asked directly, Americans say that they have substantially more confidence in their own views and opinions on critical issues facing the nation than they do in the legislative branch of government.

In his piece, Bai jumps on the trustee model argument that our representatives, trusted or not, should be sent off to think great things and arrive at masterful decisions, isolated from their constituents. But the question remains: Make decisions based on what criteria? Carefully measuring and analyzing the collective opinions of the people of the country as one basis for these decisions would appear to make a lot of sense.

3. Current polling results on healthcare do not lead to any straightforward conclusions.

Another of Bai's points: “The polling on health care does not, in fact, lead to any simplistic conclusion about the will of the electorate.”

I agree with this to a certain extent. Public opinion on most policy issues is rarely simple or exceedingly straightforward.

Of course, neither is the scientific evidence on the causes and best course of treatment for breast and prostate cancer, the efficacy of spinal-fusion operations, or the relative advisability of stents, bypass surgery or medical/drug only treatment for coronary artery disease. Yet doctors and medical researchers still plow ahead, review, and summarize the best available data, and continue to make decisions based on the results.

In similar fashion, polling on healthcare may not lead to “simplistic” conclusions. But there are consistent threads in the data that do, in fact, lead to fairly consistent conclusions. There is no escaping the general finding across multiple measures conducted across time and across organization that the president and Democratic leaders have not managed to convince a majority of Americans that the healthcare bill is good for them personally, or that it will reduce costs, or most generally, to say that it is a good thing for the country.

Bai states that the public’s general opposition to healthcare reform simply may reflect the fact that the public is “ . . . skeptical of the impact of any sweeping legislation that might come out of Washington, health care related or not. . . ” But this is not an insignificant point. The question becomes: Why are Americans skeptical of large sweeping legislation coming out of Washington? Should this widespread distrust be dismissed as irrational? Or should elected representatives take the time to figure out just why citizens are so leery of massive, new Washington mandates?

All in all, elected representatives who say “we know best” and who basically tell their constituents to go fly a kite until the next election miss out on an important source of guidance as they figure out how to handle the problems we face as a nation.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...
April 15, 2010 at 10:14 AM  

Good points all, but using the delegate model, we would still have slavery and no civil rights. I think it's not as cut and dry as prefering one to the other. Both models have a role to play and certainly we live in a representative democracy where we hire our leaders to make decisions on our behalf.

Anonymous said...
April 16, 2010 at 5:41 PM  

If we have elites who decide what is best for the country, Mr. Anon 10:14AM, then we don't live in a democracy, period. A democracy has to be "rule by the people", not "rule by elites that have been formally approved by a majority of the population after being first selected by one of two major political parties".

I don't know about the civil rights movement, but I do know of the rise of the anti-slavery Republican Party in the 1850's and 60's, who campagined against slavery, received the votes of the North, and who did push for the abolition of slavery. I think change on those two fronts may be slowed, but they will still occur anyway; they'd just have more popular support, and thus less opposition to worry about.

But...I think the delegate model have the potential to cause more political changes than that of a trustee model. The Framers were worried about what would happen if the masses (such as, say, those without property) are able to control the government and make major changes. To the Framers, the trusteeship would allow for the elites to ignore the changes that the masses demanded, and thereby provide for the 'status quo'.

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