Looking for “Reality”

The Real America: A Surprising Examination of the State of the Union

by Ben J. Wattenberg
Doubleday, 367 pp., $10.00

Phrases such as “political realities,” “the real world,” “the facts of political life,” and Realpolitik are part of the natural language of politicians and their intimates. In the past, knowledge of political reality has proven elusive. Reality, as Marx noted, “does not stalk about with a label.” Broadly speaking, before the nineteenth century, politicians addressed reality in a distinctive way, the way which, long ago, Aristotle had described as “deliberation.” Deliberation signified the measured consideration of political problems and choices from as wide a range of viewpoints as was relevant. Kings deliberated with their councilors; ministers with their legislatures or parliaments; presidents with their cabinets; and political representatives with each other.

Beginning in the nineteenth century, the pace of Western political life quickened. The pressures bombarding politicians were more numerous, intense, and rapid. Politicians complained of the killing pace of public business, the lack of time for thought and deliberation. Politics was reduced to the art of acting in haste while pretending to be in command. One measure of the new pressures and tempos was the decline of legislative bodies, the main symbol of the politics of deliberation. It became a twentieth-century commonplace that legislatures were incompetent to handle the urgencies and complexities of modern life. Politics, too, had to be speedy. Strong executives and decisive leaders were the answer.

The shift toward executive, non-deliberative politics was assisted by a discovery which promised to furnish leaders with the most cherished type of political knowledge, knowledge about the future. The methods of modern science demonstrated the possibility of reliable predictive knowledge. During the last half of the nineteenth century social scientists began in earnest to adapt scientific methods and quantitative techniques to economic, social, and political problems. By the middle of the twentieth century highly sophisticated social scientific techniques were being widely used to analyze complex bodies of quantitative data and to offer predictions about events and trends.

Although the world, in Whitehead’s phrase, may have “got hold of a general idea which the world could neither live with nor live without,” the knowledge accumulated by the new techniques seemed more than qualified to fill the vacuum created by the decline of deliberative politics. The harassed politician was tendered a new lease on reality which he accepted gratefully. The new techniques became standard political equipment. They enabled the politician to test the “real” opinions of voters, to weigh competing strategies and choose the more rational. By means of polls, information systems, and computerized decision-making, political reality was made accessible and manipulable. In principle, the modern politician could draw on more information and reliable predictions, and have them available in a shorter period of time, than any politician in recorded history. Deliberative politics could be safely interred. Techniques were now available for “making” rational decisions based on “reality.”

Perhaps the most widely used of these techniques are the opinion poll and the “attitudinal survey.” They, together with the political use of television and the merchandising arts, have greatly added to the …

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