Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 1, 2012

Public opinion polls and the left

Filed under: anti-capitalism,financial crisis,press,psychology — louisproyect @ 6:40 pm

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.


  1. I’m not opposed to big government per se, I’m opposed to big CAPITALIST government who are the whores of the bourgeois.

    Of course the conservative morons are elated by the poll numbers but they are misleading.

    As if Obama is a real leftist as conservatives call him but they’ve also classified him as a communist and socialist, all untrue.

    Obama’s record proves he’s not leftist, marxist nor socialist in his policies some of which mirror G. W. Bush.

    Obama during a 60 Minutes interview takes credit for saving America from another Great Depression.

    At least during the Depression my mother told me the government distributed food to families like hers that were hit hard.

    Now, despite continued high unemployment and record numbers of impoverished and hungry Americans, we don’t see government assistance but over burdened non-profits like the Food Bank
    who are distributing more than they are taking in.

    Obama is certainly behind the propaganda in the media with reports of economic growth and a recovering job market.

    This is simply not true at least where I live and it’s no accident that this false reporting is put out in an election year to make Obama look as if he’s accomplished something.

    So comrades you see it’s not big government you should fear, it’s the big fat capitalist government run by team bourgeois captain Obama or any Republican replacement you should fear the most!


    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — January 1, 2012 @ 10:15 pm

  2. It’s funny, because ever since Obama took office I’ve really never felt the presence of government as a direct force in my life any more or less than before. Where was this big government when I needed a job a year ago after my bouts with mental illness forced me out of college? When I tried to sign up for disability, I was turned away from getting a piece of all that out of control spending. Where is it now when I wish to return to college, but can’t because of lack of money? Where will it be when my father gets knee replacement surgery and ends up unable to work the overtime he needs to support his family? (not to go into the fact that he shouldn’t have to work overtime for a decent life to begin with)

    Comment by Rob — January 2, 2012 @ 1:44 am

  3. Rob, your story is the reason why I question the government and the two parties that don’t serve the people and especially the disabled and elderly.

    Obama has always touted himself as a leftist liberal when he’s done quite a bit of cutting to vital programs such as social security and medicare while caving in to Republican demands for austerity measures.

    That’s not what a true leftist does and that’s why you wouldn’t see bigger government when it comes to social security disability.

    An old co-worker suffered a disabling stroke and had paralysis and speech deficits but she was denied SSD, had to wait for a long appeals backlog and was granted benefits after a year with a lawyer’s help.

    I don’t get how conservatives can say that he’s a big government left winger.

    If anything when it comes to spending domestically on social programs, he’s become more conservative or translation is tight wad.

    But where he does approve spending is on military ops or defense.

    He only pulled out troops from Iraq I believe to improve his chances of winning with the general elections coming up at the end of the year.

    Even with the end of the war in Iraq, we’re still spending like crazy on defense.

    Military action should only be defensive, not offensive.

    A leftist? No Obama is definitely in that category.

    A real leftist in my opinion that embodied liberalism and fought hard for the elderly, disabled and average person sometimes fighting against his own party was believe it or not Anthony Weiner.

    He was one of the few Democrats I actually liked even though he idolized Chuck Shumer who is a pseudo-leftist.

    Weiner just got really stupid and threw away a good career.

    I hope everything works out for you.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — January 2, 2012 @ 4:58 am

  4. In my previous post I meant to say Obama is not in that category, the category being leftist.

    Sorry my goof lol!

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — January 2, 2012 @ 5:10 am

  5. I’m against Big Empire and Big Police. There’s sadly nothing that “big” about the programs that Republicans mean when they say “big government”. Still, I wouldn’t say I was afraid of “big government” in a poll, because I know what that’s a codeword for – even though I am afraid of the police and military. How is Social Security supposed to make one “afraid”, anyway?

    Comment by r — January 2, 2012 @ 7:34 am

  6. Having worked in the past as research statistician in the area of questionnaire design, I can tell you now that this kind of opinion poll question is highly dubious from a scientific point of view. The Gallup question reads:

    “In your opinion, which of the following will be the biggest threat to the country in the future – big business, big labor, or big government?”

    Firstly, this is a so-called “loaded question”. The question logically assumes that big government, big business and big labor ARE major threats to the country, where only the magnitude of the threat can vary. It is implied that the three mentioned threats are qualitatively of the same kind, so that they can all be ranked along the same dimension of size.

    Secondly, there is no response option for respondents who think that either some, or all, of the three “threats” are “no threat at all” – the only other option that respondents have in answering this question, is to declare “no opinion”. The series of response options is, therefore, not logically complete (they don’t cover all possible types of responses).

    Thirdly, respondents will not construct the meaning of the key concepts involved in the question (“biggest threat to the country”, “big business”, “big labor”, “big government”, “the future”) in the same way. Therefore, to add up their observed responses is like adding up apples and pears; you do not really know what respondents individually mean by these concepts, and, therefore, the observational data created lacks a definite, uniform meaning.

    The combination of these three problems has the effect, that the survey question generates what scientific statisticians call “shit data”. Shit data is data which people will use for various purposes, without anybody really being able to establish for sure what it means, or how reliable it is.

    As soon as we vary the question-wording, and as soon as we compare the answers of respondents more rigorously with their answers to various other, related questions, it becomes apparent that quite different quantitative results can be achieved by asking different kinds of questions.

    A useful reference: Pierre Bourdieu, “Public Opinion Does Not Exist”, in A. Mattelart and S. Siegelaub (eds.) in Communication and Class Struggle. New York: International General, 1979.

    Comment by Jurriaan Bendien — January 2, 2012 @ 12:47 pm

  7. During a Mark Twain Lecture Series at U Conn on November 18, Michael Moore had noted that President Obama, as of that day, took in the highest dollar amount in campaign contributions from Wall Street and Big Bankers which in total was higher than all Republican candidates combined.

    Mmmm interesting.

    You know the President has problems in an election year when someone like Michael Moore is questioning him.

    I actually like Moore, but I meant that if the Hollywood left turns, he needs to make some serious changes.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — January 2, 2012 @ 4:19 pm

  8. My favorite moment with this polling nonsense came in the weeks following the election of 2000 and all the “hanging chads” fuss. The “hanging chads” business so far as I and many others were concerned was a canard to override discussion of the massive disenfranchisement of black voters in Florida and Tennessee. I was working with the Black Radical Congress at the time and we were already getting information about massive disenfranchisement of blacks for reasons associated with bogus prison records in Florida, a development which came as a gift from the Bush brother’s little birdy Katherine Harris when she was overseeing state election counts down there. But of course, this was an issue that was blithely ignored by white “progressives” hell bent on Al Gore’s fortunes, and it continues to be among many “lefties” who carry on the line that Ralph Nader “cost” Gore the election in 2000. Only Greg Palast has kept the story about the Florida election department’s chicanery alive, near as I can tell.

    But I digress. About four weeks into the hanging chad controversy, it was announced that a national poll had been taken which showed the results that “the vast majority of Americans would prefer this election matter be behind us, and that we move on”. Interesting, I thought. One would think that the ballot was a decisive act of polling, and the majority of Americans had voted against George W. Bush. But some polls are more important than others, evidently, especially when you’ve got a ruling class that’s intent upon putting a certain kind of asshole in the White House.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux Perez — January 2, 2012 @ 5:37 pm

  9. Louis’ critique and the analysis by Jurriaan Bendien of the Gallup question on “big government” are both excellent. In general, polls show that publlic opinion of “big” anything tends to be negative. People like “small business” but hate “big business.” Same for most everything else. Gallup’s question on the threat of big government is faulty for all the reasons that Louis and Jurrian mention.

    Apart from the specific problems of the Gallup question, the many other questions on trust in government provide support for almost any viewpoint about government, because the questions themselves shape the responses. For one commentary that I co-wrote on precisely this topic, you can go to http://www.imediaethics.org/index.php?option=com_news&task=detail&id=203. This article supports the notion that you can design a question to find little trust in government at the same time vast majorities of people want the government to assume major responsibilities that affect everyone.

    For support of Louis’ more general skepticism about polls, you might want to see some of my other columns on http://www.imediaethics.org (go to “Poll Skeptic Report” on the right side of the screen).

    David Moore – Senior Fellow, The Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, and former Managing Editor of the Gallup Poll.

    Comment by David Moore — January 2, 2012 @ 6:25 pm

  10. Btw, the Bourdieu article Jurriaan referred to is here as well:

    Comment by louisproyect — January 2, 2012 @ 6:38 pm

  11. Responding to comment no. 8, ah yes the hanging chad debacle.

    I’ve always disagreed with the conclusion that Nader cost Gore the election.

    Some bloggers I know from other sites that have a leftist viewpoint have suggested that I vote for Obama instead of any independent because he’s the lesser evil and asked me to remember the Bush Gore fiasco.

    Well I don’t just vote for a person because the other one is worse.

    It’s their record and what they stand for that matters so I won’t be voting for Obama.

    The real problem then, and the real problem today is the electoral college.

    It’s archaic and doesn’t count every single actual vote, a major disadvantage to an Independent candidate.

    The electoral college system must change so that in the future the doors can be opened to other parties and only then will voters have real choices other than just two people with the same old stale ideas.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — January 2, 2012 @ 7:38 pm

  12. I should perhaps emphasize that I am not anti-opinion polls at all, nor anti-Gallup. Quite simply, there are bad surveys and good surveys. If researchers can provide good information about what people think, society benefits from it.

    It’s just that a lot of experimental research has been done in the last half century on question design and question-wording effects, which suggests that opinion surveys are particularly susceptible to response error (see e.g. the classic works by Bradbury & Sudman on response effects). It is possible to show very simply, using split-ballot tests and chi-square analysis, that the response pattern can change, even just by varying only the sequence in which questions are asked from respondents (these are “response order effects”, including primacy and recency effects). Generally, questions about characteristics or behaviours of people are much more reliable than questions about their opinions.

    This does not mean, however, that it is impossible to survey opinions reliably. It means only that the questions have to be designed and pilot-tested in a reliable way. There are definitely technical “do’s and don’ts” for question-design in this regard, and indeed some statistics offices produce manuals which specify what is required for good survey questions. The primary requirements are that the researcher should ask questions to which respondents can indeed give a definite answer, and that the response burden (the effort which the respondent must make to supply an answer) should not be too great. Already things often go wrong with these simple basics. Once the sampling technique has been fixed, researchers very often want the question routine finalised “as quickly as possible”, “at the last minute”, without proper testing, and it is often believed that anybody can design survey questions. That leads to all kinds of response errors.

    It is certainly possible to elicit much more reliable responses for this Gallup topic, using a more careful question design. The unfortunate reality, however, is that surveys cost money, and to save costs, researchers regularly try to “pack in” as much as they can (capture as much information as they can) with the smallest number of separate questions, and the smallest possible sample population. Thus economics intrudes even in the rather pedantic activity of survey design. That often results in survey questions containing so many assumptions and design problems, that they are unlikely to yield valid data.

    Thus, the commodification of surveys (making survey data a marketable product, produced for profit) often has the result, that survey quality and data quality is reduced. It may not be immediately obvious, particularly if the question routine itself is not published with the result. After all, what the customers get is formatted data (they “just want to get some data”). This kind of thing is regrettable, not only because it annoys respondents, but also because it discredits the survey endeavour; it makes it less likely that respondents feel like cooperating with the survey, and more likely that they will not trust survey data.

    If you are truly interested in a democratic society, this should be of real concern; the least citizens can expect is that they are provided with reliable, trustworthy data on what people think and feel, and this information is essential for any politics that aims to express the “will of the people”. It is an illusion to think positivistically that data can simply be “extracted” from a population, like opening a can of beans and emptying out the contents. It requires good communication as well as phenomenological insight, human insight, including what Stanley Payne called “the art of asking questions.”

    Comment by Jurriaan Bendien — January 3, 2012 @ 12:33 am

  13. I also agree with the comment that it’s in the type of question the poll is asking, as in this case, you could pretty much assume the response was expected in most demographics.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — January 3, 2012 @ 2:25 am

  14. Chomsky isn’t so dismissive of polling – though he too is aware of the sensitivity to wording and design – and argues that in fact the population is not a bunch of brainwashed, ideologized zombies but in fact holds views strongly at odds with those of our rulers. The trouble is that people are too atomized and isolated to realize it. It is an argument that certainly fits with my experience. Sure there are some ruling class ideas knocking about in people’s heads, but it is usually intellectuals that believe the lies most passionately. Ordinary working class people are far more open and more heterogenous politically, holding views that go far beyond the narrow spectrum of “acceptable” ideas – both on the left and the right.

    E.g. Chomsky on “welfare” vs. “assistance to the poor”, circa 1995:

    ‘One-fifth of the population believe welfare to be the largest Federal expense. It is not too surprising, then, that the top priority for voters in 1994 was “welfare reform” (46%). The welfare system is “just out of control,” voters felt, though it pays to look more closely at actual attitudes. 44% of respondents feel that we are spending “too much” on welfare and 23% “too little,” economist Nancy Folbre notes, but when the phrase “assistance to the poor” is substituted for “welfare” in the same question, 13% say we are spending “too much” and 64% “too little.” A reasonable speculation is that many people have absorbed Reaganite lies about “welfare Queens” (by insinuation, Black) driving Cadillacs, and believe that working people are supporting rich welfare recipients — as they are, but not in the sense they imagine; we return to that.’


    Comment by Nik Barry-Shaw — January 3, 2012 @ 2:59 am

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    Pingback by Politics & Public Opinion: David W. Moore on Pollsters « Marmalade — September 13, 2012 @ 10:34 pm

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