the always already of polling

Polling–maybe the worst thing ever to happen to our politics. Somewhere I came across a quote from Foucault–I think it was Foucault[1. lil’ help?]–saying “truth is the product of the system of beliefs designed to produce it.” A Model T Ford was the truth of the Ford assembly line. If we think of the Ford assembly line as the physical embodiment of a set of beliefs–about efficiency, work, labor, economics, rationality, leisure–the Model T was the “truth” of this system. The assembly line was a set of ideas made real, the car was the truth, the visible evidence, this set of ideas was designed to produce.

In some religious systems the “truth” of disease is evil spirits: if you believe in evil spirits the disease proves their existence. “See? Evil spirits!” In science, a very different system of beliefs, disease proves an entirely different set of things. The “truth” of disease could also be described as a product of the system of beliefs designed to produce it.[2. Yes, the objection here is that HIV for example, really is a virus. It’s effective to treat it as a virus, and persuasive; it brings  good results, but there are still millions of people who believe it’s a virus and the virus is god’s curse, or karmic punishment for immorality. Two very different accounts of the “truth” of disease. And of course it’s not as if we know everything about viruses and HIV: it’s not been cured. That being said, if I get sick I go to a MD rather than a priest.]

That same insight can apply to polls. The questions a pollster asks are just like the elaborate and carefully calibrated machines in Ford’s assembly line–they’re designed to work together to produce a truth which they have already imagined.

Elena Razlogova wrote an excellent dissertation, soon to appear as a book, on early radio and its relationship with audience. At first, radio programs solicited letters from listeners and actually read them , incorporating suggestions and corrections to into the plot. By the end of the 1930s, however, they had begun to switch to  Gallup polls of listener opinion. They still solicited letters, but now they ignored them. In effect, they created the audience they wanted, and accustomed listeners to to a passive role.

I don’t mean simply deliberately misleading polls, “push polls” designed to produce disapproval of candidate A or B. Those are obvious.

But polls always work to reproduce a narrow, prexisiting set of assumptions–they are always already trying to find out what they think people always already believe. Here’s an example.

You could argue that the Model T didn’t exist without the assembly line, but “public opinion” does exist without polls. I have to disagree–“public opinion” is an invention, and idea, a product. It’s an 18th century phrase: it has to do with the invention of a distinct separation between public  and private. People have opinions: aggregating them into public opinion involves narrowing the range of possible opinions, which you have already done before you start polling.

Take the wide wide field of human ideas, and reduce it to three possibilities, which your questions already show are the only possibilities you believe exist. You’ve pretty much locked the doors to the truth factory and guaranteed the Models T’s will keep appearing. And the Model T, in the case above, is “move to the right.”

Yes polling is effective–it’s extremely effective at reducing the field of possibility: it produces a feedback loop of received wisdom. We’d be better off with no polling, and politicians proposing actual solutions which we could then vote on, rather than polls designed around questions  like “which of these three answers best describe your feelings about big government.” The polls can’t do anything other than reproduce  what they started out believing in: machines for re-manufacturing the status quo.

Are polls effective? Of course they are. Just ask yourself if you feel like our politics works well; does it have room for innovation, or for a wide range of ideas? Or do you have three choices, none of them useful?


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  • Mark Bower wrote:

    Can’t help on the source of quote, but I think you’re right.

    It’s no coincidence that fact and factory have the same root.

    What does it mean to say, Let the facts speak for themselves? Are the pollsters performing a kind of ventriloquism?

    They ask me, Do you think it’s fair that…

    I can answer yes or no, but anything I might say about what I mean when I say fair is irrelevant. After all, everyone knows what fair means.

  • Eliza McFeely wrote:

    I don’t know if it makes sense, but I pretty much refuse to take part in polls on principle. Even well intentioned ones never let you say anything except what is already in the little boxes.

    Had fun years back with a religious pollster on the streets of NYC. First question was “Do you believe in God?” They had no follow up if you said “no.” Left a very confused missionary on a street corner.

  • Mark: “Fact and factory,” I love it, I’m stealing it. Nice comment all around! You should have written the post.

    Eliza, I think your position is the only useful one we can take, or maybe answering in absurd non sequiters

  • Nathan Sleeter wrote:

    An interesting sub-species of polls that goes to your point is the “How much do Americans know about ______” type. Since most humans are bad at recalling facts without the benefit of some kind of context, these types of polls tend to reliably produce the right number of wrong answers. The polls thus repeatedly reinforce the ironic bit of conventional wisdom that all Americans “know” that Americans are ignorant.

  • Mark Bower wrote:

    Steal-away, I’m pretty sure I’m not the first to notice that.

    I don’t mean to say we should just refuse to answer all polls. Sometimes I do, more often I don’t. That’s just as much because they’re calling at dinner time as it is for other reasons.

    “My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad.”

    Now there’s a Foucault quote.

  • […] the always already of polling – The Aporetic […]

  • Well, that “fact” and “factory” eventually both lead back to the Latin verb facere (to do or make) may be a bit misleading; “factory” is derived from the Latin factoria, derived itself from factor, one who does or makes things. Factor is clearly related to facere, but is not the same word. On the other hand, “fact” is derived from the Latin factum, the past participle of facere, meaning “a thing done.”

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