In January, I began writing a weekly column for Salon. Hillary Clinton was still in pre-campaign mode but already losing ground -- churning out formulaic answers to stock questions, delivering pricey speeches to the privileged, hobnobbing with Wall Street players while we peasants, now a working majority of the body politic, stocked up on torches and pitchforks. I wrote that her political model -- neoliberal economics wed, as it must be, to pay-to-play politics -- felt spent. In March, her emails surfaced. She waited a whole week to stage a brief, dodgy, purposefully chaotic press conference. I thought it a serious problem, especially when viewed in the context of her political history and persona, so I wrote that too.
On both points I got hurricane-force blowback from Clinton backers. As is the custom now, a lot of it was personal (why do you hate the Clintons, we hate you, you’re stupid.) or warmed over consultant speak ( the election’s so far off everyone will forget, the issue’s so abstract no one will care). What my critics shared, apart from their devotion to Hillary and contempt for me, was polling data. In surveys taken after the story broke, Clinton held on to her huge lead. (Had I not seen them? How could Salon hire a political columnist who didn’t even read polls?)
Last week, I wrote of another politician in trouble (at least if you regard Donald Trump as a politician). I said his debate performance ended any chance he had of being seen as a serious person, let alone a serious presidential candidate. It was a cringe-inducing spectacle, best understood in psychological rather than political terms, a portrait of a man unhinged by narcissistic rage. In the history of presidential debates, it had no equal and anyone not unhinged by rage or ideology should have seen it.
I got the same sort of feedback about Trump, albeit from different folks; personal attacks and political clichés wrapped in polling data. For three days after the debate, there was no data, so reporters hedged their bets. Of the few who took a flier most got it wrong, many writing admiringly of Trump’s feistiness and flair. On Sunday, NBC released a poll showing him at 23 percent; up a point among GOP primary voters.
Armed with data, everybody got it wrong, again. Trump was proclaimed “Teflon Don,” spokesmodel of the month for an America that’s even madder than you thought.
I tell Clintonites upset by my columns that rather than try to get me to stop writing them they should get her to start reading them. One reason they don’t may be the hypnotic power of polls to keep us from seeing what’s in front of our noses. Like Chico Marx asking, “Who you gonna believe, me or you own eyes?” polls make us question what we see. If you didn’t see that Clinton was digging herself a deeper hole every day, or that Trump came across in Cleveland as arrogant, vindictive, uninformed and out of control, you probably read too many polls and think too much about politics.
Read all together and in their entirety, polls can tell a bit more of the truth. That NBC poll also put Trump ahead on the question of who did worst in debate: 29 percent picked him; 14 percent picked Rand Paul; 11 percent said Jeb Bush. No one else was in double digits. In a Suffolk Univ. poll, 55 percent of Iowa Republicans said the debate left them less inclined to vote for Trump.
In the same way, Hillary’s horse race numbers held steady for a while after the email eruption, but other numbers went south fast, including those in which a majority of voters tell any pollster who asks that she isn’t honest or trustworthy.
Sooner or later polls may catch up to where the truth is, or at least was. In the latest ones Clinton trails Walker, Huckabee, Rubio and Carson in Iowa; Walker, Bush and Paul in New Hampshire, and Sanders in New Hampshire. I’ve no faith in their predictive power, but they do affirm a deepening disaffection. I once said by the time Clinton fell behind in polls it would be too late to save her. That overstates the case but this much is clear: She must change and polls alone can’t tell her how. She has to see it for herself, and then believe what she sees. I’m not sure she can.
Polls do worse things than get races wrong. Their most insidious effect is on the quality and direction of public debate. They blind us to glaring truths about issues as well as people. A key issue in this race is the integrity, accountability and efficiency of government. Republicans talk more and more about it, Democrats hardly at all. In case you didn’t notice, the fallen state of politics and government is what Trump talks about most; that he does so vividly and bluntly is a big part of what some must consider his charm.
Credit Trump this far: When he says he didn’t arrive at his message via a poll, he’s probably telling the truth. He looked at government, stopped talking long enough to listen to a few people, and saw it was an issue voters really care about. Hillary Clinton on the other hand, relying on polls to plot her every step, never talks about it, except to repeat the Democrats’ mantric vow to overturn Citizens United and say a few words in a single speech about getting agencies better computers and improving management. It’s what happens when we let polls obscure core values and gut instincts. Here, even Trump’s gut instinct works better than Clinton’s polls.
With issues as with horseraces, polls can eventually catch up to the truth, or get close to it. Scott Rasmussen was the first major pollster to discover how much we care about nonfeasance and malfeasance in government. More recently, Stanley Greenberg has argued that these issues are the key to Democrats winning the votes of the white working class. A big reason other pollsters don’t draw the same conclusion is that they never ask. A big reason for that is that they’re paid not to.
The biggest driver of government waste and inefficiency is corruption by special interests, mainly powerful corporate interests. Nearly all major pollsters, including Democratic pollsters, make most of their living off corporate clients. So do most Democratic officeholders: either now in the form of campaign contributions or later in the form of cushy corporate lobbying gigs. So on the topic of the root cause of government dysfunction, Democrats observe a simple rule: don’t ask, don’t tell.
Their denial is killing them. After their midterm thrashing, Chuck Schumer, Wall Street’s best friend in the Senate, went to the press club to say his party’s biggest mistake was not to embrace government. It’s the opposite of the truth and could only make sense to a guy who spends too much time reading polls and raising money. Democrats must fix government, not hug it. People are furious at it. If your pollster hasn’t told you, ask a neighbor, or someone at work, or the next person you see on the street.
There are of course other reasons for the general decline in public debate. Both parties sidle and stutter step their way into every debate because both say different things to different people and live in fear of getting caught. Democrats tell their donors one thing and their base another. Republicans tell their base one thing and the broader public another. You have to admire how well they run this scam, but shame on us for letting them get away with it for so long.
The third big deterrent to honest, open debate is modern media, including social media. Fifty years ago, Marshal McLuhan told us that media pulls us into the past. He once said we live in “Bonanza Land” a reference to a then-popular TV western. Like polling, media can leave us with impressions of the world that are stale and second-hand. It’s one reason so many people say falling crime rates are rising and think their own local schools are doing fine but that most others are failing. The most harmful thing media does is reduce all debate to mere sloganeering. We deal not in fully formed ideas but in tweets and memes and endless ads.
TV ads are widely seen as a blight on politics, but the internet, billed as a great democratizing force, is also a disappointment. Politicians hide behind Facebook and Twitter and send endless fundraising pleas via email. Notice how every email takes your side on an issue you care a lot about? Did you by chance sign one or two "petitions"? If not, data miners will build your profile. The email you’ll never get is the one detailing all your member does for banks or insurers or any moneyed interest that funds campaigns and lure them with visions of future rewards.
It is progressives, or rather progressivism, that suffers most from how the game is played. A poll identifies an existing consensus. Progressive must build a new one. Media cuts "message" to the bone. New ideas require longer formed analysis and exposition. Moneyed interests pay to maintain the old order, not disrupt it, and support only such innovation as enables them to do so. Reform, the engine of the most vital innovations, is all about disruption. When Democrats put their faith in polls, media and high-dollar fundraising, they render real debate and real progress nearly impossible and help turn all of politics into mere entertainment, a cheap burlesque just waiting for a Donald Trump to steal its spotlight.
There is no progress without debate. This presidential race shows how campaigns displace rather than foster debate. As sea levels rise, aquifers shrink and wildfires rage, Republicans in one presidential forum and two debates entertained but a single question on climate change; of five hours, a single minute spent on a call for "energy independence." In his first term, Obama soft peddled the issue because polls showed the country divided on it. He’s better lately, but if the scientists Democrats love to cite are even close to being right, it isn’t nearly enough.
After the Cleveland debate, Clinton rightly went after Republicans on women’s issues, in part because they are so close to her heart but also because they poll so well and are so easily framed. No Democrat challenged Republican silence on climate change. If a party can’t push the envelope on the overarching issue of its time when the weather makes the case every day, can it call itself progressive?
It’s the same on most big issues. Democrats ask Republicans how they would fix Obamacare but they must answer the same question. Five years after its passage, half the country still opposes it and not just because Fox News tells them to. Single people earning over $46,000 a year get no subsidy but face rising premiums, copays and deductibles. Governments haven’t come close to realizing the savings they need to fund other vital services. Democrats must admit the program’s flaws and fight for a reform that makes health care truly affordable to all. If they aren’t too proud or scared, they can take advantage of the opening Trump gave them when he told a Republican audience how well single payer works in Scotland.
The biggest casualty of the campaign may be the Iran pact. The administration assures reporters that despite Schumer’s craven defection the votes are there to preserve it. I pray they are, but they’re hard to count. One reason is that a public that once supported the deal by a comfortable margin is now evenly split. Its foes didn’t hesitate to attack it despite the polls while its defenders, anxious as always to duck a debate, sat mute. Obama has come a long way on foreign policy and national security. The agreement is as important to his legacy as anything he has done. More important it is the clearest choice between the force of arms and the rule of law America has faced since it entered upon the Iraq War. For six weeks its debate has been background noise to Trump’s latest reality show. Shame on every Democrat and every reporter and every press mogul who let it happen.
If you’ve been thinking critically while reading along you may have noted a seeming oversight. Not every Democrat deserves such censure. As it happens one who doesn’t is running for president. Bernie Sanders calls unabashedly for a single payer health system, offers full throated support to the Iran pact and has spoken out long enough and loud enough about climate change to earn the blessing of Bill McKibben. His extraordinary success to date is stirring testimony to the good that comes of holding fast to your convictions and waiting for the polls to come to you. He isn’t a perfect candidate-- you’d think that guy who participated in so many protests would approach protesters in a different way—but he is a leader with a clear vision and a clear conscience who is trying to spark the debate we must have.
Democratic elites don’t like debates. In 2008 there, were 24 Democratic presidential debates. This year there will be six, only four of which have been set. Party chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Shultz assures us this will be enough for the candidates to air all their differences. She also says any candidate appearing in an unsanctioned debate will be barred from official debates. She says network sponsors agreed to this assault on the 1st amendment. I hope not.
At a July town hall meeting in New Hampshire, a voter asked Hillary Clinton her position on the Keystone Pipeline. She said if it were still undecided when she took office she’d let him know then. Perhaps a poll told her it was the right thing to say. She has lately tried to engage Jeb Bush and Marco in some debate like sparring, but so far it isn’t worth a listen. Bernie Sanders is trying to engage Clinton, the Democratic Party and the country in a debate worth having. To draw them in he’ll need all the help he can get.