Polls Used To Silence Voices, Not Amplify Them

Constructing Public Opinion is a classic documentary that explodes the myth that politicians too often cave into polling numbers, that too little leadership and too much knee-jerk democracy is at the root of Americans’ disillusionment with politics. Professor Justin Lewis argues instead that public opinion is in effect manufactured and distorted in ways that undermine true democratic participation. He also maintains that the reasons for this are less conspiratorial than institutional: a reflection of the mandate of political, corporate and media elites to maintain the status quo in order to satisfy their interdependent interests.

The film takes a sustained and critical look at the rise and influence of public opinion polls in American politics, and examines the relationship between politics, media and the public. It demonstrates that public opinion data used by politicians and reported by the media do not so much reflect what Americans think as much as they construct public opinion itself. Lewis investigates, against conventional wisdom, a central paradox: that the very opinion polling that appears to wield such influence over politicians, and media coverage of politics, has in actuality distorted and limited the voice of the public.

The film explores this paradox by showing how the potential power of polling to give people a voice in the political process is undermined by the nature of the political system itself. While the public is now surveyed with greater frequency and sophistication than ever before, Lewis demonstrates how people’s desires often carry less urgency with political elites than the need of elites to manage people’s desires. His argument is not an indictment of a few powerful individuals conspiring against the public, but of a political culture so infused with money, so confined by mainstream corporate media coverage, and therefore so beholden to elite moneyed interests, that it fails to respond to the real opinions of ordinary people. The chief casualty in all of this is the truth, the real things that real people say they want from their government and representatives – and the effect is cyclical: true public opinion continues to be misrepresented, and these misrepresentations in turn continue to shape and severely limit the public’s sense of political reality and their place in it.

The film shows how this ongoing misrepresentation of public opinion:

    • constructs, rather than reflects, true public opinion by failing to reflect the specific and accurate opinions of the public on specific issues;
    • constructs by misrepresentation the public itself;
    • excludes real and mainstream public sentiment that has been shown repeatedly in surveys to lie outside, and to the left, of what mainstream reporting of opinion allows;
    • reflects the interests of politicians who must first satisfy the interests of those who fund them, interests that are by definition conservative because wedded to the status quo;
    • reflects the interests of the mass media whose job it is to report what the public says it wants: the media’s institutional interests as corporations themselves, and the related pressure on them to trade in labels, image and oversimplification – rather than specifics, nuance and substance – in order to maintain ratings and market share;
    • reflects media bias toward the elite interests who have the greatest access to media;
    • does not so much measure public feeling about the direction or shape of policy as it does direct and shape public feeling about predetermined policies that often work against what the public says it wants.
    • creates a climate of misinformation which in turn affects public opinion by affecting people’s understanding of major issues.

In his introduction, Lewis challenges the myth of the “poll-pandering” politician. He cites data that show the American people to be far more “liberal” than their representatives on a broad range of issues. The section ends with these questions: If, as we so often hear, politicians do only what the polls tell them to do, then how is this mismatch between popular sentiment and mainstream policy possible? And what does this mismatch say about the democratic process?

Key Points:

    • It is a myth that politicians, in quest of popularity, do what polls tell them to do.
    • This myth creates the impression that the political system may have problems, and that politicians may not be strong leaders, but that on the whole both are responsive to the public.
    • A detailed look at public opinion reveals broad support for a range of liberal or left-wing policies, including increased government spending on inner cities, the environment, education, health care, a minimum wage increase, more gun control, and campaign finance reform.
    • Despite the popular support of ordinary people for liberal policy on a range of economic issues, their representatives – whether Republican or Democrat – are generally far more conservative.
    • This discrepancy raises questions about the true influence and use of public opinion, and in a democracy forces us to ask how it’s possible that there could be such a mismatch between what the people want and the actual policies pursued by their representatives.

Political Perceptions:

This section begins to explore reasons for the discrepancy between popular support for liberal policies and the more conservative policies pursued by representatives. After defining what is meant, broadly speaking, by the terms “liberal” and “conservative,” Lewis shows how people often support vague conservative themes – like individual liberty and wariness of big government – while at the same time supporting specific policies that favor government spending and intervention. The section ends by considering one possible reason why people support conservative ideas and liberal policy: the negative connotations in the public mind of extreme labels like left-wing or right-wing, liberal or conservative.

Key points:

  • In terms of the role of government in the economy, the term “liberal” or “left wing” refers to a belief in high government intervention, high spending on social programs.
  • “Conservative” or “right wing” refers to a belief in low government intervention, low spending on social programs.
  • Public opinion enters here: people often support vague conservative “themes” – abstract notions like “individual freedom.” But when given specific options, they tend to support policies that favor government spending and intervention.
  • This apparent inconsistency is due, in part, to people’s reactions to political labels – specifically their ambivalence about extreme labels.
  • People prefer the label “moderate” to either conservative or liberal.
  • The way media construct narratives in political coverage plays a role in this: In political stories, “moderate” is constructed again and again in positive ways, extremists in negative ways.
  • This reaction to labels is supported by surveys that show that many people favor liberal approaches on a range of policy issues, but reject the term liberal.
  • In addition to media narratives that create negative associations with the term “liberal,” the composition of government itself tilts mainstream political discourse to the right.
  • Conservative views and opinions on issues such as the death penalty and abortion are represented in government, whereas liberal responses to public opinion surveys reveal that people are very much to the left of most Democrats in Congress and the White House.
  • On economic issues in particular, the public are actually further to the left than those elected to represent them.

Economic Forces:

This section focuses on why the actual liberal or left opinions of many Americans are excluded from mainstream political discourse. Lewis shows that while there are real differences between Democrats and Republicans on so-called civil liberty or social issues, there is little difference between the two dominant parties on economic issues. He argues that Democrats can afford – literally – to adopt liberal stances on social issues, but cannot afford to adopt the public’s often liberal stance on economic issues. This leads to a discussion of the role money plays in politics. While money is not central to how we think of such issues as the death penalty and abortion – where we see real differences between the two parties – it is central to issues such as health care, wages and corporate taxes – issues on which the two major parties tend to agree. Lewis argues at the close of this section that Democrats and Republicans are so close on economic issues because both parties rely primarily on money from corporate and business interests that are, by definition, economically conservative because they are concerned primarily with maximizing profit.

Key Points:

  • The real difference between mainstream politicians can be found mainly on so-called civil liberty or social issues.
  • What defines these issues – for example the death penalty, gay rights, women’s equality, abortion – is that money isn’t central to how we think about them.
  • In contrast, Democrats and Republicans tend to share a similar stance on those issues that do involve money, issues such as health care, wages, trade agreements, and the environment.
  • Money in politics enters here: the massive amount of money raised by politicians undermines liberal policy solutions. The reason for this is that both parties get most of their money from corporate and business interests, and must therefore heed these economically conservative interests or risk losing the money that sustains them as politicians.
  • In this political environment, it is logical that community concerns that threaten business interests are not given priority.
  • Surveys show clearly that the public is interested in community concerns such as health care, homelessness and the environment, but politicians tend to ignore radical solutions to these concerns because they need money to run effectively.

Media Coverage

This section, and the two that follow, examine more closely the role media play in shaping what counts for “public opinion.” Having established that the more liberal views of Americans fail to be represented within the political spectrum, Lewis shows in this section how media feed, and feed off of, the artificial perception that public opinion is more moderate or conservative than it actually is. Key to his argument is that media do not simply report survey data, do not simply reflect what the public says it wants, but actually play a central role in constructing public opinion.

Key Points:

  • Mainstream media don’t cover public opinion so much as they construct narratives about public opinion.
  • When media cover polls, they tell a story about what public opinion is, shaping the very way we understand it in their choice of questions, what they exclude, their lack-of follow-up and specificity, and their reliance on mainstream political stereotypes and labels to tell a good story.
  • Media coverage of public opinion does not recognize the gap between a public that tends to be more liberal than mainstream politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike.
  • Media reports on public opinion exclude the possibility of left-wing approaches to economic issues, making the public appear more conservative than it actually is.
  • The reasons for these exclusions, distortions and misrepresentations are systemic, caught up with the elite-oriented nature of reporting.
  • Media have an “elite” orientation – a built-in bias toward the views of those in positions of power – because elites have the greatest access to media. In this way, politicians, who tend to have power, control and money, set the media stage for what we talk about and how.
  • Because politicians are more conservative than the public, their power and access alter and shape the media narrative in more conservative directions.
  • Polling and the interpretation of poll results therefore tend to steer away from nuance and specific measures of ordinary people’s views on issues, focusing instead on so-called “horse race,” candidate-centered polls.
  • Candidate-centered polls and coverage reduce politics to image, steer people in one predetermined direction or the other, and in this way set up a narrow range of artificial choices while excluding alternative views about policy.
  • At the same time that media coverage narrows the ideological spectrum on economic issues, it also creates the impression that real debate is happening by focusing on the differences between parties and candidates on civil libertarian and social issues like gay rights and abortion.
  • The excessive coverage of differences on social issues and not the similarities on economic issues “masks the degree of elite consensus.”

The Phantom Liberal

Continuing his look at media’s pivotal role in shaping public opinion by seeming simply to report it, Lewis looks more closely at how mainstream media skew political discourse to the right. This section demonstrates how media narratives create the illusion that a real battle of ideas between left and right exists in the mainstream, while in reality excluding left-wing ideas altogether. One of the effects of this narrowing of the spectrum is that what mainstream media characterize as moderate is in actuality conservative, and that what’s characterized as liberal is actually closer to moderate. The section concludes by illustrating the influence on the public mind of this elimination of liberal opinion, showing that most people believe former President Clinton, a self-described conservative New Democrat “moderate,” was a liberal.

Key Points:

  • Media create the sense that politics is generally responsive to the people: that they present a broad range of issues, and that politicians listen to the people through polls.
  • In reality, the range of opinion is skewed to the right in ways that marginalize liberal opinion.
  • Bill Clinton was covered by mainstream media as a liberal, when in fact his stand on most issues – Nafta, the Telecommunications Act — was conservative, as indicated by his corporate support and left-wing opposition.
  • Polls show that people incorrectly believe that Bill Clinton voted on the liberal side of a number of key issues.
  • While there was significant media coverage of Clinton’s positions on these issues, the general framework and tenor of media coverage overwhelmed the specifics.

Military Omissions

This section develops the idea that media not only cover public opinion, but also influence it. Lewis argues that media play an “agenda-setting” role, that what they choose to cover is in turn considered by the public to be important – rather than the other way around. As an example, he examines media coverage of military spending in the United States, showing how the exclusion of specific detail inspires consensus from people who would otherwise question military spending.

Key Points:

  • Media play an agenda setting roll, with public concern about issues tending to follow media coverage of those issues – rather than any changes in the real world.
  • Shifts measured in so-called “public concern” about problems such as drugs and violence have nothing to do with the scale of these problems, and everything to do with the amount the media cover them.
  • The power of media to define what issues are important has to do with what they report, and what they don’t.
  • Polls measure public response to issues that are often incompletely reported.
  • People’s responses to polls about the specific details involved in such issues as military spending are often wrong, but at the same time represent a rational response to the information they’re given.
  • The overall effect of media omissions is “to suppress active public support for changing the current course.”

This concluding section points out that polling was viewed originally as a tool capable of enhancing democratic participation. In the beginning, innovations in the measuring of public opinion had the potential to make elites more responsive to the concerns of ordinary people. Instead, Lewis concludes, polls are now used primarily as market research – not to make government and media more responsive to the public interest, but to help make elite interests more palatable to the public.

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