The Polling Vacuum of American Politics: How Ideas Get Sucked Out and We Focus on the Surface

Following the first presidential debate, I asked friends, “What do you think?”

Response: “We survived Nixon, Reagan, the Bushes — we can survive Romney.”

This is the sense of things today — survival. This is the outcome of an American Political System where the select win, the rest of us are left to survive. It’s a tragic truth that defines what is arguably the most perfect socioeconomic system in the world, ours: it controls, manages and induces people through the mindless insistence that what’s happening in front of our faces, on screens, is reality; it pushes, not ideas, dialog, negotiation and collaboration, but rather, sound bites, jingoes, and substanceless generalizations. It’s all about the performance, the sense that we’re watching an end product; the powerful punditry that critiques the acting — all the world’s a stage — then submits a critique of the unnatural surface structure.

The most profound evidence for this argument — that we have the most efficient form of capitalism tied to the illusion of democracy — can be found in the ever holy polls. The best example I found happened the other night on the PBS Newshour where Margaret Warner talks to the Rothenberg Political Report’s Stu Rothenberg, USA Todays’s Susan Page and Pew Research Center’s Any Kohut about the latest elections polls coming out of the first presidential debate.

Polling is not about a deep inquiry into an issue; instead, polls question only the surface action, the performance, basing their questions on image — the one liners, the sound bite, the images of the candidates, the “battles” in debates. In other words, polls measure Americans’ reactions to the glitz, the buzz, the immediate. Polls are about instant gratification scheduled to begin right after an event.

Susan Page, of USA Today, for instance, speaking with Margaret Warner on the PBS News Hour, said that, “the Romney camp understands that he needs to be seen as a credible commander in chief if he’s going to be elected president. There’s a bar he needs to get over there.” This is pollster talk: bar to get over, needs to be seen are suggestive of what the poll will ask after the second debate. There’s nothing here about the historical value and insight of the policy, this is because what comes out of a candidate’s mouth is a cascade of over generalizations meant to create a caricature, not a thinking individual grappling with subtlety.

In-between the first and the second debate, Romney, to appease the testosterone – laden, NFL-like politics of America, needs to show that he’s a man; that he will command and shape history using the most powerful force in the world. That no one asks whether this is imperialism and neo-colonialism on steroids is lost on me; that no one asks how we’re going to pay for this muscle flexing, and the aftermath, is also confusing given that the state of our union is directly related to the Bush-Cheney muscle flexing, and their looking the other way as banks pillaged our village. And that no one asks about what we will say to the thousands that are surely to lose lives as we expand our need to control history by force, well then, this too is very confusing.

This reality demonstrates the perfect congruence of baseless, narrow politics, media and technological power, and how pollsters actually work in support of both, creating narratives that suit television and social media that will suit the unfocused American public that wants no pain, only a pill that will fix this — an easy answer. Polls give us easy, immediate answers; they help cast a black and white narrative that anyone more focused on the NFL and the Kardashians can understand. Only the world doesn’t work this way. Our problems are deep and complex, requiring a nuanced approach.

Andrew Kohut, of the Pew Research Center, also talking to Margaret Warner, said, about Romney, that “people say he’s the candidate with new ideas. He ties Obama now on the — for strong leader, when a couple of weeks ago and when we did our September survey, it was Obama who was seen as a strong leader.” How viewers can change their minds after a single event suggests how uniformed — how unconscious? — the American voter actually is. And then to actually say that Romney is the candidate with new ideas seems like a delusion of epic proportions since Romney spoke about policies that were Reagan’s on steroids, for starters — nothing new: deregulate, open it all up to anyone, cancel out or carve out the cost of this on the backs of existing programs, including education, early childhood education, social services and Medicare. This is not new — nothing here is new; it’s been tried, but Obama’s more nuanced argument couldn’t get through the thick wall of pollsterism, the narrative consistent with image and the hunger for an easy black and white narrative.

And even though Romney contradicted everything he’s said prior to the first debate, Stu Rothernberg, of The Rothenberg Political Report, told Warner that the debate made “Romney more likeable, and the leadership is really strong,” meaning that as long as we imagine we see, on the surface of things, the sense of a constructed strength that comes to us through mediated sports, movies, songs, etc., we’re comfortable — even though the moral underpinnings of the individual are questionable, even though his past business practices are highly questionable, and even though there has always been an issue of trust concerning Romney that confounds us all. Who is this man? Polls, focused on performance, removed this question from the electorate. I’d argue that this is extraordinarily immoral.

In the end, pollsters are not asking how moral it is that we may be heading towards a government intent on building its economy on the backs of the disenfranchised and needy — a plantation model; pollsters are not asking about the ethics of a militarism that expands US imperialism in a big way rather then negotiating, which will certainly create more enemies; and pollsters are not addressing the very large education crisis we have that fails to address how children go to school, particularly in communities where the cycle of poverty has stifled social mobility.

Solutions, from either candidate, are slim, though we see the slow, hard road ahead that Obama paints, something we can actually sink our teeth into, regardless of how we feel about his change mantra of 2008, a moment, like this one, that no one asked about how to change. We went along because we were desperate after Bush – Cheney; we went along because we’re always in the position of having to survive the idiocies of our elected spokespersons for special interests. We’re short on ideas, wedded to imagery, which means we have to, once again, embrace our beleaguered image of the dying person crawling to a distant oasis — perhaps a mirage, after all.

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