Be Skeptical Of Polls And Those Who Pay For Them

This week’s Courier Herald column:

This is Easter Week.  It’s also the week we sent the Georgia General Assembly home from their annual 40 day stay in Atlanta.  The overlap on the calendar lends itself to a few words on the juxtaposition of religion and politics, but the focus today will be on a much narrower focus in the Easter story.

The events between Palm Sunday and Easter are a master class in the shallowness of public opinion.  At the beginning of the story, the residents of Jerusalem lined the streets to welcome Jesus as a king.  By Friday morning, the crowd had turned and sentenced him to death while choosing to release a murderer instead. 

Two thousand years later, we seem to be governed by polls.  Elected officials are farther and farther removed from the public they represent.  To gage the sentiment of how issues of the day are viewed and how likely they are to be elected and re-elected, polls often help politicians turn anecdotes into data.

Somewhere along the way, media outlets decided that public opinion polls were the best tools to explain public policy questions in their 90 second news packages and 14 paragraph print stories.  Over time, telling the public what others support or oppose has been prioritized as a shortcut over detailed analysis with pros and cons of proposals.

The biggest problem here is as obvious as it is ignored by those who have institutionalized this practice.  Asking the public about policy matters that most have not considered much less understand would generally not yield informed opinions.

Instead, these polls are often used to pigeon hole elected officials into support of popular proposals instead of good policy.  Too many reporters load up with righteous indignation before asking “77 percent of voters support getting something for themselves and having someone else pay for it.  Why are you out of step with your voters?”

Reporters and those of us who write opinion pieces have no shortage of help from others who want us to know that the public supports their positions.  Our inboxes are filled daily with press releases from various interest groups who have commissioned a poll demonstrating overwhelming support for their initiative, or for the candidate they promise is winning an election.

It’s almost like those who are writing the questions and choosing those who are polled can sway the outcome of these all-important polls.  And by “almost”, I mean it’s exactly like that.

The problem for ancient rulers and current office holders alike is that those who rely on polls when sound judgment and leadership is needed will often find themselves vacillating at times when a steady hand is demanded.  Pontius Pilate decided to leave Jesus’ fate to the mob in order to avoid making a controversial decision himself.

The construct of the question to the public was designed so that he could get the outcome he wanted – letting Jesus go – without having to face the consequences from what he thought were a small but powerful group of powerful insiders.  Surely the will of the crowd – the people that had just welcomed Jesus as a King days ago – would decide to release Jesus instead of the brutal murderer Barabbas.

It didn’t work out that way.  While the lessons of Easter are much greater than this narrow slice taken out for a political column, there is an important takeaway here for those who govern and for those who would be governed.

There are matters that are to be put to the will of the majority, and there are those that should not.  Our Constitution is an express exercise in the latter.  It was designed not to enforce the will of the majority, but to protect the rights of the individual when in the minority.

Public opinion can change quickly and violently. There are many whose entire profession and avocation are dedicated to ensuring that it does.  Given the right issue with the right catalyst, literally anything can become politically popular.

How extreme can these swings be?  The only time that Jesus was ever on the ballot, Barabbas won the election.  He was sentenced to death by the same crowd with whom he polled as the overwhelmingly popular leader just days prior. 

What was the change between Palm Sunday and Good Friday?  Thirty pieces of silver.


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