Published on Tuesday, December 11, 2001 in the Madison Capital Times
Any Poll Can Be Manipulated To Support An Agenda
by Ed Garvey
There are lies, damned lies and then there are statistics. That old saw comes to mind every time I hear about another poll. Polls have become a wonderful substitute for serious analysis of current events. Who cares about social justice, women's rights, tuition rates or civil liberties if news people can report the percentage of the American people on one side or the other? Poll results are almost as compelling as crime on the late news.
Even more interesting, those reporting on the poll results never spend a minute telling the audience about the bias of the group releasing the poll, their experience or track record or how they are being used. Polls have become an incredibly effective weapon in the hands of spin doctors. If they can show that a big majority supports their position, the media need only report that the verdict is in, the results are clear and there is no need to examine the underlying premise. Bush wins Florida.
And polls taken privately guide our elected leaders. That is a certainty. Bill Clinton never took a position without hearing from his pollster and Bush is worse. The motto of Al From and his Democratic Leadership Council is to ride with the majority on all issues. "Why fight it?" is their guiding principle. If the majority of the nation supports NAFTA, get behind it.
And so it goes. Polls guide politicians and polls make the radio and television reporter's job easy. They are the modern-day oracle at Delphi, the elders discussing great issues in the temple, or political parties adopting and following platforms. (Ah, if Socrates had only listened to his pollster.) No need for a static party platform. After all, if a plank is adopted in June, public opinion could change by August so why get stuck with an old poll?
Knowing the significance of polls, those in power use their ideological and economic partners to shape opinion in advance of a poll to help pass legislation or detain people who don't look like the majority. Most polls don't just "happen." They are issued by some group with an ax to grind. When do they take the poll and when do they release it? Are there any rules? Will the right-wing Bradley Foundation front calling itself the Policy Institute issue poll results showing that the vast majority of Wisconsinites oppose school vouchers for religious schools? Hardly, when the now-departed Michael Joyce and his compliant board gave millions in support of this privatization effort. The institute releases results only when they support its agenda.
If the institute finds that time after time the majority opposes vouchers, then it will ask about the failures of public schools, thereby advancing the agenda through the back door. Then the "nonprofit Wisconsin Policy Institute" releases a poll showing that an alarming number of citizens are unhappy with public schools. What to do? To get started, how about an experiment with vouchers in Milwaukee for poor African-American children? Ease people into this privatization effort and before they wake up, public schools will be reserved for those very poor African-American kids used to justify their efforts. It is that simple.
What questions are asked? Is the University of Wisconsin School of Journalism contacted? Of course not. Independent experts are not asked for advice because a poll is not about objective information, it is about propaganda.
Polls have become as dangerous as 30-second advertising spots for candidates. Now, 30-second spots are used to "educate" the electorate based on private polls that inform the perpetrator which buttons to push to move large numbers of people to one side of an issue. Then a later poll can be released showing the new opinion and thus convincing the people that the leaders are following them. How local newscasters will respond is a given.
All any group with an agenda has to do is make sure it gets the results right. But that's easy. If it crafts the message to get the desired response and fails, it has three choices. Kill the results, release altered figures, or go back to more commercials to move the public like Pavlov's dogs to the "correct" position.
It is almost impossible to listen to radio or television without having the incredible message driven into one's brain that 80 percent (or is it 90 percent?) of the American people agree with John Ashcroft's plan to eliminate the Sixth Amendment right to an attorney, to eliminate the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure, and to hold people who look different from Laura and W incommunicado for weeks even after a judge finds there is no evidence against them. We are told day in and day out that there should be no presumption of innocence and that public trials are too messy when fighting the modern day communists called terrorists.
None of the media finds out who asked what questions to whom. No one asks for the underlying data to back up the assertions. No one asks or ever learns how many polls were taken with the results remaining silent. And all this before the fundamental question: "Suppose 80 percent believe that the Bill of Rights should be eliminated. Is that all you need to report or might we discuss, for a moment, what those rights were intended to protect?"
Had Lincoln taken a poll before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, or had George Washington asked about the percentage of colonists who would be willing to take up arms, or had Martin Luther King Jr. asked what percentage of the American people supported direct action in opposition to segregation laws, we would be a much different nation. John Ashcroft recently declared, "To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists." To those elected officials who were neither laughing out loud nor silently crying when Ashcroft spoke those words, I say, forget the polls and find your moral compass.
To the media: Stop telling us what we think. Start explaining why we have the Bill of Rights.
Ed Garvey is a Madison lawyer who was the Democratic candidate for governor in 1998.
Copyright 2001 The Capital Times