“Poll Position”

George Gallup in 1948 on the television show “America Speaks.”

In the August 28, 2008 issue of The Nation, I published “Poll Position,” an essay on the fallacies of political polling and John Zogby’s The Way We’ll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream (2008).


In August 2003, at the behest of The American Enterprise, John Zogby deployed a team of surveyors across Iraq to conduct the “first scientific poll” of its citizens. On September 10 the magazine’s editor in chief, Karl Zinsmeister, summarized the findings in the Wall Street Journal, under the unfortunate headline “What Iraqis Really Think.” He described the situation as “manageable,” noting that seven out of ten Iraqis expected their country and their lives to improve within five years. A plurality of respondents also chose the United States as a model for Iraq’s fledgling democracy, rather than Syria, Iran, Egypt or Saudi Arabia. “The mass of citizens living along the Tigris-Euphrates Valley are likely to make reasonably sensible use of their new freedom,” Zinsmeister exulted. “We’re making headway in a benighted part of the world. Hang in there, America.”

The same day, Zogby discussed the poll in the Financial Times, drawing the opposite conclusion: with Saddam Hussein overthrown, Iraqis were eager to “control their own destiny” and to “move forward but not as a colony.” A majority of respondents were pessimistic about democracy in Iraq, wanted the United States and Britain to let Iraqis set up their own government, and believed the United States would hurt rather than help the country in the next five years.

It took four days for Dick Cheney to go on television and tout Zogby’s data as proof that the Administration’s strategy was sound. “There are problems” in Iraq, Cheney beneficently admitted on Meet the Press, but the proof was in the polls: “To suggest somehow that … the Iraqi people are opposed to what we’ve done in Iraq or are actively and aggressively trying to undermine it, I just think that’s not true.”

Facts, it has been said, can be used to prove anything that’s even remotely true; what a poll delivers is the impression of fact, momentary preferences and affinities packaged for a buyer who hopes the information will help sell a product or an idea. If the numbers seem unlikely to lead the buyer to greater profits or more votes, they can be distorted or dismissed until “better” data come into being. The market for public-opinion research is a dynamic one–which is to say that people are always changing their minds.

Zogby is one of the pre-eminent figures in this quintessentially American industry, and his new book, The Way We’ll Be, draws on his decades of polling to illuminate the changing nature of American values and lives. The Iraq episode goes unmentioned, perhaps because it is an outlier: since the 1930s, polling has aimed to narrow the distance between politicians and their constituents, creating what George Gallup, the profession’s forefather, called “a town meeting on a national scale.” And yet it is a powerful example of how little this Administration cares to consider the voices of those affected by its decisions; it also implies that polling does not benefit the people but rather those who stand to profit from their answers.

In the coming months, news networks will refashion themselves into clearinghouses for polling data, registering each minute change in people’s feelings about a given issue or candidate, and inviting a cavalcade of commentators to divine the will of the public, a ritual sanctioned by the glow of graphic headlines that read “Behind the Numbers” and “What Americans Are Saying.” Despite the ubiquity of polls, politicians are as out of touch with the values of the public as they’ve ever been, Zogby laments. It was not meant to be this way. Gallup claimed that, in the age of mass politics, polls were necessary to discern the will of the people and keep power beholden to it. He often quoted James Bryce, who, in The American Commonwealth (1888), argued that a form of government more advanced and desirable than our own “would be reached if the will of the majority of the citizens were to become ascertainable at all times, and without the need of its passing through a body of representatives, possibly even without the need of voting machinery at all.” Social data were heralded not just as a way to inform decision-making but as its possible replacement–the harbinger of pure democracy.

As Sarah Igo notes in The Averaged American, a masterly history of the rise of public-opinion research, it was not until the 1940s that the amount and quality of data on American citizens began to rival the data on the country’s livestock. The hunger for knowledge of “the mass mind” fed a polling craze in the middle of the century, a constant search for what Newsweek called the “American Majority Man.” Gallup became a national celebrity, with 8 million people turning to his syndicated column, “America Speaks!,” for insights into the citizenry’s life and thoughts.

Zogby’s complete faith in the ability of people to make good decisions and adapt to changing social currents while their leaders are clinging to the outmoded ideas that delivered them to Capitol Hill is an inheritance from Gallup. But if politicians don’t listen to the public, isn’t this partly a failure of polling? The Way We’ll Be is at once an acknowledgment that Washington has become unmoored from Everytown USA and an attempt to redeem polling as a populist instrument, relevant beyond election-year news cycles and corporate marketing schemes. Zogby finds that, although politicians are mired in the culture wars and refuse to accept that we live in an age of finite natural resources and a decline in the United States’ global primacy, there has been “a fundamental reorientation of the American character.” Life today is “smaller, leaner, more personal, and personalized, and Americans seem to be adjusting to it just fine.” Should our representatives fail to heed new demographic groups such as the Secular Spiritualists, Investors Next Door, Deferred Dreamers and the all-important First Globals–”inner-directed, network connected” people ages 18 to 29–and fail to recognize that Americans are “living with limits, embracing diversity, looking inward, and demanding authenticity,” it will be at their own peril.

According to Zogby, popular discontent with partisan bickering crystallized in 2005 with the imbroglio over Terri Schiavo’s body, which persuaded Americans “it was time to find another way.” From here, the narrative takes the tone of a fable. It started in low: “there was too much noise coming from both sides, and too much wasn’t working.” Then it started to grow: disgust over the government’s handling of Hurricane Katrina. And before long “the vital center began to reassert itself,” giving birth to “a new American consensus.” If these trends continue, Zogby intimates, we’ll soon have our multiracial, multilateral, borderless utopia. But it remains unclear how popular frustration with Washington might translate into a change in the political order, or how, for example, a general feeling of disenchantment with NAFTA–in a recent poll, a plurality of respondents said free-trade agreements have been “a bad thing” for the country–might translate into coherent policy, especially since more than 80 percent of respondents in a Zogby poll agreed that “free trade is good for America.” Such simplifications and contradictions are hardly explained by Zogby, who blithely admits that much of his analysis amounts to “a pyramid of assumptions and assertions,” before venturing a qualification: “Without suppositions, inquiry doesn’t get started, and without inquiry, all we know is the same old thing.”

It’s equally unclear how much the values professed in Zogby’s polls correspond to what people do, what they buy and how they vote. Nearly all Americans say they consider “environmental friendliness,” human rights or the use of child labor when making decisions as consumers; nonetheless, 90 percent of Americans shop at Wal-Mart, where most of the inventory is made in China. Zogby notes that Americans now agree the United States is too reliant on nonrenewable fuels, uses too much energy and should reduce energy use even if it affects quality of life, but there is scant evidence they’re ready to take the bus to work and trade central heat for sweaters. Is this acceptance of reality grounds for commendation, or does it merely demonstrate that most Americans know better than to answer otherwise? And is it significant to anyone besides Zogby that twenty-four out of twenty-five members of the “investor class” don’t agree with the statement “He who dies with the most stuff wins”?

An interview is, after all, a performance of an ideal self. It can also be marred by an unwillingness to say something that is socially undesirable. This is the premise of the so-called Bradley effect, a term sure to dominate discussions of this year’s election polls. It describes the propensity of white voters to state their preference for a black candidate and then choose a white one, either because that was their intention all along or because they couldn’t bring themselves to break with their prejudices. Similarly, Zogby’s findings could mean we are witnessing the germinal phase of a green revolution or just a yawning rift between what Americans are willing to do and what they know to be right–a rift that makes “green” all the more marketable.

The singular achievement of polling has not been to “get at the ultimate meaning of life,” as Zogby fatuously suggests, but to organize a welter of data into impressions of demographic trends that can be sold to and exploited by marketers. A majority of respondents could never be wrong, because in marketing desire matters above truth. If the “transformation of the American dream” is convincing, it’s as good as money in the bank. The same calculation applies in the world of politics. In the early days of polling, corporations hired men like Gallup to help them engineer products that would appeal to the broadest swath of Americans. Though Gallup found little difference in how people think “from politics to toothpaste,” his election-year surveys mainly served to test and advertise sampling methods that would garner profits in the corporate world. (Zogby outdoes him, calling voting and shopping “parallel expressions of the same mind-set,” and envisioning a world in which red states and blue states have been replaced by Wal-Mart and Filene’s.) But politicians understood that opinion research enabled them to craft targeted messages that could be sold just like canned soup or washing machines. As television sets became commonplace in American homes and the country eased into “life in the grid of two hundred million,” as George W.S. Trow put it, the language of marketing and the language of politics merged. “No one, now, minds a con man,” Trow concluded. “But no one likes a con man who doesn’t know what we think we want.”

The Way We’ll Be offers a seductive image of what we want, however fanciful, and it could indeed be a blueprint for marketing in the twenty-first century. Zogby even ends every chapter with a guide, and in one he offers the following helpful advice for those trying to corner the market on authenticity: “Reality doesn’t bite. It’s real, and people are demanding it,” and “In a world dominated by sizzle, it’s all about the steak. Sell the steak.” But here Zogby’s vision devolves into kitsch, a collection of slogans and anecdotes meant to buttress global capitalism (with a human face) and encourage its profiteers. For instance, Zogby tells a story meant to epitomize the perfect synergy between popular values and corporate America. IBM hires Zogby to track down a cast of “new global citizens” and gather them for a meeting with its executives, so that the company can use them as a sounding board for its vision of “globally integrated enterprise.” Over a few months, Zogby and his team pick five people who best reflect the archetype from a pool of 2,000 candidates, then bring them to Washington for “the first great global corporate-citizen symposium of the twenty-first century,” which Zogby hails as “pure excitement.” The implication is clear: IBM is already learning from the First Globals. Is your company?

Statistics speak, but after reading The Way We’ll Be one is left wondering if they say anything worthwhile. Zogby must resent that the current Administration publicly disdains the polls, claiming “decider” status, and yet has sustained itself by pandering to a set of values and preferences limned by men like himself; other times, it has been buoyed by a willingness to brazenly misinterpret such data, as in the American Enterprise‘s Iraq report. This behavior is not an anomaly but is common to both parties, which publicly dismiss the vagaries of “the mass mind” while privately paying pollsters millions of dollars to construct myriad messages that will appeal to as many demographic niches.

Did polling ever deserve its status as a boon to democracy? The early twentieth century was characterized by the increasing complexity of governance vis-à-vis the average citizen’s sphere of knowledge and expertise, Walter Lippmann observed in Public Opinion (1922)–a trend that has intensified since. It may be a stretch to conclude, as Lippmann did, that large segments of the population lack sufficient knowledge to form, much less express, political opinions, but current conditions (such as a growing wealth gap and the deterioration of public education) don’t bode well. In Gallup’s day, Lindsay Rogers blasted pollsters for propagating “the mistaken belief that modern law is a product of a common will.” It’s a claim that bears repeating.

Zogby, however, remains steadfast. “While individuals make mistakes in judgment,” he writes, “America as a whole rarely does. A collective wisdom emerges from a poll or vote that is far greater than the sum of its parts.” This inspirational mantra was, to Zogby’s delight, printed on Starbucks coffee cups across the nation. For Zogby, platitudes marshal a catholic force, and the truest brand of politics is one that can be winnowed down to a milligram of ink adorning a cup of soy latte–a paper container likely to be purchased by a well-meaning First Global, drained of its contents, then added to the 250 million tons of trash Americans continue to produce each year.