Flip on cable news, and within twenty minutes the host will cite the latest survey as proof of which candidates should run for office and which foreign enemy we must now smite. Writing for New Left Media, John Brissenden tears apart the idea of opinion polls as a gauge for determining what anyone truly wants. The public may respond to opinion polls, but it’s the media, business, and political elite who compose the questions:
From its inception a century ago, and in its current construction, the terrain of ‘public opinion’ is far from being a neutral space where a representative democracy deliberates and resolves issues. At best, ‘public opinion’, as represented in opinion polls, is a deeply flawed mechanism for gauging the extent of wider support for a particular cause. At worst, it is hostile territory, constructed and owned by the ruling class.
In the 1920s, polling pioneers such as James Gallup advocated polls as a means of capturing and expressing the public will, in a more scientific – and therefore representative – way than, for example, pressure groups.
Forty years ago, Pierre Bourdieu mounted his influential critique of the opinion poll technocracy, when he argued that public opinion does not exist. In particular, Bourdieu drew attention to the assumptions underlying the very business of opinion polling: that the ability to produce an opinion on a given question is equally open to all, that all opinions have equal value from the point of view of those commissioning, constructing, interpreting and publishing the poll, and that there is agreement on what questions are worth asking in the first place:
[The opinion poll’s] most important function is to impose the illusion that there is something called public opinion in the sense of the purely arithmetical total of individual opinions; to impose the illusion that it is meaningful to speak of the average of opinions or the average opinion.
The ‘public opinion’ that is manifested on the front pages of newspapers is a pure and simple artifact whose function is to disguise the fact that the state of opinion at a given time is a system of forces, tensions, and that nothing more inadequately expresses the state of opinion than a percentage.
Justin Lewis does not dismiss polling as comprehensively as Bourdieu, but rather argues that we should acknowledge both the shortcomings of polling data and the constructed nature of polls as a text. Despite Gallup’s good intentions, the outcomes of opinion polling, as Lewis demonstrates, are an inversion of classical notions of assembly (the media accord a legitimacy to polling data which they deny to crowds of protesters or striking workers); the creation of a body of poll results of which we become passive observers rather than active participants; and the manifestation of that data as an authored text – like a movie or a TV show – created by a technical elite, and so, self-evidently, at several removes from people’s lived experiences of the issues under discussion.
So we ought, at least, to remain deeply skeptical, not only of polling methodology, but of the pseudo-realism which the polling industry projects onto the complexities of social and political life. This is not a merely philosophical exercise, but has real consequences, as in relation to the attack on Afghanistan 10 years ago.
There is, then, powerful evidence to suggest that public opinion has been deployed as a weapon of class warfare by capital since the 1930s; that the use of propaganda techniques by economic elites has continued, increasing in its sophistication and volume, to the present day; that the techniques and measures of opinion polling which are deployed by political, business and media elites are fundamentally flawed at a conceptual as well as a methodological level.
I maintain that, in this context, the tendency of those on the left to accept the terrain of ‘public opinion’ at face value, and to triangulate tactics in the fight against austerity in terms of how they might affect public opinion, hands our opponents a huge advantage and ensures that the campaign is played out on territory which they largely control.