You don't get answers if you don't ask questions
Oct. 26, 2011 — A New York Times/CBS News poll released today confirmed that Americans, by overwhelming margins, believe that there is too much income and wealth inequality (66 to 26 percent), that Congressional Republicans favor the rich as opposed to favoring other classes or treating all classes equally (69 to 26 percent), that taxes on large corporations should not be lowered (67 to 27 percent), and that taxes should be increased on those with household income of $1 million or more (65 to 30 percent).
Did these beliefs just arise in the last month? With due respect to Occupy Wall Street efforts currently underway, I think not.
No one, of course, would deny that the current economic disaster — the only serious question today is whether we are in a depression or “merely” a serious recession — has concentrated public attention on the gap between haves and have-nots. But it is hardly plausible that basic beliefs on issues like income inequality just shifted on a dime. Much more likely is the hypothesis that these widely held views have been in circulation for a long time — in circulation, that is, everywhere except in the White House, much of Congress, and almost all of the press corps.
For the press, you don’t get answers if you don’t ask questions. And you don’t ask questions if you don’t think that there is an issue worth exploring.
When the press was so aroused by the emergence of the Tea Party wing of the GOP, it could have examined whether there were any other political tendencies out in the land. Except for rare exceptions, it did not. Now, we find out, those identifying themselves as “Tea Party supporters” (24 percent now as compared with 18 percent in April 2010) are dwarfed by those who “generally agree…with the views of the Occupy Wall Street movement” (43 percent).
Lusting for the “Grand Bargain”
More fundamentally, there are policy questions that have distinct and mutually exclusive answers. If you are a Republican presidential candidate or Congressional leader, you probably want to roll back regulation, spending, and entitlement programs at least to 1950s levels; labor protections at least to the 1920s; and the power of the federal government at least to the 1880s. If you are a progressive or what used to be counted as a mainstream Democrat, you do not.
Put another way, the differing substantive answers to substantive policy questions are profoundly incompatible.
Nevertheless, for almost all of this last year, the press has been obsessed with the idea of “Grand Bargain,” in the form of Bowles-Simpson, the original Obama plan (I’ll even put Social Security on the table), or otherwise.
And coverage and polling followed this preoccupation. Don’t people want there to be compromise? Can’t we move away from extremes? What would independent voters say? Why can’t Washington politicians get things done? (Hint: because people and politicians really, really disagree with one another.)
Even the article that accompanied today’s poll is inclined to look at how the results might have an impact on candidates (“more than half of the public say that [the President] lacks a clear plan for creating jobs”), leaving to a subordinate clause the finding that “the poll found substantial support for the plan’s individual components.”
Indeed, many of the individual components are not mentioned in the story, including the fact that the idea of spending money on the nation’s infrastructure to create jobs was supported by a margin of more than five to one (80 to 15 percent).
The article does point out that it is not just Democrats (or Occupy Wall Street participants) who think that there is too much inequality of wealth: ”two-thirds of independents…say that the distribution of wealth in the country should be more equitable.”
The press is not responsible for the fact that the Obama administration and campaign have chased independent voters as though two-thirds of them thought there wasn’t enough income and wealth inequality, but it is responsible for failing to ask until recently questions that would open and encourage debate beyond the adored Ben Nelson - Joe Lieberman spectrum.
Better ways to take a poll?
If the current coverage marks something of a turning point in terms of acknowledging deep and basic concerns of Americans, it does not, however, mark a turning point as to a common deficiency in most polling (which can’t be ignored just because one may happen to like the results of a particular opinion survey).
Some conservatives, alarmed by the poll’s results (at least those suggesting that Americans want the long era of joint GOP and Democratic obeisance to wealthy individuals and businesses to end), will warn against uncritical acceptance of poll results.
They’re right. It is certainly not the case that poll respondents always have the factual background needed to appreciate fully the consequences of the policy positions they support, and it is also true that many polls are too wide-ranging to ask questions at sufficient depth.
Take one of the few poll results that might discomfit progressives: the finding suggesting that half the public supports reducing or ending some government regulations on business “in order to try to create jobs.” The question (at least standing alone) has some obvious flaws. Inquiring about reducing regulation in general is more likely to elicit a positive response than a question asking respondents whether they want their air and water quality to return to the levels of the 1960s. A question measuring support for reducing regulation “in order to create jobs,” leaves poll respondents without the information that there is no evidence to suggest that cutting regulations would yield a net increase in jobs at all.
Some public opinion researchers have begun the process of moving towards polling that follows the provision of background information on the issues as to which opinion is being measured. Those efforts are worth exploring further.
In the meantime, the more the press can imagine the idea that a wide range of substantive policy proposals deserve serious attention, the more that even standard polls will be able to measure informed opinion.