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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 rationalization of politics. They have become integral elements in the structure of power, extensions of the interests that dominate the society. Polls and surveys, for example, are expensive undertakings, economically dependent upon corporations and government for the purchase of their services. Although polling organizations purport to be measuring opinions that are “public,” much of their work is sold as a “subscriber service” and remains the confidential information of the purchaser. The operations which they conduct, the information and predictions which they supply, cannot be viewed as the innocent product of disinterested science.

This form of predictive knowledge is more properly likened to a “product” created and processed by organizations. Consider, for example, the survey of public opinion that sends anonymous interviewers to anonymous respondents. The “findings” are then certified by an impersonal organization such as the Gallup group. The significance of this development has been obscured because social scientists, marketing consultants, and pollsters have persuaded their customers and the general public that their work is a reasonable facsimile of scientific inquiry and that, as everybody knows, scientific knowledge is “objective” because scientists are held accountable to a scientific “community.”

The concept of the “scientific community” has about the same mythological status as its sister concept, the “voluntary association.” Each was discovered just when it was beginning to disappear and to be replaced by bureaucratic organizations. Organizations are not communities, but structures of power and interest. What they produce is designed to further the ends served by the organization, and it makes little difference whether the product is a General Motors truck, a scientific survey by a polling organization, or a report by the Council of Economic Advisers.

There is a second feature of modern predictive knowledge which further conceals the manner in which it has become a political instrument. The quantitative techniques employed by the social scientists and survey researchers give the appearance of belonging to the same family of skills as mathematics. There is, however, a vital difference: the mathematician’s abstractions, symbols, and notions of significance are artificial constructs, untainted by political contests and social conflicts. However the mathematician chooses to define a symbol has no consequences for political “reality.” But abstractions and conceptions of significance are far from neutral in their application to political, social, and economic phenomena. They embody a political decision about what matters. It makes a difference, for example, how unemployment is defined.

Moreover, unlike the work of the mathematician, the pollster’s work acquires a special significance and effect according to when it is undertaken. Thus, in the wake of several months of urban violence, the Gallup organization was inspired to ask this question in the “hot summer” of 1967: “In the last several months, have your attitudes toward Negroes changed in any way and—if yes—in what way?”

There is, finally, a revealing contrast between the mathematician’s insistence on the precise definition of terms and the pollster’s use of vague ones. Since 1947 the Gallup organization has been regularly asking, “In general, how happy would you say you are?” While the mathematician defines carefully in order to delimit meaning, the pollster prefers to leave a notion like “happiness” undefined, not because he presumes his respondent to be a philosopher who has spent a lifetime puzzling over this most elusive moral notion, but because he knows that the respondent represents a “sample” of opinions shaped by the social milieu and its media. The respondent, who is being asked to submit an appraisal of his life to a stranger, and who probably looks upon the latter as a scientific representative of society, can be expected to think of happiness in socially approved terms.

The most fitting symbol of the relationship between pollsters and the public is crystallized in a particular kind of survey which has been conducted frequently in recent years. A Yankelovich survey in October, 1972, posed this “question”:

Q. I’m sick and tired of hearing people attack patriotism, morality and other traditional American values. [The Real America, page 281]

The hypocrisy of the situation is stunning: the representatives of the computerized, technological world that has destroyed just about every vestige of tradition are commissioned to ask this question, and usually in a context which encourages the respondent to throw the blame on hippies and radicals.

The collaboration between the politician and the opinion surveyors centers around elections and their political meaning. From the viewpoint of the collaborators elections should ideally represent an expression of political “reality” which legitimates the power of those who win. Elections are, of course, a method of legitimating power, but it does not follow that the distribution of votes is a copy of reality. After all, the standard argument for the two-party system in America has been that it blurs “real” differences. What the new breed of politicians and surveyors want is to stretch the legitimating seal of elections to include surveys. For if an election can be treated as though it were a survey, then, conversely, any survey has the potential of being treated as an election. A model formulation would be the following:

Ours is a highly responsive political system—elections mirror life in America…. If we are seeking evidence as to what kind of national problems we have, and what kind of national solutions we seek, we must look to our national elections as the ultimate national survey. [Page 286]

The interpretation of national elections as the “ultimate” survey allows lesser surveys the exalted status of being penultimate elections that supply the politician, among others, with continuous guidance and precise information concerning the opinions of citizens. Then the claim can be made that for the first time a perfect democracy is possible, one based upon a continuing and accurate expression of the will of the majority on any given issue at any given time. The marriage of democratic ideology with quantitative methods is thus consummated in the rule of numbers.

Does a survey “really” represent “reality” or, instead, constitute it so as to create an illusion, a false concreteness? The “data” of opinions are not facts in the ordinary sense that, for example, New Hampshire was the ninth state to ratify the Constitution, or that human beings cannot live without food. An opinion, as Plato noted, is a most unstable entity; the holder can change his mind the next instant. The data of opinions lack the durability that distinguishes an important fact. The ephemerality of opinion-data severely limits the significance of polls and surveys and their reliability as accounts of “reality.” They are able to establish with great accuracy the extent to which an opinion is held and they can successfully predict behavior over the short run. Once the period is extended, the reliability of the findings diminishes rapidly. Surely reality deserves a longer warranty than a disposable diaper.

A book that displays a consistent contempt for language and an unfailing coarseness of thought may be dismissed as a “book” and yet retain importance as a symbol. It can then be read as a system of signs expressive, perhaps, of social and political forces. This is the appropriate procedure for The Real America. Wattenberg is, in the words of the Times, the chief “theoretician” for Senator Jackson’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. The book, however, has a far wider significance: it expresses the view of reality held by those who, irrespective of party, managed our politics and who are now in the process of defining the terms on which they can perpetuate their power.

Like an earlier work, The Real Majority, of which Wattenberg was co-author, the present revelation is “an attempt to go to data as a way of seeing the first dim outlines of reality” (p. x). Since reality lies in “hard data” of the type supplied by census statistics, pollsters, university research centers, and government bureaucracies, the seer must first undergo a purification ritual, elegantly summarized as “marinate yourself in the data” (p. x).

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