John Buell

Democracy and Polls

When political scientists or activists of whatever bent assess the health of American democracy, they consider such topics as electoral arrangements, levels of voter participation, party systems, and the role of interest groups. By these criteria, American democracy leaves a lot to be desired, not only in comparison to some democratic ideal but also even in comparison with many really existing democracies.

The “public opinion” poll, often taken as a way that citizens both expresses themselves and in turn influences political and business leaders, often constrains and even manipulates political discourse.

This spring I had a chance to be a part of public opinion.

I found the experience to be both frustrating and illuminating at the same time. I was asked to participate in a Marist College/ McClatchy Newspaper poll on Congress and the presidency with a brief side journey into public views about the beatification of John Paul II.

On the surface, these two topics as well as the manner in which the poll explored them seemed vastly different. The section of the poll devoted to the late Pope seemed more like an infomercial than an attempt to solicit considered views. The pollster, who identified herself as a Marist freshman, read a long discussion of JP II’s accomplishments.

He had apologized for the role of the Church under the Nazis and gone around the world in search of close communion with peoples of different cultures and religions. Then came a set of questions about whether I had ever heard a mass of his, whether I watched his funeral.

And finally the poll asked a set of questions about his beatification and whether he should become a saint.

All I could think to myself was that the introductory material had been extremely selective. It included nothing about the Pope’s role in the pedophilia scandals rocking the Church, his steady insistence on the inferior role of women in the Church, and his opposition to women’s control of their own bodies. I had no trouble casting my vote against beatification, but as I did so I wondered whether I was also tacitly endorsing a worldview that believed in saints versus sinners. The first part of the poll was devoted to current politics and may seem less tendentious. Nonetheless, it can be read as shaping political orientations in subtle ways.

I was asked a whole set of questions as to whether “the country” was going in the right direction, did I approve or disapprove of President Obama’s handling of the deficit and the economy.

Such questions put the progressives among the electorate in a bind. Polls are not inherently destructive or anti-democratic. To democratize polls is a worthy agenda. In such an endeavor the first step is to acknowledge that all polls are not some passive receptor of a set of opinions out there.

A poll is a form of political intervention in an ongoing process. The best polls would acknowledge their underlying orientation to markets, social justice, nationhood. They might even invite panels of participants not merely to debate questions but even to critique the questions themselves. I’d like to see polls that not only entertained the thought that Obama might have critics on the Left but also polls that asked American workers about relations with their bosses or the amount and quality of leisure time they enjoy.

Like many readers of this publication, I am even more disappointed in Obama than I had anticipated. With the exception of a few speeches he has been little more than Republican lite.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2011

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2011 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652