DUCK SOUP: Stop Me Before I Spin!
Most of us are familiar with the idea that addicts often live with enablers. These are the people in their lives who subtly encourage or allow addictive behavior to continue. It can be as blatant as buying an alcoholic a drink, or as nuanced as the push-pull dance of conditional love. Successful treatment programs usually try to reach family members, to address the problem as a whole instead of in isolation.Politicians have enablers too. They are called pollsters, and they often admit, if not brag, that they enable candidates to keep in touch with the voters. That sounds innocuous enough, perhaps even useful for democratic governance. But public opinion polling has a dark side as well which lies at the heart of Washington gridlock and sound bite election campaigns. Polls encourage insincerity, divisiveness, and hate mongering. They have become a sort of addictive drug which now works against democracy and the public good. Obviously a typical politician is a public personality -- it goes with the turf. This is a person who likes to be liked, and needs to be liked a lot on election day. Along comes a pusher, oh, make that a pollster, who says, "I can tell you how much you are liked today and help you frame your message so you are liked even more in November." At first this is the sort of habit a candidate can quit anytime she likes, but before long she is hooked. Soon the magic numbers mean more than a clean conscience and a spin doctor is called to ease the pain.When our democracy was young, leaders proclaimed their beliefs and their plans and were elected or not. Two or four or six years later they stood for re-election and were judged on their success or failure. Built into the system of checks and balances, the staggered election cycles allowed voter input at regular intervals and the government changed course in response. Today leaders gather their poll data first, massage their message toward the biggest numbers and then wink between lies, hoping their core supporters will stick with them while they reach out to the other side. So we have Dole pushing supply-side theory for the first time in his life after a career spent fighting it in the Senate, and Clinton playing Mr. Conservative. There is no incentive to hold to strong convictions for even a few months since the numbers change every week. No one needs to risk cold turkey in November's voting booth when a numerical fix is available today. This means that policies are never given a road test, they are simply advertising slogans that will change with tomorrow's weather. Pollsters have replaced the wisdom of intermittent evaluation with the sham of a daily horoscope and it doesn't work.Along the way opinion polls have served to divide and antagonize our population. By choosing certain categorizations and serving up their results as fact they go beyond reporting and become active players in debate. As soon as we are told that X% of women support this, and Y% of blacks support that, while half of white men believe that most Latino teenagers should do Z, we are being influenced. No longer are we individuals reacting to other individuals, we are pressure groups and voting blocs and minorities. The numbers do not inform, they create a cartoon electorate. I am not me, I am part of a demographic calculation that weighs how far I can be pushed before I jump into some other party boat. They ask what I think in order to decide how many double crossings and lies I will swallow while my candidate stretches the truth to sucker my opposite. The only solution in sight that will re-democratize our system is to completely ban public opinion polls. We can return to the scheme framed in our Constitution. Candidates will be able to take a stand, winners try their plans and voters decide if the results suggest further support. The enablers must be stopped if we really expect politicians to go and spin no more.