This fourth of July, let's declare independence from pollsters.
You have to hand it to the pollster provocateurs at Pew. They really know how to stir things up — to set red against blue, black against white, purple against aquamarine.
Last week, Pew released a survey of American political attitudes, “Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typography,” that had something in it to offend everyone.
Fox News reported, “An amazing 44 percent of all respondents said they didn’t often feel proud to be American. Only 28 percent said that America was the greatest nation on earth.”
Conservatives took exception to what this meant for “American exceptionalism.” After all, a large majority of respondents seemed to reject that idea on its face.
At the same time, many American liberals were offended by their own reported attitudes toward the nation and looked for a way to change the subject. These attitudes were summed up by a Washington Post headline writer and clickbait genius as, “Proud to be an American? You’re probably not a true liberal.”
There were serious, perhaps disqualifying methodological problems with using the survey results on any subject. As law professor Ann Althouse pointed out, surveyees were forced to choose between extremely poorly worded options, including the following humdinger:
(a) “Poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.”
(b) “Poor people have hard lives because government benefits don’t go far enough to help them live decently.”
The hard job of those people whose opinions were tallied up was to pick only one of those that was closest to their beliefs, with absolutely no room for nuance.
That didn’t stop progressive partisans from using the poll to portray conservatives as the second coming of Marie Antoinette. The liberal New Republic headlined its write-up: “80 Percent of Conservatives Think the Poor ‘Have It Easy.’”
No they do not think that, or at least that is not a reasonable reading of these results. Eighty percent of American respondents that Pew identified as conservative decided that silly option (a) was closer to their view than silly option (b).
Pew made new attempts at dividing and categorizing the American electorate, into groups such as “young outsiders”; “hard-pressed skeptics”; and the “faith and family left.”
And the pollsters further found that… you know what, who cares?
You might think that all people of goodwill, and even journalists, would take one look at this trainwreck of a survey and ignore it.
But that ignores the role that polls play in American life today. Polls were once a useful tool to gauge general public attitudes and get some idea who the favorite is going into election night. However, at some point the process transmogrified from poll to troll.
Because of push-polling and internal polling and focus grouping and the sheer saturation of polling, polls have become a whole other monstrous thing. Polls tell us what “we” think as much as they solicit our opinions.
Pollsters lump us into convenient categories that obscure as much as they illuminate. They ask us to render judgments on things we have no competence judging, including microeconomics and historical happenstance. They accidentally encourage us to lie, exaggerate, exult in whim and subjectivity.
Polls reassure Democrats that Republicans are mean and dumb and Republicans that Democrats are elitist unpatriotic. And we Americans collectively eat it up.
It’s all very sad, but this is still a reasonably free country. There’s nothing that would stop us, as the Fourth of July rolls around again, from declaring our own independence from pollsters.
It doesn’t take a lot of effort to hang up on pollsters, click elsewhere, change the channel, or even dump a bit of poll-heavy newsprint into the nearest harbor. So why not do it? An America in which the only polls that really mattered happened on election day would be a much better country.
Jeremy Lott is an editor of Rare.