About Those Polls
by Ernest Partridge
“The people are marching, and I must follow, for I am their leader.” French politician (Unknown)
“It’s 9 PM and the phone rings and it’s a pollster . . . ‘Hi, I’m a polllllsterrrrr . . . Do you approve of our president? Hm?’ And the guy on the phone is like, ‘Uh, yes, Mr. Pollster! We approve! Everybody approves! The kids approve, the dog approves! Look at the cat! The cat approves. Approve, cat!'” — Michael Moore, quoted by Michelle Chihara
March 17, 2002 — Let’s face it: George Bush’s “approval rating” polls are the 800-pound gorilla in the room. The few remaining media “house liberals,” such as Bill Press, Mark Shields or Al Hunt, can scarcely utter more than a few sentences without mentioning Bush’s alleged “approval in the polls.” Those polls constrain political discourse and intimidate the opposition. If their impact is to be mitigated, they must be addressed directly.
So what are we to make of Bush’s alleged 80+ percent “approval rating.” Is it fact or fiction? How much credence should we give to the polls. Consider, in turn, the cases for “fact” and then for “fiction.”
The Poll Numbers are Fact. “Of course the polls accurately report public opinion regarding Bush’s performance. Would Gallup and the other polling organizations dare present us with “made-up” statistics? They have their reputations to protect. If they are caught “cooking” figures for whatever reason, their credibility is toast, and they know it. So face it: four out of five Americans believe that Bush is doing a fine job. Deal with it.”
The Poll Numbers are Fiction. “The overriding question is ‘qui bono’ –who benefits? The obvious answer is Bush and the GOP. Those poll numbers have given them a ticket to ride — to ride their right-wing agenda through Congress, and over the intimidated Democratic opposition. Just listen to Gore, ‘He’s my President!’ and the congressional Dems, ‘While Bush has been a superb wartime leader . . . (etc.) . . . ‘ and the media comparisons of Bush with FDR and Churchill. It’s that 800-pound gorilla again! The media and GOP lied to us about Gore and Bush during the campaign, they lied to us about the Florida Election and the Supreme Court, and they continue to lie today (e.g., about Ken Lay’s alleged ‘sleepovers’ at the Clinton White House). With so much manifest advantage accruing from these poll figures, doesn’t it make sense to assume that they are lying to us about Bush’s ‘approval rating’ as well?”
The Poll Numbers are a “Gray Lie.” This is my preferred interpretation: the polls convey neither the simple truth nor a damnable lie. Instead, they present us with what I call “a gray lie” — a literal truth designed to convey a falsehood. Examples abound in political discourse. For example, Bill Clinton, “I did not have sex with that woman.” By Clinton’s definition (i.e., intercourse), that was literally true. But that was not what he meant for us to believe. Another example: Bush claimed that Ken Lay “supported” Bush’s gubernatorial opponent, Ann Richards. If a $12,000 contribution to Richards’ campaign constitutes “support,” then Bush was strictly correct. But Lay gave five times as much financial support to Bush, and so the “on balance” support was something else. Then there is the case of the November “media consortium” report on the Florida elections. Headlines throughout the country proclaimed that the study “proved” that Bush would have won the election despite the Supreme Court decision. The “gray lie” was that Bush won the election, fair and square. The report below the headlines said quite the contrary.
Finally, from that virtuoso of the “gray lie,” the New York Times’ Rick Berke: The headline of his front page piece on February 18 read, “Enron Pursued Plan to Forge Close Ties to Gore Campaign.” But read on and you will find: “Enron continued to give much more to Governor Bush than to Vice President Gore. In all, it gave Mr.Gore’s campaign $13,750 and Mr. Bush’s $113,800.” The “gray lie?” That both parties were equally corrupted by Enron.
Similarly, I suspect that while the reports of those 80+ percent poll numbers might state superficial truths, they omit, conveniently for the Bushistas, some significant qualifications and elaborations. So we are entitled to ask a few “follow-up” questions: How, exactly, was the question phrased? What was the context, i.e., what questions “led into” the question about “approval”? Was there a semantic “bait and switch” at work here, as expressions of “support” somehow morphed into “approval”? (Who is not inclined to “support” a president during “wartime”?) Is the “approval in general” consistent with the respondents’ approval of Bush’s position on particular issues? Apparently not, for as pollster Celinda Lake discovered “76 percent of voters thought government should do more to help working families, 84 percent want a higher minimum wage, 87 percent want government help for health insurance to laid-off workers, and 82 percent want extended unemployment benefits.” In addition, the Los Angeles Times reports that four out of five Americans disagree with Bush on Social Security and tax cuts. Finally, according to the New York Times, 67 percent of Americans believe that members of the Bush team are “hiding something” or “lying” about Enron, and according to the Zogby Poll, 63 percent are in favor of a rollback of Bush’s tax cut if it will improve environmental protection. (See “Atop Mount Gallup” in TomPaine.com)
More questions: What was the sample population? Was it representative of the public at large? Arianna Huffington reports that more than 40 percent of those contacted by the pollsters decline to give an opinion. Is this significant? What proportion of those 80 percent ratings are the result of “herd behavior” — of the respondents’ attitude, “who am I to disagree with all those other people?”
Is it not also possible that polls can be “self-authenticating?” When the opposing party cowers before these imposing numbers (as, manifestly, most Democratic politicians are doing today), the public interprets this reticence as endorsement of “the leader.” (“If even Al Gore and Tom Daschle say that Bush is doing such a fine job, I guess that settles it!”) In their anxiety not to offend the public in its ringing (80+ percent) endorsement of “our leader,” the Democrats have abandoned their progressive platform and principles and have become crypto-Republicans. And as Harry Truman so wisely put it, “when given a choice between Republicans and Republicans, the people will always choose the Republicans.”
To put the matter bluntly, the Democrats have been expertly suckered. And unless and until they display some testicular fortitude, they are heading for a fall in the fall.
History offers some grounds for encouragement. First of all, poll numbers are volatile and the public, by and large, suffers from collective amnesia — just ask Poppy Bush, whose 89 percent approval in February 1991 dropped fifty points in the following year, and thereafter continued to fall to 29 percent.
Bush-II remains a dim bulb who has failed in 55 years to take control of the English language. Devoid of critical skills or intellectual curiosity, Bush is nonetheless called upon to deal with a complex nation and world. His “comic book conservatism” (Larry Martin’s phrase), with its infantile slogans (“Axis of Evil”) and dichotomies (“either with us or against us”), is ill-suited to the task before him. Those who believe otherwise have allowed their desperate need for a leader and their wishful thinking to triumph over their plain view of the compelling facts. Bush is bound to stumble (as he is even now), and the public must eventually realize that he is not up to the job. Then those formidable poll numbers will vanish like a snowball falling on a hot stove.
The decline and fall of the Bush regime may have started even now, as several noteworthy Republicans are conspicuously abandoning ship –among them, John Dean, Kevin Phillips, Arianna Huffington, Jonathan Turley, and Jim Jeffords. Expect still more to join them, along with a growing list of journalists.
“What about those polls?”
Our advice to the Democrats and the progressive opposition is this: so long as you are intimidated by the polls, you are playing into the hands of the Bushistas. Instead, assume that Bush’s poll numbers are a mile wide and an inch deep. That assumption could turn out to be self-authenticating. Those “approval numbers” are the result of a desperate public need for a leader — a role for which the Shrub is utterly unqualified. That fact cannot be kept a secret forever. If the Democrats display forceful, confident and articulate leadership, then that public need for leadership will find its proper object. And when that happens, the usurper regime will collapse.
For those imposing poll numbers do not alter by one iota the fact that Bush holds his office illegitimately, through vote manipulation in Florida and the seditious act of five Supreme Court justices. On September 10, 2001, the Usurper’s poll numbers stood at 50 percent. Due to the public’s clamor for leadership following a national catastrophe, combined with the fawning of a sycophant press, Bush’s numbers soared. That bump in the ratings had nothing whatever to do with Bush’s qualities as a leader or with the content of his agenda. On the contrary, the political clout of those polls has given Bush’s team a license to erode our civil liberties, to lock up public documents, to accelerate the transfer of wealth into the hands of the rich and powerful, and to tear up or ignore numerous international treaties. All the while, the opposition has been muted at home and our national reputation has been tarnished abroad.
Those polls were elevated through a combination of accident and guile. It is past time to deflate them by speaking truth to power — boldly, persistently and repeatedly.
We owe this to our Constitution, to the rule of law, to ourselves, to our fellow citizens, and to future generations. If we fail to act, then we condemn ourselves as unworthy of the magnificent political traditions that are our legacy.
Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics. He publishes the website “The Online Gadfly”