On December 12th the Gallup Poll issued a press release about their latest findings: fear of “big government” was at a near record level. And even more strikingly, Democratic voters represented the largest uptick since the last poll was taken. In 2009 32% of Democrats told Gallup that they were afraid of big government, now the number is 48%. As might be expected, conservative pundits embraced these findings as proof that the country was tired of Obama, tired of liberalism, tired of socialism, etc. David Brooks, the oleaginous NY Times op-ed contributor, wrote:
The members of the Obama administration have many fine talents, but making adept historical analogies may not be among them.
When the administration came to office in the depths of the financial crisis, many of its leading figures concluded that the moment was analogous to the Great Depression. They read books about the New Deal and sought to learn from F.D.R.
But, in the 1930s, people genuinely looked to government to ease their fears and restore their confidence. Today, Americans are more likely to fear government than be reassured by it.
According to a Gallup survey, 64 percent of Americans polled said they believed that big government is the biggest threat to the country. Only 26 percent believed that big business is the biggest threat. As a result, the public has reacted to Obama’s activism with fear and anxiety. The Democrats lost 63 House seats in the 2010 elections.
My first reaction to all this was to laugh at the idea of using a pejorative term like “big government” in a poll. This of course is the commonly used buzzword of Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the talk radio right. Like a bell being sounded with Pavlov’s dogs, who would not salivate?
Even more laughable is the idea of getting a clear idea of what the term means to different people being polled. For example, one of the hallmarks of “big government” are entitlement programs such as social security. But according to a Lake Research Partners poll taken in November 2010, 67% of all Americans oppose cutting Social Security to help make the government more solvent with 51 percent of Tea Party supporters being opposed.
A few days later those of us who were disheartened by the findings might have been convinced to come down off the ledge after hearing from Pew Research that young people are more positive about “socialism” — and more negative about “capitalism” — than are older Americans.
My first reaction to this was to wonder what young people think of when they hear the word socialism. Back in the 1960s, when I used to sell subscriptions to the Militant newspaper door-to-door in college dormitories, my opening pitch for a “socialist newsweekly” elicited more often than not the query “you mean like in Sweden or Israel?” That in fact is what the word meant to most young people. I guess we could have called the newspaper “communist” to avoid confusion in the same manner that the SWP eventually began to refer to itself but wiser heads back then understood that the choice of such a word would have resulted in the incredible shrinking party, something that its Wise Leader evidently intended.
Polling dominates the political sphere since it serves as entrails for those of us with a soothsaying bent. Back in the 60s SWP members would fixate on every poll taken about the Vietnam War, looking at the numbers as closely as a physician looking at a patient’s chart. Part of the problem in interpreting such numbers is that the question attached to them was often phrased in such a manner as to undercut the antiwar movement. While not quite using the words “Do you favor a precipitous withdrawal in order to guarantee a communist victory that will lead to gulags in Indiana”, they often were nearly as bad.
David Moore was a vice-president of Gallup for 13 years and knows the tricks of the trade. In 2008 the leftwing Beacon Press published his “The Opinion Makers: An Insider Exposes the Truth Behind the Polls”, the first chapter of which can be read on their website. As it deals with the war in Iraq, it has many of the same lessons I learned about polling during the Vietnam War. Moore writes about an experiment he conducted with a fellow Gallup professional about the way that the polls were being used to create a war hysteria:
In the February 2003 poll, we asked a standard version of the question that all the other pollsters asked, “Would you favor or oppose sending American ground troops to the Persian Gulf in an attempt to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq?” And like the other polls, we found a substantial majority in favor of the war—59 percent to 38 percent, a 21-point margin. Only 3 percent said they did not have an opinion. We followed up that question with another, which essentially asked if people really cared that their opinion might prevail. And the results here revealed a very different public.
To people who said they favored the war, we asked if they would be upset if the government did not send troops to Iraq. And to people who opposed the war, we asked if they would be upset if the government did send troops. More than half of the supposed supporters and a fifth of the opponents said they would not be upset if their opinions were ignored. The net result is that 29 percent of Americans actually supported the war and said they would be upset if it didn’t come about, whereas 30 percent were opposed to the war and said they would be upset if it did occur. An additional 38 percent, who had expressed an opinion either for or against the proposed invasion, said they would not be upset if the government did the opposite of what they had just favored. Add to this number the 3 percent who initially expressed no opinion, and that makes 41 percent who didn’t care one way or the other.
These results from the follow-up question reveal the absurdity of much public opinion polling. A democracy is supposed to represent, or at least take into account, the “will” of the people, not the uncaring, unreflective, top-of-mind responses many people give to pollsters. If people don’t care that the views they tell pollsters are ignored by their political leaders, then it hardly makes sense for pollsters to treat such responses as the Holy Grail. Yet, typically we do, making no distinction between those who express deeply held views and those who have hardly, if at all, thought about an issue.
Maybe it is because of my unrepentant nature, I have stopped paying attention much to polls ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ascendancy of Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis. Frankly, I could care less if I was the last person in America who thought that the capitalist system was insane. My inspiration would remain Henry David Thoreau who when jailed for refusing to pay taxes that would have supported a war with Mexico was visited by Ralph Waldo Emerson who asked him what he was doing in there. Thoreau’s reply: “And what are you doing out there?”
It has taken two decades but a good portion of America has come to conclusions similar to my own, especially the young people who braved cold weather, discomfort and police brutality to demonstrate their opposition to the One Percent. They had the good sense to occupy Zuccotti not on the basis that a Gallup Poll thought it would be a good idea but because social justice demanded it. And once they started raising hell, the poll numbers reflected sympathy for their action.
In an article titled “Polling Prejudice” in the American Prospect, Taeku Lee wrote:
Some of the earliest public-opinion polls in the 1940s found that an overwhelming majority (about two-thirds) of whites were willing to support segregated schools. By the mid-1990s (the last time questions on school segregation were asked), only one out of every 25 whites held to the same view. Similarly, on interracial couples, polls from the late-1950s and early-1960s found nearly universal disapproval among white Americans; by the 1990s, only a small fraction of whites favored anti-miscegenation laws and a majority actively indicated their support of interracial marriages. Over an even shorter time period, the prevalence of invidious stereotypes of African Americans as less intelligent and less industrious than whites declined between the early-1990s and the mid-2000s.
What do you suppose accounts for the declining poll numbers for racism? Isn’t it obvious that the bold and determined action of civil rights activists is key? Like the OWS, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other groups threw caution to the wind and went into the belly of the beast to confront Jim Crow. Their actions galvanized public opinion and made it inevitable for voting rights and desegregation to prevail.
In order to challenge the capitalist system, we have to assume that we are swimming against the stream. With a superstructure controlled by the rich, “public opinion” will inevitably reflect that of the dominant class as Marx wrote in the German Ideology:
The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance.
However, when the “dominant material relationships” begin to fail, more and more people will be open to alternative ideas about the social order. That time has arrived. With support for the political classes in Washington at an all-time low, this is an invitation for us to raise all kinds of hell. And when Gallup reports that such support continues to slide, you can bet that I will take them at their word.