With public opinion polls driving everything from consumer confidence to the posturing of presidential candidates, we had better appreciate that history teaches us that our collective dependence on surveys, focus groups and partisan market studies can lead to enormous blunders in charting a course for America's future.
Our past is littered with those kinds of miscues. Scientific polling began to assume dominance on our political landscape when, in the late 1930s, Time Inc.'s Fortune magazine employed Elmo Roper to take the pulse of America's voting electorate. Far from a comprehensive survey that embraced broad demographic lines, these polls were skewed toward the wealthy, the urban, the elite and the accessible. Still, the early Fortune polls provided a roadmap for politicians to stake out their positions and begin the American political tradition of leading from the rear.
This historic Fortune poll, taken just months after the September 1939 outbreak of World War II, provides unique insight because we can look at the results with a hindsight appreciation of what carnage still lay ahead. The survey would place America squarely in the isolationist camp, undercutting our ability to rearm and nearly preventing us from reinstituting the draft. The House of Representatives approved selective service in 1940 by a single vote, leading the Japanese to conclude that we had neither the will nor the resources to defend ourselves in the Pacific.
Equally startling, at the end of 1939, nearly 38 percent of those polled were prepared to sell food and arms to both the Allies and Nazi Germany. Only 9 percent were prepared to offer material to France and Britain exclusively.
In addition, the American public was fully prepared to leave European Jews to their fate under the Third Reich. In 1938, after Kristallnacht, a spasm of Nazi organized terror that burned synagogues, looted Jewish shops and brutalized thousands, it became obvious to many Jews that they had little choice but to flee. In a separate survey some 77 percent of those Americans polled were opposed to allowing them to enter the U.S. -- Auschwitz would welcome most.
By July 1940, at the height of the Battle of Britain and the German Blitz on London, follow-up polling showed that 59 percent of Americans rejected aid to England. Joseph P. Kennedy, our Ambassador to Britain, could obviously read a poll, and he suggested to Washington that we prepare ourselves for the inevitable by engaging Adolf Hitler in diplomatic dialogue and accommodation.
These survey findings told President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that if he wanted a third term in 1940, it would be wise to not even broach the emerging threat to civilization from the Third Reich. A growing isolationist force led by one of the biggest bold face names of the 20th century, Charles Lindbergh, would make this foreign policy arena a dangerous environment for incumbents and, in the process, embolden two murderous regimes on opposite sides of the planet.
Today's dependence on carefully constructed, cross-tabulated, demographically studied surveys constructed by platoons of pollsters will give every candidate, economists and incumbent everything they need to know except the course of action they intuitively know to be right for America. With a constant eye on the polls, it is rare that candidates speak their minds, presenting us with an honest appraisal of our economic, domestic and international landscape. When they do, they are labeled "an alarmist," forcing those with intellectual integrity to bear a significant political cost. Historically there are those on both sides of the political aisle who have staked out unvarnished positions that address fundamental threats to our nation including the likes of Presidents Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan and Senators Joseph Lieberman and Sam Nunn. Their reward has been to be pilloried by media and chastised for "alarming" the electorate. To their credits, they weighed telling the electorate the truth against the findings of the pollsters because that is the definition of leadership.
At a time when America's debt could destroy the very fabric of our nation, when the War on Terror is far from won and when there is a crucial need for an energy policy that destroys OPEC's grip on us once and for all, today's presidential candidates need to avoid becoming prisoners of the polls, study our history and create solutions for a nation in crisis.