Sunday, November 2, 2008

Taking the Pulse

The election - just a day away - has come down to this: will the actual vote count reflect the poll numbers? Will Obama carry the various blue "leaning" and "toss up" states, leading to a possible electoral college landslide? Will the polls prove misleading, whether by dint of incorrectly identifying "likely voters," or the dreaded "Bradley Effect"?

Much of the coverage at this point takes the form of asking whether the polls can be trusted (see, e.g., here and here for articles in the same section of yesterday's "Washington Post" - and the list could go on). No one seems interested in asking the role they serve, or how or whether they are supportive - or undermine - democracy. The poll has become so central a part of our political landscape that we no longer think much about its deeper meaning. Our accustomedness leads to intellectual complacency, but polling deserves questions that go deeper than whether the margin of error is accurate.

Polling is undertaken by each of the candidates in order to gauge the effect of the campaign on the various parts of the electorate. Depending on the response to various "messages" and advertising spots, candidates will press or alter their themes until (or if) they find one that will cause the poll numbers to move. Thus, incessant polling reflects the effort to discern and encourage the support some combination of supporters who will constitute an electoral majority. The campaigns ultimately hope to win favor with the electorate effectively by mirroring its views, by doggedly seeking the favor of the will of the people.

In seeking to adjust to the collected views of the citizenry, the effect of our polling regime on candidates and the citizenry represents a significant break from original grounds for the election of representatives. As conceived and defended by the Founders, representatives were to avoid doggedly mimicking or following the electorate's views. Organizing a system that was supposed to make the election of our most eminent men more likely, Madison hoped that representatives would "refine and enlarge the public views...." Rather than simply taking the pulse of the public, it was hoped that representative would have the "wisdom [to] best discern the true interest of their country, and ... the patriotism and love of justice [that would be] least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves...." For much of the premodern period there was no active campaigning by the candidates: rather, following the original presuppositions of the Founders, the views of candidates were disseminated and the people were expected to come to understand them and support one who could persuade them (not necessarily mimic them). Of course, whether the result were a series of "eminent" or even "great" representatives is a reasonable question; still, campaigning was largely undertaken with the original idea of the Framers in mind.

By contrast, the Anti-federalists supported a conception of representation that seemed on first glance to accord more closely to our more populist conception of representation, in which the positions of representatives were to "mirror" the views of the people. As Melancton Smith argued (against Alexander Hamilton) in the ratification debates in New York state, representation should be designed not to encourage the election (and unleash the judgment) of "great men," but rather to reflect the views and circumstances of the ordinary citizens. "The idea that naturally suggests itself to our minds, when we speak of representatives is, that they resemble those they represent; they should be a true picture of the people; possess the knowledge of their circumstances and their wants; sympathize in all their distresses, and be disposed to seek their true interests. The knowledge necessary for the representatives of a free people, not only comprehends extensive political and commercial information, such as is acquired by men of refined education, who have leisure to attain to high degrees of improvement, but it should also comprehend that kind of acquaintance with the common concerns and occupations of the people, which men of the middling class of life are in general much better competent to, than those of a superior class. To understand the true commercial interests of a country, not only requires just ideas of the general commerce of the world, but also, and principally, a knowledge of the productions of your own country and their value, what your soil is capable of producing, the nature of your manufactures, and the capacity of the country to increase both. To exercise the power of laying taxes, duties and excises with discretion, requires something more than acquaintance with the abstruse parts of the system of finance. It calls for a knowledge of the circumstances and ability of the people in general, a discernment how the burdens imposed will bear upon the different classes... A representative body, composed principally of respectable yeomanry is the best possible security to liberty.--When the interest of this part of the community is pursued, the public good is pursued; because the body of every nation consists of this class...."

Such a defense of representation, however, differs radically from one in which a citizenry's views are expressed passively through polling. Smith was arguing on behalf of a larger House of Representatives and correspondingly smaller districts. Hoping that national politics would be kept fundamentally local, his argument for a close bond between representatives and the citizenry reflected the hope that politics would be actively deliberate, that the citizenry would be active in their engagement in political matters, that political decisions would be the outcome of active participation in which narrow interests were enlarged and expanded as the result of interpersonal encounters with the viewpoints of other fellow citizens. The Anti-federalists generally defended a form of democracy in which the views of citizens were altered as the result of engagement in politics. The Federalists, by contrast, sought to leave most citizens undisturbed by politics, allowing us the liberty to pursue private matters and instead hoped that an educated and distinguished class of representatives would "refine and enlarge" the somewhat narrow views of the citizenry. Neither would find a politics based upon polling to be recognizable, and both would conclude that their original defense of representation had been betrayed by a form of corrupt and corrupting populism.

What a polling regime effectively does is to reinforce the worst aspect of both the Federalists and Anti-federalists. On the one hand, as the Federalists intended, it leaves the citizenry undisturbed and unchallenged in their private concerns and interests. Polling seeks merely to sound out an expression of our interests: it possesses no deliberative aspect, no interactive opportunity; it is passive and impersonal. From incessant polling we learn that we are bundles of interests, that we can be dissected into a particular voting blocs, that we should learn to match our particular interests to a particular candidate (and vice-versa). On the other hand, representatives seek to "mirror" or parrot the views of some portion of the electorate they believe will give them an electoral majority, but without the accompanying deliberation that the Anti-federalists hoped and expected would be the result of local and more personal politics. Polling both reinforces our self-understanding as simultaneously a collection of preferences and as tiny and insignificant fractions of the overall electorate. We come to understand that we matter only inasmuch as we express some set of pre-packaged interests while also understanding that, in a mass electorate, we don't really matter at all. Polling is a reflection of the reality of mass democracy, a reality that shapes us rather than merely seeks to discover our "opinions." Viewed as merely a "tool" of democracy (or social science), we overlook how deeply it shapes and influences our worldview - especially how it reinforces an emphasis that what matters most in politics is raw and unadulterated interest, and what politics is not and cannot be is a form of deliberation.

Finally, there is a more nefarious aspect of polling about which most of us are wholly unaware. Polling - a form of statistical sampling - has its origins (as much of the social sciences) in the optimism of 19th-century applications of scientific method to human phenomena. It was hoped that the application of scientific investigations on social phenomena could be as successful in prediction and control as it was proving to be in the natural domain. Among the most celebrated of the early practitioners of data collection (the forerunner of polling) was especially the Belgian scientist L.A.J. Quetelet. Quetelet invented the term "social physics" to describe his extension of the scientific method into the human domain, a phrase that Comte would later adopt in his own effort to foster a new "religion of humanity" through sociology (Read John Gray's Al Queada and What it Means to be Modern for a great synopsis of Comte's utopian aspirations - ones influential on J.S. Mill, among others). Quetelet believed that humanity was no less subject to basic natural forces as nature itself: what the world had lacked to that point was merely a way to measure and predict human motion. Through the aggregation of statistical data, Quetelet sought to demonstrate that all human activity could be reduced to some predictable set of outcomes, and that humankind could be understood to really be composed not of free individuals, but a collection of data that would would act in a predictable manner given certain ongoing conditions. He arrived at a theory (in his much admired work entitled A Treatise on Man, a work that was celebrated and embraced by, among many, that American icon of "individualism," Ralph Waldo Emerson) of "the average man": outliers from the statistical norm were to be regarded not as individuals, but as "deviations" that were distracting and should not be mistaken as having significance. He wrote, "the greater the number of individuals involved, the more do individual peculiarities, whether physical or moral, become effaced." Significant figures in history - to the extent that they existed - were to be understood not as great or remarkable individuals, but as reflections of an historical process. So, he wrote further, "A man can have no real influence on the masses - he cannot comprehend them or put them in action - except as he is infused with the spirit which animates them, and shares, their passions, sentiments, and necessities, and finally sympathizes completely with them. It is in this manner that he is a great man, a great poet, a great artist. It is because he is the best representative of his age, that he is proclaimed to be a great genius." (Hint: there's still a great paper or even dissertation to be written on Quetelet's influence on the likes of Emerson and 19th-century views of democracy.... But then again, the world really needs the 27,894th dissertation on Rawls as well...).

We can see the extent to which our politics and our deeper worldview (influenced by the pernicious effects of our social sciences) has become a reflection of Quetelet's assumptions (and Emerson's view of "Representative Men"). We are merely the reflection of our times, constituted by forces we do not understand or from which we cannot liberate ourselves. Our "leaders" are reflections of those same forces that have shaped us. All of us lack freedom, being merely reflections of historical processes that we cannot stop, shape, or alter. Just so, now, we are the subjects of the forces of globalization, of liberalization, of cosmopolitanism - of any number of historical unfoldings that are inexorably shaping and making us. And so, too, with the incessant drumbeat of polls taken daily, hourly, we are told what we think - how "studies show" us what we really are and what we really think, how "your fellow Americans" actually behave (making you wonder if you are relevant or sane if you happen to act otherwise), how the election will unfold unless people are scandalously withholding their true views from the takers of polls (perhaps eventually justifying polling done with the help of lie detectors). The election itself is merely the final poll, a snapshot of the interests that have shaped us based on historical circumstance, and our approval of the politician who has best parroted the views of his countrymen and his zeitgeist (can there be any doubt that Obama, a gifted chameleon, will win? Who would want to be a "leader" in such a circumstance?).

When Tocqueville wrote of an impending "tyranny of the majority," he was not speaking of an actual form of physical repression of a larger number of citizens over a minority (we know from experience that the minority can actually win such political battles - physical repression has a way of highlighting the legitimacy of the grievances of the minority). What he in fact feared and predicted was a psychological condition in which we would each fear the disapproval of "the mass" - to be perceived as an outlier, an "accidental deviation" (in Quetelet's words). Fearing the perception of being exceptional, the natural reaction is to retreat from the public realm - to find comfort of respect and dignity in an ever-shrinking circle of one's friends and family. The ironic result of mass democracy, he wrote, was individualism - a form of being trapped "within the solitude of one's own heart." This is the creature perfectly suited for polling: a perfect monad of unaltered interests who can answer simplistic questions asked to solicit simplistic answers. This is what we now call democracy. This is what we will celebrate tomorrow.


Conor said...

Great post, great essay-certainly worthy of further elaboration. Indeed, one of the most infuriating parts of the polling regime is the support it gives to media coverage which emphasizes momentum. The fallacious reasoning which awards a candidate the winning part in a political narrative simply by virtue of having been previously in this position is anathema to real democracy. Barack Obama is currently benefitting from this effect; his poll numbers have grown so convincing that John McCain has been unable to change his place in the ongoing electoral narrative. Polls thus create political trends (not just to measure, or to makes their existence possible in the most general sense). Worst of all, as you have noted, by reducing political participation to a set of preferences (and inevitably stark and simple ones at that). Those who are polled slot themselves into a position, and those who are not polled take a side. What an artificial way to set our political fissures!

It validates every worry Mill and Tocqueville had regarding the tyranny of the majority in democratic governance and drives me to my least democratic thoughts. I have no feasible solutions to offer, although I imagine that dramatically shortening the primary and campaign "seasons" might ameliorate some of polling's (and the momentum phenomenon's) effects.

Peter B said...

These are some powerful points, and a well articulated critique of democracy as enacted today. Thanks for offering this perspective.

Andrew said...

A superb post.