I am a political junkie and I hate polls- which means that I spend an inordinate amount of time scowling at the TV and rolling my eyes at the latest “news” reflected in whatever poll has just been released. It is no surprise that 2016 was an especially rough year- and not just because of the final vote tally. It runs deeper than that and it is largely because of the outsized role that polls play in our politics. An up-front acknowledgment is in order before I open fire on pollsters: I recognize that polling is a necessary part of our political process and it can serve a valuable purpose- at times. I also acknowledge that it is not an easy science to master so we should all be careful before we impugn the competency of folks that are doing something that we are not qualified to do ourselves. Kind of like your sister in law who tips the scale at 250 lbs who wants to criticize the technique and physique of the dancer working the pole on center stage.
However, polls can also be destructive, deceptive and a complete waste of time. During a general election cycle we frequently cross over into an area where the polling itself becomes the news. When that happens, polls can start to affect public opinion rather than reflect public opinion; i.e., polls can start affecting polls.
This piece will be free of colorful language for the most part but I sincerely believe this circumstance qualifies as a classic cluster-f*ck. Or is it a circle-jerk? It is definitely one of these, if not both, but either way it is an unacceptable situation and conscientious citizens need to take notice before some nameless, faceless geek is pulling all of our strings like Jonah Hill on MoneyBall. We already have to worry about Russian hackers and infiltrators, we don’t need to add math-geek pollsters to the mix. And we may be closer to that than we think. After all, they like to pole dance too sometimes.
Without subscribing to the wild-eyed conspiracy theories of right wing talk radio, the skepticism around polling is fair- even if the most vicious critics shamelessly praise polls that reflect results they agree with and assail those they don’t. These guys have no intellectual integrity- mainly because intellect is the prerequisite. Where polling goes terribly wrong is that some questions- merely by being posed in an official capacity- give an injection of gravitas and veracity to stupid ideas. Suddenly a baseless assertion sounds like a serious option to an average guy answering a landline telephone or responding to an on-line questionnaire. Putting a ridiculous rumor right next to a statement of fact and posing the choice between them as a question from “Gallup,” or “CBS News,” or “Monmouth University” makes the ridiculous assertion seem less ridiculous.
So if I am some meathead from Knee-Cap, New Jersey and I don’t like Barack Obama, there is a good chance that if you ask me if I believe he was born in the United States, I’ll answer “No”- even if I am not particularly convinced of that crackpot theory.
I am a meathead, after all, and I just want to say something insulting about “Buck Ofama” in any capacity that I can. The fact that my insult might get magnified and amplified by this pollster is a sweet bonus. Hell, I might even throw in that I believe he is a Muslim for good measure, meathead that I am. And the pollsters give this simpleton the chance to do exactly that: launch an ill-informed and unexposed perspective on wings as big as a 747 into a television signal that will carry it around the world in minutes. How many other meatheads might see his views reflected on television- even if it is a minority view- and feel like he is a legitimate part of the national debate? The worst part is the question itself is dumb and useless. Who gives a damn what some fool thinks who even entertains the Birther theory?
There is absolutely no chance that any of them would have voted for Barack Obama anyway so why even poll on it? Polls as political entertainment are dangerous and polling organizations need to knock it off. They are inadvertently (at least I assume it is inadvertent) helping to polarize the electorate by lending credence to positions held only by those least prepared to participate responsibly in this democracy. And if you have one of those asinine “Hillary for Prison” bumper stickers on your car, that means you too. You are too stupid to understand this discussion so take it on the arches and get the hell off my blog.
We cannot lose sight of the reality that the media amplifier is a powerful tool- and that machine must be fueled and fed by the 24 hour cable news channels. If you listen to the talking heads closely, they all but admit that they amplify polls they are suspicious of if it happens to fill up a few segments and generate viewers. Meanwhile, impressionable minds are taking it all in and opinions are being formed and solidified. This is how phony scandals (almost exclusively the province of Fox News) take hold in the public conscience, sending NASCAR Moms and snuff dippin’ Dads running to grab their shotguns and pitchforks.
In some ways, suspect polling draws its energy and influence from the same source that phony scandals do: that 24 hour news cycle which demands to be fed. Scandal jockeys mount up and ride anything that looks like a controversy until it dies. They never let up by allowing mere facts or actual legal dispositions to get in the way. Since when did every tragedy become a scandal- stretched out and exploited to boost television ratings? Was it the same time that every case of government mismanagement became a scandal to fundraise off of?
Heads are about to explode all over Red State America but THERE IS NO BENGHAZI SCANDAL- there never was. Hillary Clinton did not kill anybody. An American diplomat and his foreign service security team were killed in an attack by hostile foreign actors- terrorists and terrorist sympathizers. That is a tragedy, not a scandal- one that has happened before. The matter has been thoroughly investigated and adjudicated and there was no wrongdoing. Done deal. Of course, this phony scandal became a part of the narrative built against Hillary Clinton’s presidency so perhaps the purveyors of this fantasy did get something out of the deal after all.
Likewise, there was no “IRS scandal.” Unless of course it was a scandal for former IRS Director Lois Lerner to give the entire G.O.P. the finger and then walk away clean into retirement. They say she abused her power, but I say she abused their tiny right-wing balls by kicking them sharply and telling them where to get off when they thought they were going to collect her scalp. The breathless coverage of this story on conservative media outlets was ludicrous.
This is obviously not an accident. Right wingers were so desperate for a scandal to stain the Obama administration with that they spent years trying to conjure up one. Here is all the proof that a reasonable person needs: Since President Obama took office, Republican talking heads have floated the phrase “Obama’s Katrina” on 23 separate news items by last official count conducted by the Washington Post. For those who suffer from acute memory loss, the Bush Administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina was such an abysmal failure that it came to symbolize the weakness and ineptitude of the federal government on W’s watch. The response was so poor that American citizens- Louisiana and Mississippi residents- actually died needlessly waiting to be rescued from flood waters caused by the storm surge after the hurricane passed. And for those folks with the “I don’t believe the Liberal Media” bumper stickers on their rusty, tan Dodge Caravans, The Post actually lists the person who spoke the phrase, the date, and the exact quote so there is no escaping reality on this one.
But of course, the political epitaph never stuck. As obsequious as people can be these days, they could smell this rotten egg of a talking point a mile away and they just wouldn’t bite- except for maybe those rejects who still believe Barack was really born in some unknown African village, the son and sole heir to King Mufasa. But they’ll keep trying- long after Barack and Michelle fly off into the clouds like Danny and Sandy at the end of Grease. After all the poll dancing and scandal jockeying of the chattering class and consulting cabals, they will depart the biggest stage in the world unbeaten and unblemished. Now that is an amazing accomplishment. It is a shame that Hillary and Bill cannot say the same. And it is abundantly clear that all of us will be paying the price for that for many years to come.