Polls: they told me to do it
When should we hear what the
Parties and politicians often oppose the other side’s p
osition, whether on gay marriage, Afghanistan, or anything else, by arguing that it’s at odds with the people’s wishes, as revealed by opinion polls. When is such an appeal to polls appropriate? It’s more complicated then it appears.
On all the but the crudest definitions of a good elected representative, Congressmen do not exist merely to tally their constituents’ views on a given policy question and then vote accordingly.
Surely, fighting for their bosses’ opinions forms a big part of their obligation as a democratic representative, but they have a distinct duty to deliberate and debate publicly, so that they can join and lead the national conversation by which they and the people fashion their views. More than aggregating the people’s opinions, they have an obligation to ensure that such opinions are right.
With this in mind, we can discern where an appeal to polls should have the greatest (or least) amount of impact in the course of political debate.
First off, when an issue is fresh and unexamined, the power of polls ought to be at its lowest ebb. For an official to say at such a point that the debate is over because the public feels one way shirks his duty to lead the deliberative process. Neither he nor the people have considered this issue for long, and their first instinct, like that of any individual when first presented with a problem, may be wrong.
The politician has to provide reasons that explain why the opinion is a good one, beyond an appeal to the existence of the opinion. Otherwise, we will become a nation ruled by gut instinct alone, a poor method for deliberation over policies or values, even if it’s appropriate in other contexts.
That said, when the public and its leaders have debated an issue at length, an appeal to an opinion poll ought to be at its zenith. We are a democratic nation, we have deliberated extensively over an issue, and the people feel strongly that X, Y, or Z is the best course. This is a powerful argument, both politically and philosophically. Surely, there are some constitutional and moral limits to what the majority might desire, but that’s not especially relevant here.
The other places where opinion polls should be most relevant are those where further argument would not serve to change reasonable people’s views. I can think of at least two other examples. First, where the issue is a matter of whim or taste (e.g. what should a monument look like?).
Second, and more interestingly, where the issue is a matter of value or policy prioritization. For instance, if the public knows the cases for spending on education and national defense, but there isn’t enough money to fund both fully, there may not exist further arguments to adjudicate between these competing claims. Here the public’s instincts on how to spend its money, as revealed in polls, almost always ought to take priority over their elected officials’ views. (I discussed the problem of prioritization earlier).
So, next time some politician tries to end a debate by appealing to a poll, ask yourself whether the issue is new and unexamined, old and carefully considered, a matter of taste, or a question of value priorities. The category will reveal whether the official is upholding his duties by aiming to follow the people’s honorable views, or shirking them by stunting the national dialogue.
Photo by Flickr user Gage Skidmore used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.