I am not the first to say this (I believe Habermas critiqued opinion polls in Theory of Communicative Action, though I bet he didn’t use the Foucauldian language I’m about to), but I live in what is now considered a “purple” state, which means my vote might actually matter, and so I am inundated with opinion polls. So allow me my few minutes of ranting here. Don’t get me wrong: I am very happy to learn that the RCP polling average as of this moment has Trump down 1.7 points in North Carolina, and down 5 points nationally, with almost no path through the electoral college. It helps me sleep at night, though whatever faith in humanity those polling numbers restore is quickly erased by the sadness that anyone could vote for someone so openly racist.
I don’t mind being phoned and asked who I’d vote for if the election were held today. What is more interesting and disturbing happens when the polls try to get at issues. It’s also an excellent example of the creation of a “population,” in the sense Foucault uses the term when he talks about biopolitics. Today was the second time I’ve been polled by an outfit that clearly only works for Republicans – in both cases, I was presented with a list of things the candidates have done, and I was asked if I was more or less likely to vote for them on that basis. The Republicans were presented as having done only things that they clearly thought I would say were good, and the Democrats were mainly associated with higher taxes and alleged scandals. So that’s the first point: the poll often tries to push the voter in one direction or another, to create the reality it is ostensibly researching.
The more interesting point is the one about constructing a population, which it does extracting a series of “issues” and presenting them as a disconnected set of questions, with no attention to their context or how they might interconnect.
Example 1: State Senator x voted to keep men from going to women’s bathrooms. Does that make you more or less likely to vote for him? I’d been playing along so far, but I stopped the (suddenly underpaid) pollster at that point. I knew exactly what the question was about: HB2, because this is what Republicans pretend HB2 is. But of course that description implies that trans* is not real (the state has now actually made this argument in a legal brief, to its shame). And so I answered that the question was deceptive and misleading, but that if the question was about whether I would vote for someone who supported HB2, the answer was no. Suppose for a minute that I was opposed to transgender bathroom rights, though. The question is still unanswerable, because HB2 does so much more: it is an omnibus, anti-LGBT monstrosity. Bathrooms are just the PR spin, the thing the Governor (who is way behind in the polls, apparently substantially because of his support for HB2) trots out when he wants to defend the bill. But it’s a total deception. The distinction between bathrooms and omnibus anti-LGBT even matters historically: Charlotte tried to pass the anti-discrimination ordinance the year prior to its actual passage, and it failed by a vote or two because a couple of Democrats weren’t comfortable with the bathroom rights, and the ordinance’s supporters were unwilling to sever them from the bill. So the sort of person who thinks that the LGBTQ community should be generally protected from workplace discrimination, but that transgender bathroom rights were a step too far, does not exist as far as the population constructed by this poll is concerned: opposition to bathroom rights makes simultaneous support for less controversial LGBTQ rights impossible. It therefore makes LGBTQ rights look less supported than they are.
Example 2: Senator x voted to reduce taxes that gave middle income taxpayers [who this is remains undefined, but let’s just assume it skews high] relief blah blah. Much to the pollster’s probable shock, I indicated my disapproval of this. But even if I supported tax relief for middle income earners, the bill also granted much bigger tax reductions to high income earners. So I couldn’t be in favor of a different kind of tax cut. The population of those in this poll consists of those who favor tax cuts and those who don’t. So too, the Senator voted to “give teachers a 7% raise” a couple of years ago, a talking point which fails to describe that some teachers got very big raises, and others got almost none at all. Oh, and that the raises were paid for by cutting teaching assistants (since tax revenue had been reduced by the aforementioned tax cuts). None of that, however, is intelligible to the poll: all issues are separate from each other. Nothing is interrelated.
What were my top two priority areas? HB2 and “social issues” were listed separately, but I wanted one of those (silly reader: thinking that anti-LGBTQ legislation is a social issue. The state legislature also passed a bunch of abortion restrictions, which is what I assume that referred to. But notice that because the two were separated, it was impossible to have any other issues if gender equity was important to you). Were gerrymandering or voter suppression laws on the list? Of course not, even though I think those present an existential threat to representative democracy, for reasons that shouldn’t have to be explained. So according to this poll, there is no one who is bothered by NC’s infamous voter suppression law (I’m referring to the one the 4th Circuit just struck down). I indicated that “economy” was important, but was fed a series of (surprise!) misleading descriptions of the state’s economic recovery since the recession. I won’t debate the specifics of the recovery here, but I will note that I do not subscribe to the theory that tax cuts cause economic growth (see: Kansas), so I’m not inclined to think that Senator x did anything in the legislature to cause the recovery. I also know that HB2 has cost the state millions of dollars and thousands of jobs (most recently Deutsche Bank and the NBA All-Star game). The very same job-creating legislature also turned down Medicaid expansion, which one study found would have created $22 Billion in economic activity and 43,000 jobs by 2020 (that’s a high number, but I’ve never seen a job number below 30,000 for Medicaid expansion in NC). So it seems to me that the recovery is pretty clearly smaller than it should have been, and Senator x’s voting record is part of why. I finally took to saying I was “indifferent” to misleadingly described things.
I have no idea what the pollsters think of my being difficult, but the poll is creating a population of individuals defined by their answers. In this population, I don’t care about the economy even though I say I would vote on it, don’t like HB2, want higher taxes, don’t care about (or maybe even disapprove of) payraises for K-12 teachers, and so on. It is this population, defined by decontextualized questions about related topics that nonetheless reduces them to unrelated likert scales, that becomes the basis for media debate and policy-making.
We lived in Iowa before coming to North Carolina, and in early 2008 I had my first experience of this problem: I was polled on the following question: did I favor (a) the status quo in healthcare, or (b) a system that had hospitals, insurers and patients all paying their part to improve access. I favor single-payer healthcare (yes, there would have to be a transition period, etc.). That’s not important here. What is important is that the population of people who didn’t refuse to answer that question (as I did) contains zero people who favor single-payer healthcare. Voila! A truth created. It should therefore come as no shock that single-payer wasn’t even allowed on the table in the lead-up to the ACA. But that mattered: most of the people I read at the time said that the failure to put single-payer on the table – no, it would never have passed – is what allowed opponents to characterize a “public option” on the exchanges as Leninism resurrected and kill it. There’s a lot of reasons why insurers are dropping out of ACA exchanges, but the presence of a public option would at least guarantee that everyone would have an option.