Number 485 July 31, 2011

This Week: Polls as Propaganda, Volume 2

"Quote" of the Week: Inequality "Three Decades in the Making."
Polls as Propaganda #4: Imagining "Systems Polling"
Polls As Propaganda #5: The Deepest Propaganda of All


Last week you saw Parts 1-3 in Volume 1 of this mini-series on Polls as Propaganda. This week Volume 2 brings you Parts 4 and 5, which conclude the effort. There's also a little "homework" this week for you to do, a first for Nygaard Notes I think. (There will be no test. ) If anyone does the homework, I'd love to hear what you learn from it.

One of the things I have learned in my research on opinion polls the past few weeks is that there are a lot of polls out there that we never hear about. It probably won't surprise you to learn that some of these poll results will surprise you. So, ironically, I may take some time—immediately following my seemingly-harsh critique of polling!—to report on the results of some of these polls. It's not all Propaganda, you know.

By the time you read this, I hope to be camping on an island in Lake Superior. Ahhh.... So, if you write to me in the meantime (and I hope you do) I will definitely read your letters and emails, but not until August 8th at the earliest. I'll respond then. Just so you know.

In solidarity,



"Quote" of the Week: Inequality "Three Decades in the Making."

On the front page of the Business Section of my local paper on July 27th ran a story headlined "Lower-paid Jobs Are Dominating the Recovery." The first paragraph read:

"The majority of jobs being created in this economic recovery are lower-paying ones, while higher-paying positions have been slow to return, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Employment Law Project."

That's some information worth knowing, and the article points out that this study is "one of the only ones to track job growth in terms of wages." But that's not the "Quote" of the Week. That honor is reserved for the final paragraph, where is quoted Annette Bernhardt, policy co-director of the National Employment Law Project. She said:

"Growing wage inequality in the United States is a phenomenon that's three decades in the making, and which the recession only exacerbated."

In other words, our economic crisis is likely structural, not cyclical. So it will only get better if we address our economic structures.

NELP is a good group. Check them out, including the report referenced here – "The Good Jobs Deficit"— at their website.


Polls as Propaganda #4: Imagining "Systems Polling"

Last week I talked about two of the ways that polls perform a Propaganda function. One way is by steering respondents into seeing only certain things, and thinking about them only in certain ways. Another way is by giving data certain meanings by embedding them in a larger story, a story that is often a highly-questionable one.

A third way that polls become carriers of Propaganda has to do with their reliance on Analytical Thinking. Would the Propaganda effect be lessened if opinion polls were to rely more on Systems Thinking? I think it would.

Let's look at a few actual questions from actual polls, and see if we can see the Propaganda, and then let's see if we can think of some other ways to get information on the same subject from the average respondent.

Remember that Deep Propaganda is a broad, unconsciously-held idea that makes another idea believable. In the case of polls, the Deep Propaganda is the idea, or set of ideas, that make the poll questions meaningful and, thus, answerable. Keep that in mind as we proceed.

The Environment vs Economic Growth

Poll Question #1: A USA Today/Gallup Poll from May of 2010, in the wake of the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, "With which one of these statements about the environment and the economy do you most agree? Protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth. OR, Economic growth should be given priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent."

Propaganda #1: That seems like a simple choice, but it's loaded with assumptions.

The biggest assumption is that there are two "good" things that need to be weighed against each other: Protection of the environment, on the one hand, and "economic growth," on the other. Excluded are ideas like: Maybe we could focus our economic growth on protecting the environment. OR Maybe economic growth, as commonly understood, is actually a negative? Those ideas assume that people want to do work that makes the world a better place, and the job of "the economy" is to help them do that. The capitalist assumption built into the USA Today poll question, on the other hand, is that people want to enrich themselves, and the point of "the economy" is to enable more people to do so. If you accept the capitalist assumptions, then you can answer the question. If you have other assumptions, the question makes no sense.

Systems Thinking #1:
We can minimize the Propaganda effect even while exploring the particular aspects of the issue in which the pollsters appear to be interested, which in this case seems to be the economy and the environment. Before formulating our questions, a systems thinker might try to imagine an approach that will help respondents think most freely and independently. So we might want to introduce complexity, and we might want to help respondents to create their own answers rather than choose among pre-selected answers. Finally, we always want to stress the relationships between the factors we are considering, and not pose our question in a way that makes it seem that the factors are totally separate things.

With all that in mind, our Systems Polling Group might ask, "What is the relationship between the economy and the environment? Or, "Can we have a strong economy if we don't take care of our natural environment? Please support your answer." Or, "Some people say that we can't protect the environment and have a strong economy. Do you agree with that statement? Why or why not?"

Such questions avoid the oversimplification of offering only two choices and they don't steer people to choices on a list. Perhaps most importantly, when we ask people to choose among items on a list, or to choose between the two choices on an either/or list, we are emphasizing the differences between the choices, and we are asking people to separate them in order to understand them. A systems approach encourages people to consider the relationships between as many factors as they wish to include. They can't be understood if they are separated!

Of course, such questions would hardly yield the kind of "X percent said this, and Y percent said that" answers that make for easy reporting of poll results. So a poll of this nature would require, at minimum, a different way of reporting the results. And this, in turn, would alter our understanding of the results. And off we go into a different future!

Asking About The Economy: Which of the Following...?"

Poll Question #2: CNN asked people in April of this year: "Thinking specifically about the economy, which of the following is the most important economic issue facing the country today? Unemployment. The federal budget deficit. Rising gasoline prices. Taxes. Mortgages and housing costs. The stock market."

Propaganda #2: Here we have the standard "list" question that asks people to rank a pre-selected group of "issues" in order of importance. As always, it oversimplifies the issue of "the economy" and it steers people towards six choices decided by somebody or other. On a deeper level, the question demands that people use Analytical Thinking in order to respond. That is, it demands that each of the selected aspects of the issue be broken out and considered separately, with one being more important than another.

Systems Thinking #2: We start with the assumption that "the economy" is a system, or a set of systems, that is in turn a part of a larger system. We recall, as we saw last week, that it is the interaction between the parts that makes a system work. Given these assumptions, then we see that a ranking of issues strips them of their meaning. Furthermore, there is little possibility, given the way this question is posed, for respondents to consider any larger systems of which "the economy" is a part.

A Systems approach to exploring this issue would start with questions that are simultaneously more simple and more complex. For instance, we might ask, "How do you think the U.S. economy is performing, overall?" Or, "How would you change the economy to perform better?" Or, "What are some things that make the U.S. economy perform well? Perform poorly?"

As with the previous question, our Systems approach gets away from choosing, ranking, and separating, and asks people to make their own assessment, then to integrate a variety of interrelated factors, and finally to imagine solutions based on their own ideas. And, again, this is not likely to result in easily-quantified results.


Here are a few other recent questions from major polls that I find particularly loaded with questionable premises, and which thus perform a Propaganda function. See if you can spot the Propaganda in such questions as:

"In general, do you think it should or should not be the role of the United States to promote the establishment of democratic governments in other countries?" (AP Poll, March 2011)

"Which do you think is a bigger problem in this country today: blacks losing out because of racism, OR whites losing out because of racial preferences?" (Newsweek, 2008)

"Do you favor or oppose the U.S. and NATO military forces making it a priority to immediately remove Muammar al-Qaddafi from power?"

All of the questions mentioned here perform a Propaganda function by emphasizing and/or legitimizing certain ideas. Equally important in the overall Propaganda effect is the exclusion of other ideas. We can see this in the absence of questions in the major polls. I looked and looked and found no questions about the nature of capitalism, for instance. No questions about international law and the obligations of the United States to adhere to it. No questions about environmental sustainability.

You can find your own missing questions quite easily: Think of something you would like to know about the views of people in the United States. Something important. Then go to the website, which includes a very large number of major polls in recent years, and see if you can find any questions like yours. If you try this little exercise, I'd love to hear about it, so please drop me a line.

Even if you don't do this homework, you might find it interesting to examine some of the million or so poll questions that can be found at the website.


Polls As Propaganda #5: The Deepest Propaganda of All

In this little series on opinion polling I am emphasizing the overall Propaganda effect of opinion polls in our culture. But I am not saying that opinion polls are the cause of all delusion and Propaganda in the world, far from it! I often look at polls, and I learn things from them. But I think that, as currently structured, opinion polls do more harm than good, and I think we would benefit greatly if we began to design polls using a Systems approach.

In a Systems approach to polling, we would ask people to come up with their own ideas about how to deal with the various issues facing our communities and our world. I suggest that this might be a way to reduce the damage done by the Propaganda that I claim is reproduced by standard opinion polling. And here an obvious problem arises: If we've all been subject to Propaganda for our entire lives, won't a Systems approach simply ask us to solve problems about which we either know nothing or about which we are terribly misinformed? The answer is: Of course it will.

In fact, if we were to begin relying on such a polling system right now, I think the results would likely be a horrible mish-mash of nearly-unintelligible nonsense. Or, perhaps worse, we might begin to see a majority among us who increasingly agree on a white-supremacist, xenophobic, imperial agenda, one that builds on the worst tendencies in U.S. history. And that, in a way, illustrates my point about the Propaganda effect of current polling.

I repeat: Polls are not all Propaganda. Sometimes polls ask meaningful questions where the premises are clear. 58 percent of respondents in a CBS News/NY Times poll last month, for instance, said that the United States "should not be involved in Afghanistan." That means something, and should not be ignored.

Still, the general population often appears to be poorly informed and inclined to respond to poll questions based on prejudice, fear, and/or ignorance. If that is true, then why do so many of us read about poll results and respond as if they mean something more than they do? That is, if we believe that a Systems approach to polling would reveal limited thinking based on false beliefs on the part of many people, then why does anyone believe that current polls tell us something different, something meaningful?

When large numbers of people are willing to choose from a list, or to simplify their thinking to the point where they are willing to say that they "approve" or "disapprove" of someone or something, then I suggest that the Propaganda damage has already been done. Whatever the percentage that is reported to be on one side or the other, or in favor of one item or another on a list, then the reporting of such numbers tells the world, in effect, that the respondents accept and endorse the legitimacy of the list itself and the thinking that brought it into being.

Two BIG Ideas: Democracy and America

And this acceptance of The List is an acceptance of the deepest Propaganda of all, which is the idea that Democracy is nothing more than choosing from a list. A real democracy would not ask people to choose among pre-selected choices, like plucking Brand X off the shelf at the grocery store instead of Brand Y. A real democracy would empower its members to decide what goes on the shelf in the first place, as well as who makes it, what's in it, the effects it has on our environment, and who profits from it. That's not the kind of democracy we have now. The kind of democracy we have now is what I call Multiple-Choice Democracy. We're free to choose, but not free to create.

An even deeper Propaganda idea is the idea that is sometimes called American Exceptionalism. This is the idea that the United States is not like other nations, or other societies. This is the foundational Propaganda that allows people to believe such highly-debatable ideas as the idea that we have the Greatest Health Care System in the World, and that we have the Greatest Economic System ever devised, and that the United States Empire, unique among historical Empires, is purely benevolent.

The Myth of American Exceptionalism tells us that, while we may have our disagreements, the basic structures and institutions in our society are more than sufficient to deal with them—no Regime Change needed here! After all, we select our leaders and build our institutions through use of the greatest democracy the world has ever known.

The great advantage of Systems polling would not be that we would get "better" answers. A Systems approach would simply allow us to more clearly see the raw materials with which we have to work as we try to develop and strengthen our democracy. I think a Systems approach to polling would help us better understand what "The American People" want and need. Such an approach would force us to grapple with some of the real complexities of democracy, and to move away from a Multiple-Choice system where the only choices offered serve the interests of the few, not the many. In our quest for a vibrant and humane democracy, we need to question our willingness to choose from a pre-made list of solutions, and instead begin to make our own lists. That is the way to build Democracy.