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).

According to Wattenberg, the Sixties were a decade of unparalleled material achievement and mass happiness for America. “The human condition—as measured by the data”—improved “to such a degree as to create a new human situation, a society whose massive majority is “middle class” (p. 5). Measured by “objective indices” of “progress,” the social and economic conditions of black Americans have improved more rapidly during the Sixties than at any time since the Civil War; work in America has become “the most ‘human’ and creative…in the history of mankind”; educational “levels” have “soared”; women have achieved “unprecedented” social and economic independence; the incidence of poverty has been halved; and the population threat has “disappeared” (pp. 6-7).

Save for inflation, our problems have either been exaggerated or they are in the process of being solved. Environmental damage and energy shortages are “transitory” matters that new technology will eventually solve. Inasmuch as pollution has not as yet killed a sufficient number of people (p. 181), it constitutes a measure of national “success”: we wouldn’t have pollution unless industry was operating at extraordinary levels; at worst, pollution represents a “trade-off” that makes available “more decent, more humane and more creative lives for the American people” (pp. 180-181). Watergate is “ephemeral…a series of ugly events, not an ugly ongoing condition…the least of our problems” (p. 299).

When problems appear obdurate, Wattenberg sternly reminds us that “progress judgers” need “a cold and beady eye” (p. 62). So while the consistently high rate of urban crime deserves a “minus,” there is consolation in the fact that the victims are mostly black and that crime is concentrated in slum areas, “the de facto segregation of the violent,” and that the rate of crime in “middle-class black neighborhoods” is not “impossible” (p. 142). Finally, although America will “no longer dominate the Western world” as in the past, Henry Luce was “probably right…. This is an American century” (p. 314).

One’s first instinct is to bury this volume alongside the now-forgotten prophecies of economists that the economy needed only “fine-tuning” to ensure endless prosperity; or the solemn pronouncements of sociologists that “the fundamental political problems of the industrial revolution have been solved” and that “bureaucratization means … a decline of the arbitrary power of those in authority … [and] a much higher degree of freedom …” (Seymour Martin Lipset, Political Man, pp. 442, 452-453); or the fantasies about American military power peddled by Walt Rostow. This would be a mistake, because we need to know how the powerful groups served by the Wattenbergs perceive and misperceive the world; what they regard as crucial to the maintenance and preservation of their power; and what they fear as the main threats to their political and economic domination.

It is no part of Wattenberg’s “surprising examination of the state of the union” to inquire into structures of power, political or economic. Yet it is vital to his “vision” of America that the corporate structures of big business, finance, agriculture, science, and trade unions continue to operate as they have in the recent past. The whole future of America, “the land of More” as he calls it (p. 67), depends upon satisfying the rising expectations of the swelling numbers entering “the middle class.” Democracy means more jobs, higher income, more consumer goods, and more recreation. So long as the economic system meets these demands and so long as the demands take these forms, the perennial questions about power and control need never be asked. Or, better, those whose demands are being met can be congratulated on having “power,” for what is power but the ability to have one’s demands met? (Page 49.)

This ideology of corporatism and populism serves mainly to conceal that the great power and wealth of the few represent the real price of the material benefits available to the many. It is essential that the many never comprehend that the benefits are the source of their dependence. So the reassuring illusions are spooned out: “Americans feel, probably correctly, that a ritual, regular spanking of business is not a bad idea; if they’re not exactly sure what it’s for, don’t worry, business knows” (p. 232). To be sure, business does know: it knows that its power depends on a strategy of arousing desires, then partially satisfying them, but always keeping its employees and customers poised between the fear of losing the precious little they have and the hope of getting more. A significant statistic, not found among Wattenberg’s “hard data,” is that by the time a student graduates from high school, he or she will on average have been exposed to 350,000 television commercials. Some day, Rousseau wrote, the slaves will rush to put on their chains.

Wattenberg seeks to prove that the material achievements of the Sixties were mainly accomplished by “traditional liberalism” and the forces first assembled by the “FDR coalition.” Deaf to historical associations, he describes this “old politics” as “the wave of the future.” (Pages 289, 291, 317.) This “economically oriented, hard-nosed, socially tough and programmatically activist” liberalism (p. 289) is not, however, the liberalism of FDR, Truman, Stevenson, or even the early Lyndon Johnson. The latter sort of liberalism was capable of generosity; concerned to protect civil liberties; and, until it began beating the drums of the cold war, it was fearful of the threat to democracy posed by corporate power. But the new corporate liberalism, in an unguarded moment, lets slip its contempt for the “beer-swilling, pot-bellied” masses it so righteously defends: America’s purpose, it announces, is “to let poor people become middle-class people” (p. 301, emphasis added).

The “liberalism” of Wattenberg—and we can expect more of it from Jackson—reveals itself as a vulgar version of democracy crossed with the authoritarianism of Nixon, Agnew, Reagan, and Wallace. It believes that only the insidious criticisms of chic radicals prevented average Americans from fully realizing their good fortune. It must constantly exhort the American consciousness, numbing it to critical appeals. It says to the Massive Majority Middle Class: Look at the number of jobs we have given you, the consumer goods, the standard of living, all this and the privilege of sharing vicariously in the most powerful society in history. So stop “twitching over imaginary failures.” Only “a damn fool…throws in a winning hand…. Only a lack of confidence…can turn this nation into a loser” (p. 315).

Then it turns to fanning the resentments of “the Massive Majority” against the critics of America. Recent criticism of education and the alarums of ecologists were only a disguise for class prejudice and snobbery. For when the Massive Majority was finally able to send its children to college or to enjoy camping, the “aristocrats” began to belittle the value of education and to seek to barricade Yosemite against the camper-trucks of the recently poor. (Pages 67, 77, 112.) The advocates of “no-growth” were really bent on increasing real-estate values rather than preserving natural beauty from industrialism (pp. 236-237).

Underlying this attack on effete snobs, “aristocrats,” militants, and deviants is the persistence of the same “realistic” mentality that led liberalism to join the anticommunist crusade after World War II. Only now, in the era of détente, the mentality is transferred. Instead of the giant conspiratorial apparatus of international communism and its Ivy League agents, we have “a nonconspiratorial, hydra-headed, articulate infrastructure that has assumed great power and potency in American life and letters” (p. 7). And, of course, the fact that the existence of the infrastructure cannot be demonstrated is only additional evidence of its cunning. “There is no way to prove that the dominant rhetoric of our time has been one of failure, guilt and crisis…. The author knows it is so; for all that nonsense still rings in our ears” (p. 13, emphasis in original).

Wattenberg also knows that there is an innate “folk wisdom” in the people that makes it “far wiser” than the critics. The “folk” is the “real hero” of the American success story and it is “fed up with those who are fed up with America.” (Pages 279, 302, 305.) The “folk” feel deeply threatened by “the Cause People,” whom they blame for the decline in traditional morality, not the morality on which Nixon and Agnew spat but the morality of sexual behavior.

Unlike the metaphysical Volk conjured up by the late tenant of Berchtesgaden, this folk’s existence is statistically demonstrable and hence its threat is real:

But in the public mind, it is apparent that one of the causes of the erosion of values,…one of the causes of the resulting malaise, has been…the Cause People, the Movement, the Failure and Guilt Complex and their assorted camp followers, sub-species, promoters, drum beaters, faddists, apologists, spear carriers and political types, let alone parents who wanted their kids to think they were hip.

Further, this perception by the public is not just perception, it carries with it a dose of truth. [Page 283]

It has not been my intention to belittle the technical achievements of statisticians. There are important questions of political and social theory raised by the application of statistics and quantitative methods to the study of politics, society, and history, but these may safely be left to the ordinary course of academic controversy. What we are dealing with here is the systematic organization of opinion to promote the existing structure of control. How is this done?

One method is to reinforce desired beliefs by disguising assertions as questions. For example, the following statement is described as a “question”: “Nader gives a one-sided picture of what America does, leaving out many good things industry does” (p. 238). The insinuated identification of “industry” with America is too obvious to require comment. Or take the tortuous “question” which asked the public if it felt that it was “not healthy [sic] for young people to refuse to believe [sic] that winning in competition is important” (p. 239).

Or consider the racism implicit in the following question and the implications of treating it as a precise finding: “Do you feel that blacks in this country have tried to move too fast, too slow, or at about the right pace?” (p. 253). One wonders, of course, what is meant by “too slow,” but there is little doubt about the fears being reinforced by the specter of blacks proceeding “too fast,” or about what Americans mean by “the right pace.” Americans, Wattenberg informs us, have “bought” the idea of being “fair” to blacks so long as “it doesn’t hurt me” (p. 255). Or recall the “finding” of a Harris poll of 1970 that revealed that 31 percent of the public “would like never to deal with clergymen who keep telling me I have to be for the poor” (p. 264).

As is evident, the technique fundamentally consists of posing vague, meaningless, even stupid questions or assertions and then outfitting the responses in precise quantitative form. The quantitative perfection of meaninglessness, however, is not itself meaningless. Its purpose is to produce a collective force, a manufactured part whose opinion is then identified with the whole. Then the way is open to instill useful beliefs so that the artificial collective will be maintained, along with the dominant position of those who have constructed it. “Questions” are then put whose purpose is to promote the required beliefs. An illustration is the “question” asked of eleven-to-eighteen-year-olds by the University of Michigan survey, “The world would be a better place if people had more respect for authority.” Reflecting on the findings, in which 35 percent “somewhat agreed” and 40 percent “strongly agreed,” Wattenberg draws the desired authoritarian conclusion:

All that the permissive generation really seemed to want is a strong guiding hand!… Young people in America aren’t so terribly different from the rest of us…. [Page 259]

An authoritarian temper is most clearly evidenced in Wattenberg’s fundamental contention that the Massive Majority Middle Class constitutes the basic reality of American politics. Certainly the character and condition of the middle class is a matter of no small importance. From its inception America has been a middle-class republic and its patterns of growth have been dictated mainly by middle-class power. But the historical middle class is not the one discovered by Wattenberg’s statistics. It is a class with no history or title. It lays no claim to the economic enterprise or inventiveness of its forebears, no commitment to a hopeful political ideology such as liberal democracy has been, no culture it can call its own. It is, instead, a statistical artifice which, if treated as political “reality,” can serve as a mass basis for the politics of a corporate, technological state.

The data for its existence are this: if we compute the purchasing costs for the consumer goods associated with what people want now over and above their needs, we can assert that a $7,000 income for a two-person family provides the necessary “discretionary income” to enable the members to begin purchasing the desired goods. The figure of $7,000 represents the income level at which entrance to the bottom of the middle class begins. Then we take note that in 1973 the median family income reached $12,000 a year. The conclusion follows that more than half the population is living in families with a middle-class income (pp. 51-55).

The reduction of the concept of the middle class to an income category is the first step to the legitimation of a homogenized mass, or, more precisely, to fitting the Massive Majority Middle Class into a mold prepared beforehand. For Wattenberg does not rely entirely on income levels to establish the identity of the middle class. If we “really” want to discover who “really” belongs to the middle class we must employ a “perceptional definition.” We must ask people whether they think that they belong to the middle class; and, if they believe that they do, and if they are seeking to acquire the material possessions and cultural values associated with middle-class status, and if they do in fact acquire them, then they are certified members of that class (p. 68).

There is, of course, no mystery about how people happen to want certain material goods or cultural values. Within the present system of absorbing people into economic life, there is no risk in relying upon the subjective “perceptions” of middle-classness. What will be perceived has been arranged beforehand. Besides there is always the Catch 22 safeguard provided by the scientists of opinion: if by any chance perceptions do not jibe with “reality” as they should, or if, mirabile dictu, discontents should be expressed, the guardians can always maintain that what people feel should not be confused with objective data (p. 59).

For all of his bullying and bravado, Wattenberg admits to one fear, that rising inflation will drive the middle class to “turbulence and despair” (p. 52). It may be that an ugly politics is in store if inflation and unemployment severely erode the hard-won gains of the new middle class. “Liberals” of the Wattenberg type will have to contend with the fact that during the last decade militant tactics have been adopted by suburban and working-class women protesting busing; that policemen, firemen, teachers, and public service employees have resorted to strikes; and that consumers, as never before, are increasingly aware of being bilked. It is reasonable to expect that our rulers will not hesitate to put to use the lessons in “crowd-control” learned during the Sixties or to modify their elaborate computerized equipment in order to assemble information on the new dissidents. It is also a sad fact that the new liberals can increase defense spending while rattling sabers in the Middle East and still claim to be in the great tradition of recent liberalism. Since 1941 each of our wars has occurred under a Democratic, welfare-minded administration. Military expansion, economic development, and high employment have proved a potent means for heading off turbulence in the past.

It is, however, this circle that must be broken. For in the broadest sense our crisis is not fundamentally economic but political. It is rooted in a gross disproportion between our politics and our power. It is a simple fact that our economy is no longer controllable by our politics.

If we are to realize what this means, we must cease thinking about the “economy” as simply a mechanism for producing goods, services, and employment. It is a structure of power exercised over material things and human relationships. As the energy crisis has reminded us, the economy is no longer national, but our power to deal with it is mainly limited to the power that can be generated from our domestic politics. The history of the last ten years reveals a consistent pattern of political failure rather than an insufficiency of power. We sought to bring our economic power to bear upon “the stubborn pockets of poverty” and the inequities of racial, ethnic, and sexual discrimination; we threw our military and technological power against the Vietnamese; and we have turned the power of our great federal bureaucracies on the problems of welfare, the cities, health, and education. The efforts were mostly failures. The reason was not lack of power but the development of modes of power, abstract and impersonal, that destroyed the possibilities of human politics.

The disproportion between power and politics has produced a truly satanic situation, slightly ironical but highly dangerous. Incontestably, small groups do exert great power and reap great benefits; but their power is not synonymous with control. A crucial feature of this system of reality is that no one controls it. When President Nixon announced at the height of his power that he would concentrate upon foreign diplomacy because domestic affairs “could run themselves,” it was an inadvertent confession that the domestic economy was beyond the power of government control, and the expression of a desperate hope that in foreign affairs, if nowhere else, there was still the possibility of personal glory and achievement.

Now, with the prospect of an economic depression of world-wide complexity, the dramatic possibilities of diplomacy have likewise dwindled, another casualty of a system in which no person, group, or nation can exert mastery. The natural theology of such a system was hinted at by President Ford as he contemplated the ramifications of the energy crisis: “It is,” he said, “as complex as the devil” and “tough as hell.”

At this moment, only a fool would claim to have a neat prescription and even the fool would be forced to produce not only a prescription but a novel one. The most that can be said is that the running crisis of the past decade and the present threat of economic depression seem to demand that, as a society, we must cut back, reduce the scale of our aspirations, and brake the infinity of our desires. We have joined our fate to vast, Babel-like structures, and like the ill-fated tower, the structures are about to be scattered abroad “upon the face of all the earth.” Perhaps then we shall see better than the men of Shinar who built the great tower; perhaps see that the task is not to construct ever-larger structures but to decompose the organizations that overwhelm us, and to seek less abstract and remote dependencies. After all, this is what the revolt of two hundred years ago, the revolt against a vast, impersonal, and distant imperial structure, was originally about.