To Hell With "Public Opinion"

When some Canton churches threw their considerable collective weight behind the referendum that eventually sunk the city's ill-conceived bid to become the first off-track betting site in the state last year, a curious objection to their efforts was raised by the local Libertarian Party chairman.

"Churches are very limited in how active they're supposed to be politically," he asserted. "And we feel they overstepped their bounds."

Now I may be wrong about this (and if so, I'm sure one of my nitpicking critics will hasten to write in and correct me), but that's not exactly what the founding fathers had in mind when they provided for the separation of church and state.

As I understand it, this constitutional principle--derived from what has become known as the "establishment clause" of the First Amendment--is essentially a one-way street.

What it means is merely that the government can't establish a religion or endorse religious activities, the way the born-again burghers of Stow have been doing with their cross-bearing city seal. In no way does it prohibit churches from participating in the political arena.

If it did, we'd never have had an anti-abortion movement or anti-Wahoo campaign. And there'd be no Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, or Jesse Jackson.

We may not like the much-vilified Religious Right (or Left), but these people have a perfect right to act out of self-interest and try to influence the way their country is run.

I bring all of this up because a similar misunderstanding has arisen, it seems to me, regarding the role of so-called "public opinion" in the current presidential crisis.

The "Letters to the Editor" section of every newspaper in the nation is filled each day with missives from sadly misguided readers who ask the same stupid question over and over and over: Why, oh why, is Congress continuing to pursue this awful impeachment business, when poll after poll shows that "the American people" want nothing more than to forgive and forget?

Well, because such "polls" are utterly meaningless, for starters. And they're irrelevant, besides.

Ask yourself this: Do you know anybody who's ever been picked to participate?

Neither do I.
So who are these 1,000-plus people (1,005 in the case of a recent Gallup Poll; 1,031 in one conducted by Time/CNN) whose responses are magically extrapolated to stand for a population of more than 270 million? Or, if you prefer, the 96 million--a mere 49 percent of eligible voters--who bothered to cast a ballot in the last presidential election?

Two recent editorial cartoons offer a clue:
One, by the Arizona Republic's Steve Benson, depicts a member of the Clinton defense team perched precariously atop the pointy pate of an obvious dimwit--labeled "public"--who looks like a cross between Alfred E. Neuman and that banjo-pickin' kid in Deliverance. The caption: "Dancing on the head of a pin."

The other, from the pen of the Chicago Tribune's Jeff MacNelly, shows a pollster standing at the door of some senior citizen, who's yelling (in an attempt to make himself heard over the sweeper his wife--an overweight woman wearing an American flag T-shirt--is running): "Hey, Marge! Do we like 'peach mint' or 'scent-sure'?"

That, my friends, is how "public opinion" is made. And the only people who put any stock whatsoever in the phenomenon are the self-styled "professionals" who pretend to "scientifically" measure it.

Take the Arbitron ratings, for example.
Ask anybody who works in radio, and they'll tell you that this method of measuring "audience"--the numbers by which broadcasters live and die--is a joke. Unless, of course, their station happens to have a good "book" at the end of a given quarterly survey period (in which case, they'll swear by the thing).

But they've all entered into a tacit agreement to ignore the fact that the Emperor of the Airwaves is wearing no clothes.

Nowhere is it written, though, that the people elected to run this country have to accept such a Faustian compact in the larger political sphere.

The question, as Washington Post political columnist David Broder framed it in a particularly perceptive piece last month, is this: How much deference do our elected officials owe to the opinion of their constituents, and how much latitude should they have "to substitute their own views for those of the voters on a matter of huge public significance"?

And the answer's pretty obvious, really.
If all we wanted from our legislators was to translate "public opinion" into public policy, we could just do away with Congress and replace it with an agency--the Federal Polling Authority, let's say--that would simply survey every American household on every single issue. Or better yet, plant some sort of electronic thought-decoder in each citizen's brain!

But that's clearly not what we want, or we wouldn't bother holding elections and trying to distinguish one candidate from another.

The fact that Stephanie Tubbs Jones, for example, was (a) black, (b) a former Cuyahoga County prosecutor, and (c) Congressman Lou Stokes's hand-picked successor had everything to do with her winning a seat in the House of Representatives last November. But none of those "qualifications" would've mattered in the least if the only thing that the voters expected her to do was merely parrot the "public opinion" polls.

What the people who put this woman in office want is, first of all, for Tubbs Jones to "represent" their particular point of view, and secondly, to bring her experience and political beliefs to bear on whatever issue Congress happens to be considering--the poll percentages be damned.

And so it goes with every elected official in this great republic of ours.
All it will take to send President Pinocchio packing is for the Republicans who hold a majority of the seats in the Senate to carry out the duties they've been charged with by their constituents--and for a few of their colleagues on the Democratic side of the aisle to break ranks with the party line and join them in doing the right thing.

As former GOP Congressman Martin "Beeg Breasts" Hoke sagely suggested on Feagler and Friends the other night: "If we had taken polls in the summer of 1860 . . ., we would've had slavery well into the latter half of the nineteenth century."

Polls, he pointed out, "are not the way to decide this."

David Sowd's e-mail address: [email protected]

Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles


Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.