The Pull of Polls

It seems the “observer effect” has an influence beyond the micro-world of quantum mechanics.  Don’t worry I’m not talking Deepak Chopra-style nonsense and making unwarranted claims about the nature of our universe.  I was discussing the passage of the healthcare bill with a coworker and he revealed the main reason he thought the plan should have been rejected was not due necessarily to its substance (although he wasn’t thrilled with that either) but because it didn’t receive a majority of the public’s support or a single Republican vote. He argued that by-definition that made the bill too extreme. Furthermore, he didn’t support it because those reasons. It may be one thing to think a democratic body should bend to public opinion, but for an individual’s opinion to change on the merit of the bill because of public opinion seems perverse. Once people like my coworker see public opinion their opinion changes, which further changes public opinion – in a crude self-reinforcing political version of the observer effect. Jonathan Chait of The New Republic explains why lack of Republican support also is poor indicator of anything other then the potential partisanship/extremism of the current Republican party. 

The Republicans’ second measure is the lack of Republican support. It’s true, no Republican supports Obama’s plan. Republicans like Bennett site this fact as ipso facto proof that the plan is extreme. This definition inherently rules out the possibility that Republicans are opposing a moderate plan out of some combination of partisanship and ideological extremism. Suppose Obama decided to embrace the Republcian proposal as his own, and then every Republican subsequently abandoned the proposal, making it a Democrats-only plan. (This may sound ludicrous, but it happened in 1994.) By the Republican definition, the lack of GOP support would prove that Obama was supporting an extreme proposal.

Moreover, public opinion and Republican Congressional support are also problematic measures of a bill’s moderation because the two can interact. As Mitch McConnell has explained, the fact of united Republican opposition has helped turn the public against the bill:

“It was absolutely critical that everybody be together because if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this is O.K., they must have figured it out,” Mr. McConnell said about the health legislation in an interview

So I’d propose that the ideological character of the plan can only be determined by referring to its policy content.

This illustrates the problem of polling. It isn’t just a measure of public opinion but it shapes public opinion. We have the advantage of living in a constitutional republic which helps mitigate some of these problems. But only if our politicians don’t just act as mere proxy voters for majoritarian opinion. Madison didn’t promote elected representatives to simply save the nation the hassle of holding national votes on every issue. Our elected officials need to govern how they think best serves our interests – if we don’t like the results we vote them out. That’s the deal. 

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