Future chroniclers of the low, dishonest, vacuous campaign of 2010—not only not a single funny placard at the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert rally but not a single serious one, either, plus the clapped-out crooner and fatwa groupie Yusuf Islam impersonating a potted plant—will certainly puzzle over President Barack Obama’s almost weird refusal to stick up for himself in the middle of his first term. Faced with an extraordinary campaign of defamation on everything from his citizenship to his religion to his paternity (a campaign that was not confined to the “fringe” but that drew both surreptitious and overt support from Republicans as senior as Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich), Obama at times looked almost masochistic in his unreadiness to seize the initiative and give the lie to his detractors. Having many reservations of my own about the president, I would nonetheless have relished the chance to support him in such an effort, as would many of my friends. But one can’t indefinitely do for somebody what he is reluctant to do for himself. And, of course, Obama’s reticence managed somehow to confirm the image of him as a glacial elitist—a man who would hardly deign to pass comment on the rubes and proles.
Making it even worse, however, were the closing weeks of October when the president actuallydid decide to get in the ring and mix it up a little. First came the rather clumsy attempt to suggest that political money—or, at any rate, Republican political money—was somehow “foreign” in origin. Doesn’t Obama realize that rhetoric like this opens a wider auction—of chauvinist innuendo and fear-mongering over countries like China—which is always going to be won by the isolationists? (It also makes it easy for Republicans to recall truly scandalous launderings of overseas cash, from the Riady group to Roger Tamraz, which are indelibly associated with the same Bill Clinton who was this year’s surrogate tough-guy campaigner for the Democrats.)
Much worse, though, was the president’s remark last week, made on a Univision radio show, in which he expressed disappointment with Spanish-speaking voters who proposed to “sit out the election instead of saying, ‘We’re gonna punish our enemies and we’re gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us.’ ” Almost everything is wrong with this statement. The first is its awful tone: a crude appeal to ethnicity and to a spoils system of reward and punishment with which to accompany it. The second is the unspoken but highly dubious assumption that Americans (or future Americans) of Mexican and Cuban and Guatemalan and Salvadoran origin can all be collectivized under the lump headings of Hispanic or Latino. The third is the patronizing supposition that this putative bloc is somehow owned by the Democratic Party. And the fourth—to restate my objection above—is that it legitimizes any politician who couches his or her appeal in ethnic or tribal or confessional terms. Again, and whoever opens it, such an auction will always be won by the sectarians. Why, it could almost be called divisive.
I was pleased to see that Pat Caddell was among the left and liberal voices denouncing Obama’s demagogy. Caddell might also be described as a recovering pollster, in that, having made his living from studying and refining the politicized and manipulated measurements of public opinion, he issued early warnings against the degradation of our democracy by the polling racket. And junk polling has been an enormous part of the distortion and degradation of politics this season.
Just a few days after Obama’s bigmouth moment on Univision, the New York Times, in a “straight” news story, subliminally echoed almost every one of his politicized assumptions. Under the headline, “Hispanics Cite Bias in Survey,” Julia Preston wrote that “[m]ore than 6 in 10 Latinos in the United States say that discrimination is a ‘major problem’ for them, a significant increase in the last three years.” This survey of Latinos was conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center, and found the principal cause of discrimination to be immigration status. Three years ago, the largest number of respondents identified the primary cause of discrimination as “language.” On this basis, the reporter felt able to conclude that: “The nation’s largest minority (at 47 million) feels beleaguered by backlash from the polarized debate over immigration in the last year, the survey shows.” What a sentence! Perhaps if there had never been any debate to polarize things, people would have felt less backlash-beleaguerment? But this is not the sole objection to such subjective reporting of such sketchy findings. What about a headline that would read: “Minority, Polled by Itself on Own Feelings, Reports Self-Pity on Fresh Topic”? An Onion version, in other words, would have been at least as accurate, if not more so. And even that would require that we share the idea of all Latinos being self-consciously in the same “minority.”
Junk polling spreads like a weed. In early October, the Weekly Standard, for which I have written and which I read, published an editorial signed by the magazine’s editor, William Kristol. The subject of the editorial was American attitudes to Israel, and the entire factual content was furnished by the findings of an opinion poll. This poll had asked respondents to say how “pro-Israel” they were and how much their views of the matter influenced their voting intentions. Quite a lot of people said they were pro-Israel, and, of these, quite a good proportion said that they wouldn’t vote for a candidate who wasn’t. The poll had been commissioned by the Emergency Committee for Israel, a new lobbying group founded in July. (It considers the state of “emergency” to be this: exorbitant pressure by Obama on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about settlements. I suppose it is possible to go around believing this.) The group has about six identifiable members, one or two of whom are quite nice. One of them is William Kristol, though he was too modest to mention the fact in his editorial.
To be able to cite a poll is now the shortest cut to economizing both on thought and on research. The most recent issue of the New Republic contains a quite useful essay by the always-serious Thomas B. Edsall on the current shifts in electoral alignment. Sometimes he remembers to quote the actual polling organization, and sometimes he doesn’t. Thus at one point we are told (courtesy of an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll) that in October 2006, “the public” manifested “greater trust in Democrats on Social Security by 28 points. Remarkably, that gap now stands at four points, a statistical tie.” Just a few paragraphs later, he informs us that: “Only 59 percent of whites believe ‘Americans will always continue to be prosperous and make economic progress’—while 81 percent of blacks and 75 percent of Hispanics continue to profess faith in the future.” No polling “authority” is cited for the second claim, not that it really matters
On the basis of the first “finding,” one would have to conclude that one-quarter of the population reversed a long and deeply held political position over just four years, to the point where Democrats have no more natural advantage on the issue. Does Edsall himself actually believe that Social Security is no longer a reliable Democratic Party drumbeat? Does he know any Democrats or Republicans who act as if this were true in their own districts? Of course he doesn’t. But how could “the polls” be wrong? As to the second, unsourced “finding,” one would simply like to know the people who are able to command such access to the human heart and aspiration, and to the survival of the American Dream, and moreover be able to break down this combination of yearning and faith under handily packaged ethnic subheadings. Genius like that ought not to be wasted on mere market research. (But I wonder how wild the fluctuation will be the next time that great question gets asked.)
Elitism and populism, as we have painfully learned this fall, are too often found in the same person. The simultaneous aggregating and dividing of people by race and ethnicity turns out to be the cheapest and easiest outcome of supposedly democratic measurement. At least we can still laugh at those who pay themselves to take their own temperatures, or examine their own emotions and prejudices, and then rush to publish them as news that’s already fit to print.