A Poll Is Not a Vote

04/30/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Elizabeth Westling Independent Scholar and Reader, Dumbarton Oaks Library, Washington D.C.

So many of the political pundits on talk radio, television and in the newspapers claim to know what "We, the People" want. They claim to have polled a sufficient number of folks from every persuasion, denomination, and walk of life and to know within statistical margins of error what it is the people desire.

Listening to the pundits to learn what it is that you and your fellow countrymen and women supposedly want is deeply frustrating. It makes actual participation in politics seem redundant. It may even, perversely, discourage the only form of direct participation our federal system provides: voting for one's representatives in the House and Senate, however infrequent and fraught with undue influence by corporate wealth that process may be.

Why bother with the ballot box when the polls are stocked with armies of surrogates purporting to speak for all the citizens and then scientifically sifted and collated to yield decisive numbers? Why not use daily tracking polls to take the ever-changing pulse of the public? Would it not be quicker and easier to have the percentages pop up on the TV screen like popcorn from the microwave?

So, you ask, what is the difference between views solicited by pollsters and pundits and views determined by people actually going to the ballot box or signing a petition? I may be really old fashioned here, but I believe a poll will never take the place of a vote. When you vote, you declare your views with your feet. You declare your loyalty to a person, cause, or action. And you stand with a larger group of like-minded individuals that, when the votes are counted, are bound to the outcome that your shared opinions have generated. And those opinions can then turn into political actions that meaningfully reflect the will of the people and can potentially redound to the good of the larger community of citizens.

Voting, unlike most forms of speech, is usually anonymous in order to protect voters from pressure either by government or by particular candidates or by their peers. But even when people vote behind a curtain, their actions connect them with others and with eventual political outcomes, whether they are voting for or against candidates for federal, state, or local legislative positions or, as is possible -- and, some think, all too frequent -- in some state and local governmental systems, for or against specific referendum or initiative proposals that purport to state policy choices in some usually binary form.

A poll, on the other hand, is anonymous in the worst possible sense. Opinions -- whether about candidates or about policy proposals -- that are bundled by polls are like disembodied mortgages that are repackaged and resold as high income instruments. The vacuity of those instruments can be seen only when the bubble bursts in the high, thin atmosphere of virtual reality. At best, polls are ephemeral political creatures. No deeds are generated by these virtual opinions and no loyalty attaches to their consequences. When a citizen's opinion is not actually counted in a way that tethers it to a political action that demands loyalty to the larger community, the substance of our political reality reveals our nakedness. Put otherwise, when an expression of view is disconnected from any real consequence other than that of offering fodder for talking heads to deploy in the manipulation of public opinion, that expression represents neither genuine speech nor actual participation in governance but something altogether phony and hollow.

Alexander Hamilton once commented on what constituted American freedom: Our freedom, he reasoned, lay in the capacity to govern ourselves. "The broad principle of civil freedom is to be understood as a determination to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government." His idea that the state ought to exist for men [and women] -- that justice, protection, and the common good ought to be the aim of government -- these were the sentiments and opinions of our revolutionary forebears. But when we participate in our democratic process not by casting binding votes but by offering ourselves up to the altar of statistical sampling, we will find our freedom to govern ourselves overtaken by avatars not of our own choosing.

What brought this issue into stark relief for me was listening to the nightly television health care debate. Every time pundits, legislators, or newscasters talk about the issues -- components of the various bills either in the House or the Senate -- a new set of polls is trotted out to vindicate whatever sliver of the issue was being debated. "Experts" debate whether "We, the People" do or don't "want a public option," or "want to finance health care reform with a tax on Cadillac health plans," as though the systemic change that all honest and informed observers recognize as essential could possibly be reduced to a sequence of binary choices. Not even something as relatively simple as the redesign of the unfortunately fallible Toyota could be accomplished by polling potential users of the vehicle about each of the available options. How much truer is that of something as irreducibly interconnected and complex as the redesign of 17% of the nation's economy? So I am not advocating a substitution of representative democracy with the plebiscitary variety or an attempt to redesign the federal government into an approximation of those state governments where a sequence of statewide referenda renders governance a virtual impossibility. I do not claim to know exactly which choices of federal policy are sufficiently fundamental and sufficiently binary in character to lend themselves to resolution through direct electoral participation by the voters. Nor do I claim to have solved the considerable constitutional problem of how Congress could permissibly delegate to the people themselves the power to make choices that the Constitution's Framers clearly expected Congress to make.

But our nation has engaged in major constitutional innovations before. The alphabet soup of agencies, from the SEC, the FCC and the FDA to the FRB and the NLRB, were not dreamed of in the framers' philosophy. Nor was the idea of a Military Base Closing Commission or a binding Bipartisan Debt Reduction Commission. The fact that our largely 18th century Constitution has proven flexible enough to accommodate these novel ways of tying the otherwise dysfunctional national legislature's hands to the outcomes of processes very different from those of the supposedly representative democracy embodied in the House and in the (distinctly unrepresentative) Senate should not escape our attention. Why not, then, explore ways of tying the hands of Congress to the outcomes of direct referendum processes for resolving the most fundamental policy choices presented by, for example, the health care debate? Assuming that we do not want to go the difficult and risky route of a constitutional amendment -- or, riskier still, of a full-fledged Constitutional Convention -- why not consider framework legislation that would permit an otherwise deadlocked or bought-and-paid-for Congress to turn certain basic choices back to the people themselves?

Again, I may be very old fashioned and naïve, but if a pundit or legislator is going to speak for me, I want my actual opinion to be registered somehow, somewhere at the voting booth. For example, I would love to register my opinion on having a public option for this new health care legislation. I would love to go to the voting booth and register that opinion -- not as the experimental subject in a supposedly scientific poll but as a direct participant in this not always so-representative democracy. I would love to have my vote counted and then see the results of my and millions of other votes counted all over the land -- and counted in a way that actually counted. After all the votes are tallied, if my opinion is not in the majority, I would live with that. My own opinion does not always have to win, but I do want our laws to reflect the desires of all American citizens who choose to exercise their right, duty, and honor in the voting process.

My opinion, registered first at the voting booth and then through my elected representative, must reflect the substance of the legislation that we as self governing Americans covenant and combine to live by and obey. Alexander Hamilton and so many of the other Founding Fathers, did not mince words. They saw clearly the dangers that await a democracy where the oligarchy of the few controls opinions, skips the ballot box, and renders the representatives of the people deaf and mute. When our Congress is made dysfunctional by the tyranny of the few, all the nightmare scenarios of the Founders begin to return, and their subject is not tyranny but anarchy. It was the anarchy inherent in the economic disequilibrium of the French Revolution that scared Americans. It was the anarchy inherent in the allocation of votes among the states that led to the infamous 3/5ths compromise. And it was the anarchy inherent in the corruption of judges that led to the creation of separate branches of government. And though we may not want to admit it, anarchy will return through our stymied electoral process and corrupt our freedom for self-government.

America can be a country where self government is not just a poll in a virtual reality of whirling opinions but where a vote counts and is counted, where our civil freedom is determined by our capacity for self government and our self government reflects the love, generosity, and respect of our fellow countrymen.