Entry from November 25, 2013

Listening to Rush Limbaugh last week, I was struck by the caller who told El Rushbo that, up until the moment of her call, she had never been able to bring herself to reveal to a pollster her disapproval of President Obama for fear of being thought — by the pollster! — a racist. Now that so many others were expressing such disapproval on account of the Obamacare fiasco, she said, she feels safer in stating what has all along been her true opinion. I guess she figured the pollster would be less censorious if he reflected that not everybody now expressing a negative view of the President could be a racist.

I was reminded of a piece I wrote in The New Criterion over a decade ago called “We’re taking a poll on how bright you are. . .” which pointed to the not-often-enough recognized effect of people’s desire to look good in the pollster’s eyes when answering psephological questions. On that occasion, I was writing about polls which showed a majority of people believed the Bush administration knew more than it was saying about the collapse of the Enron Corporation. Remember that? Well, of course people were going to say that, I thought. Who wants to be classed with the naive and those not — as the pollster obviously was — “in the know” about what only less intelligent people were likely to take at face value?

These kinds of questions pop up more often than you might think, and the obviously skewed response to them must accordingly give rise to a lot of pretty worthless commentary. The most recent example came with the news from Gallup in the week of the anniversary of the Kennedy assassination that “a clear majority of Americans (61 per cent) still believe others besides Lee Harvey Oswald were involved.” True, “this percentage is the lowest found in nearly 50 years” — that is, since December, 1966 when exactly 50 per cent claimed to believe in multiple assassins. But if such a consistency of response over half a century doesn’t show that conspiracy is the default setting for most people, at least when they are asked about it by pollsters, I don’t know what does. People may not know all or even some of the conspiracy theories themselves, but they know the pollster is looking for those who do know and believe in them.

Another example from last week was an op ed in The Washington Post by Fareed Zakaria headed “Why Americans hate their government.” He doesn’t even cite any particular polling results to back up the extraordinary contention that Americans do hate their government, offering instead to explain the negative feelings he can take for granted. He is hardly the only one to read generic approve/disapprove polls this way, but I suspect that the high disapprove numbers are less indicative of “hate” than they are of the same programmatic response indicating what the responders believe an informed and sophisticated opinion to be. After all, aren’t the informed and sophisticated people in the media always telling them about government screw-ups?

I also suspect that Mr Zakaria himself has an unstated purpose in selling us on the idea of a generalized hatred of government just at the moment when we see a very specific act of government that there is good reason for believing people genuinely do hate. As the bad news about Obamacare keeps on coming, it is not surprising that disapproval of the man who used to want his name attached to it and now, it seems, does not, is growing as well. Naturally, his many apologists in the media will want us to see this as just one more manifestation of popular dislike and distrust of government — doubtless the product of 50 years of Republican rhetoric about the virtues of “small” and the evils of “big” government. Don’t all the polls show this? Really, they’re reassuring themselves that the disaster for the Dems isn’t as bad as it seems. I think it probably is — and maybe even a little badder.

Discover more from James Bowman

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Similar Posts