Tuesday, June 22, 2010


 If you ever watch a cable news program, or read a newspaper, or listen to talk radio, you'll probably notice that quite a lot of these commentators are more than a little hung-up on polls.  There isn't an issue out there, no matter how complicated, that can't be examined through the popular opinions of the American people.  By this point, polls have become such dug-in features of American political discussion that they long since passed the point of cliché something like fifteen years ago.  "Calvin & Hobbes" had a running joke where first grader Calvin would complain about his parents' rules through the use of a phantom figures that supposedly would show the failure of his parents' administration:  95% of six-year-olds polled wanted later bedtimes, and if Dad wanted to win the next election he better give them what they wanted.  You know, because obviously six-year-olds know best.

I suppose there's some kind of inherent logic to polls in our society.  This nation is built upon the principles of the Consent of the Governed.  The mechanism of elections is what supposedly allows the people to give their choice behind their preferred method of governance.  Of course, the Founding Fathers knew that people could never govern themselves, which is why we have a government in the first place.  But they were a little more conservative than that:  they actively designed the Constitution to give repeated layers of government between the fleeting popular opinion of the moment and actual direct control of governmental actions by those said opinions.  So, we have an Electoral College instead of direct elections.  We also have solid terms.  A President can do whatever he wants in the face of popular opinion (as long as its not illegal) and his job will be safe - for four years at least.  Since the Founding Fathers imagined the Senate to be the strongest part of the government, it has a six-year term and originally was not elected at all.  Senators were appointed by state legislatures until the Seventeenth Amendment changed all that.

However, things did not proceed exactly as the Founding Fathers had envisioned.  These men, though in general full of integrity and as a body overrepresented in brilliance, were not omnipotent like some Constitutional worshipers believe*.  If you study American politics today, you'd find the idea that Congress is supposed to be the most powerful branch of government hilarious.  To fit the needs of a modern industrial society, the Presidency has moved and grabbed tons of power it was never intended to have.  For better or worse, that's the government we have today.  Also the Supreme Court was never really intended to have the power of Judicial Review, the power to decide the Constitutionality of any law (thus giving it essentially a Judicial Veto power), but it grabbed that power for itself in Marbury v. Madison and Judicial Review has become a generally beloved feature of our government ever since.  The Supreme Court is the branch of government which has traditionally represented oppressed groups and fought against the "Oppression of the Majority".

Let's imagine it this way:  imagine you're a tall person on Hypothetical Island with fifty people.  Forty people, including you, are tall, ten are short.  Let's further imagine that tall and short people have had a historical animosity and have traditionally grouped together depending upon height - its as arbitrary and nonsensical as every other historical animosity.  So there's two places to sleep on the island:  warm under the trees or outside in the rain.  However, there's only room for thirty people under the trees.  Naturally you want to sleep under the trees and you want your tall buddies there too, right?  Being the majority, its a certainty that the tall people will not be out on the beach.  And if the island is run by a system of direct democracy, the short people are damned.  But who cares?  You're under the trees, and you're happy.  A better solution might be to divide the island into five groups of ten with each group sleeping under the trees for three nights, and then sleeping under the rain for two nights, with a five-day rotating cycle allowing for equal share of the trees.  Because short, tall, all people are equal and deserve at least a chance to survive.  Notice too that ten tall people can't get the trees either.  Oh well, those guys aren't really that tall, are they?  More like medium height, right?  My point is that unless you have safeguards against pure democracy, some are going to get too much and others will get too little.

And now I can finally return to my original issue about polls.  Lately I've been hearing a lot about the American people's opinion on the Arizona Immigration law, how supposedly a majority of us support it.  Apparently 59% of Americans support the law outright, according to the Pew Research Center.  Now, despite the fact that this means absolutely nothing, I can't stop hearing from conservative pundits about this bit of statistics.  Somehow, a majority opinion in early May somehow justifies the law's passage.  This is supposed to be evidence that not only should the Arizona law stay in place, but implicitly that this is exactly what American immigration policy should be.

I'm not disputing the results:  there have beens tons of polls - coincidently one for each major news outlet, and the findings are more or less all equivalent.  Then again, I've never really trusted polls myself, especially when you can get such weird finding as this:  28% of Republicans polled back at the start of the oil spill claimed to believe in a provably insane position of being more supportive of offshore drilling following the oil spill.  Even the pollsters cannot seem to be able to figure out their own findings, though Fred Clark has a theory in his Slacktivist blog.  Clark postulates that:  "Those responses tallied by Public Policy Polling are not genuine, but calculated. They are the response of people who view all such polls -- and elections, legislative votes and policy choices -- as part of a zero-sum game between Our Side and Their Side. The "more supportive of drilling" response is an effort to deny points to Their Side by claiming victory for Our Side -- even if that means claiming the devastation of Gulf Coast livelihoods as 'victory'."  Polls are more than just cliché:  they're now recognize tools of, if I can borrow a Jon Stewart phrase, "partisan hackery".  At this point we have pollsters with agendas beyond merely representing the opinions of the American people polling people who have an agenda beyond giving honest answers.

But I'll grant the pundits that their findings of 59% are true.  A majority of Americans believe that illegal immigrants should be hounded and tallied and eventually deported.  I'll believe that truly sad notion just for the sake of a mental exercise.  However, what I won't believe is that any of these findings are at all relevant to the issue of the law's legality, or more importantly:  its morality.  If you were to poll the people on Hypothetical Island, what results do you think you'd get?  I think 80% of the population wants tall people under the trees.  So when it comes to civil rights issues, the majority opinion is less than useful.  It doesn't help anybody.  Why should Americans care about illegal immigrants anyway?  They're not illegals, they never had to cross a desert just to find a construction job, and they never had to make a fake ID just to get a measly driver's license.  No matter how popular an opinion towards it, polls never give a law any kind of justification, be it moral, or if you're a little more crass about these things, economic.  A poll does not mean that this is the right choice for Arizona, or America for that matter**.  And if for any reason you find yourself feeling different about an issue just because a poll says that most Americans feel one way about it, than you a fool beyond compare.

Perhaps most unfortunately this law is putting attention on the wrong issue.  All the Arizona law is going to do is make a segment of its population move to another state.  That's it.  Maybe they'll feel an economic decline, but it probably won't amount to much.  Instead, everybody is talking about repealing this law, but not fixing the problem that put the law in place.  Am I the only one who has ever asked why there are illegal immigrants in this country in the first place?  Why can't we reform our VISA process?  Build the border wall, have fun with that.  Arizona can pass whatever it wants to hunt down illegal immigrants.  But until you fix the immigrant restrictions and offer amnesty to all those who have suffered under them, we have bigger concerns than security.

* Glenn Beck, for one, has such a religious fervor in the face of the United States Constitution that it is quite simply disturbing.  I hate to break it to you, Beck, but the Constitution is not the Third Testament of the Holy Bible.  Its a historical document made by fallible mortals who could not possibly imagine the concerns of life in the 21st century... or even the late 19th century for that matter.  That the Constitution is still a relevant guideline for government despite that is evidence of the document's flexibility and genius.  But that doesn't mean that every step we take away from the original intention of the framers is heresy, unless you want to return to counting African Americans as being 3/5ths of a person.  I suppose its easy to confuse your "literal" reading of the Constitution for a "literal" reading of the Bible - both are filled with such reflexive self-delusion towards partisan issues that at I times I wonder if you're reading the same Constitution/Bible that I am.

By the way, Beck, will you please stop rewriting 20th century history to fit your oddly 19th century-sounding fear of socialists?  If you miss the Industrial Revolution so badly, I could just buy you a top hat and tails, and save us all a lot of trouble.

** On a related issue, polls also are not a judge of a President's performance.  During both Bush's last term you constantly heard everything about falling polls, as if somehow this is a quantitative measure of his ability to govern.  Well, if Bush was in competent in 2008 when his approval rating was near 25%, then he was equally incompetent back in 2001 when it was up to 90%.  I hear every day about how Obama's polls are sinking, but this doesn't show that he's doing a bad job.  Real signs that Obama is not doing the job he promised is the continuing Gulf Oil Spill, the failure to solve the Guantanamo Bay prison scandal (and in some cases continuing with Bush's lawless policies), and failing to improve the economy.  Its too early to say that Obama is a bad President, but my faith is pretty shaken.  And approval ratings do not, and should not, have anything to do with my feelings on the matter.


  1. Very good points are made in this article. As someone being born in a former-communist country, I don't know as much as I should about Democratic politics, but I can definitely see your points about polls and the Arizona law.

    Really good read, shows a side of thinking you won't see in a newspaper.

  2. Hmm, its interesting how many of the things that you describe in American politics also have some relevance down here in Australia as well. Our political system is sort of like a hybrid between the British and the American systems, having both a Senate and a House of Reprisentatives. In our system, one party (there are about 5 of them, but three are really small, so no one really cares about them) is elected to rule the nation, headed by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister, whilst ostensibly the most powerful figure in government (but not in the whole State; that honour belongs to Queen Lizzie), he plays little role in actual policy making. Am I right in assuming this was similar to the original American model with the President? But what's happening now is that now the media is portraying the Prime Minister in more of an all-powerful presidential model, and this is an issue because that means that people are paying more attention to the Prime Minister than the individual ministers, like Treasurer, minister for water/agriculture etc that actually make the policies. Currently, the present Labor (Left-wing) Government, which has reasonably good ministers, has fallen out of favour because of our current PM's blunders. The issue is that the Liberals (right wing) have a slightly more popular leader, but their ministry is a mess. People don't seem to realise that they are not just electing the Prime Minster as the all-mightly King of Australia, but actually the whole party that backs him up. Woe would be the day those nongs got into power.

    In Australia we also have a similar issue in illegal immigration. Because the situation in South-East Asia at the moment is, let's say, going down the toilet, we get a lot of refugees and asylem seekers comming down in these dingy little rafts in the hope that they can find a new life here. It's really controversial here because many people dislike the notion of illegal immigrants, much like America, but if we turn them away, then we are breaking international maritime law. Unlike you, we can't just build a wall to keep them out, and also we can't do anything to fix the problem in the first place. Heck, we even get people all the way from the "stans", like Afganistan, Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan, you know, that old central-asian ex-Soviet area. It's a worry...:/

    Again, sorry to write a whole book on your space, but I just find find the similarities between our two nations intreging, particularly the problems we both face.

  3. I always feel more intelligent when I read your blogs. This one has no exception. You see politics on the whole, from an excellent and balanced perspective, something that's entirely difficult to find these days.

  4. ^ I agree

    Too often in political discussion, there is a dicotomy(?) of interest. You're either with us, or you're against us. It saddens me that we have to come to an obscure blog in some corner of the internet (not offense, just being realistic) to see a real, balanced, intelligent discussion of both sides.