The opinion poll seems now to be at the center of contemporary American political life. So endemic is polling that it feels as if what a politician does is less important than whether the public approves or disapproves. Polls are a great mainstay of television news, filling in five or so minutes on an otherwise dull day. They are especially valuable to the standard politician, whose primary question is how to get re-elected. Approval or disapproval of his actions in polls may provide crucial clues.
Polls have been around for more than a century, though they only gained authority in the 1940s with the scientific pretensions of the polling procedures of
and the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University. For years the accuracy of polling was challenged. Doubtless the greatest failure of the pollsters came with their confident assurance that
would be elected president in 1948. Today critics continue to question some of the methods of the pollsters: their choice of population samples, their neutrality, sometimes the inanity of their questions.
Since at least the 1970s, the two major political parties have hired their own pollsters. Given that the authority of the political poll is supposed to lie in its objectivity, party pollsters might seem a contradiction. But these pollsters are, in effect, doing market research for their respective parties, attempting to discover what the voters want so that the politicians may cater to these desires. Polls can have their own politics, and media polls are often accused of being tendentious.
What, one wonders, would
have made of political polling, in which people tell politicians what they like and don’t like about their conduct? Although an unremitting foe of tyranny, Plutarch had his doubts about democracy. Of the Athenians ostracizing their leader Cimon, he wrote that “high and noble minds seldom please the vulgar”; and in his portrait of Solon he has a Stoic philosopher named Anacharsis, on visiting the Athenian assembly, express “his wonder that in Greece wise men spoke and fools decided.” In some ways polling is the ultimate expression of democracy in politics—and of the worst of the democracy that Plutarch most distrusted.
Difficult to imagine is
Charles de Gaulle
Franklin D. Roosevelt
being concerned about public opinion in anything like the same way the contemporary politician is. I have been reading
David Herbert Donald’s
excellent 1995 biography of
The matter of opinions about Lincoln come up with great frequency. These are rarely pleasing, at least to Lincoln. On the matters of the abolition of slavery, the military conduct of the civil war, the use of blacks as soldiers on the Union side, and reconstruction, many on the Union side—including Know Nothings, Copperheads, Radical Republicans, strong Abolitionists, German-Americans, and others—managed at one time or another to find Lincoln deeply objectionable. Had polling been as common then as it is today, it is doubtful that Lincoln would ever have achieved a 40% approval rating during his presidency.
Lincoln, it turns out, was his own pollster. Early in his presidency he set aside morning office hours to receive visitors, many seeking favors or attempting to exert influence, or merely wishing to shake the hand of the nation’s leader. Donald writes of these sessions that “though his secretaries fretted that he was wasting time in these interviews, Lincoln felt he gained much from what he called his ‘public-opinion baths.’ These visits—random, sporadic, and inconsequential as they often proved to be—offered the president the opportunity, in these days before scientific public opinion polling, to get some idea of how ordinary people felt about him and his administration.”
Lincoln was ahead of his time in attempting not only to gauge public opinion but to shape it. He did this by sending out letters responding to his critics and by occasional but always carefully aimed speeches. His Gettysburg Address, surely the most impressive 272-word political speech ever delivered, was thought by many of those who heard it disappointing or too brief. (So much for the wisdom of the public.) Yet Lincoln, aware as he was of public sentiment, never allowed it ultimately to alter his policies or principles, which is one of the reasons he was a great man.
The public as often as not gets things wrong, but its opinions, given the attention they receive in the media, are nonetheless made to seem of the highest importance. And maybe they are. How else, after all, would politicians know how to act without them?
Mr. Epstein is author, most recently, of “Gallimaufry: A Collection of Essays, Reviews, Bits.”
Copyright ©2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8