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A pollster would have spiced up the Gettysburg address


Public opinion polls now seem to be at the center of contemporary American political life. Polls are so endemic that it seems like what a politician does is less important than whether the public approves or disapproves. Polls are a major pillar of television news, filling about five minutes on an otherwise boring day. They are especially valuable to the standard politician whose main question is how to get re-elected. The approval or rejection of his actions in surveys can provide crucial clues.

Surveys have been around for more than a century, although they did not gain importance until the 1940s with the scientific appeal of the survey procedures by George Gallup and the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University. For years the accuracy of the surveys has been questioned. Undoubtedly, the pollsters’ biggest failure in their confident assurances that Thomas Dewey, not Harry Truman, would be elected president in 1948 was the nonsense of their questions.

Since the 1970s at the latest, the two major political parties have hired their own pollsters. Given that the authority of the political poll should reside in its objectivity, party questioners can appear to be a contradiction in terms. But these pollsters do market research for their respective parties and try to find out what voters want so that politicians can live up to those wishes. Polls can have their own policies, and media polls are often accused of being biased.

What, one wonders, would Plutarch have made of political polls where people tell politicians what they like and don’t about their behavior? Despite being a relentless enemy of tyranny, Plutarch had his doubts about democracy. Of the Athenians who ostracized their leader Cimon, he wrote that “high and noble spirits seldom please the vulgar”; and in his portrait of Solon he has a stoic philosopher named Anacharsis “express his miracle that in Greece wise men have spoken and fools have decided” while visiting the Athens assembly. Polls are, in a way, the ultimate expression of democracy in politics – and the worst democracy that Plutarch most distrusted.

It is hard to imagine that Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle or Franklin D. Roosevelt are about as concerned about public opinion as the contemporary politician. I read David Herbert Donald’s excellent 1995 biography of Abraham Lincoln. Opinions about Lincoln are very common. These are seldom enjoyable, at least Lincoln. On the questions of the abolition of slavery, the military leadership of the civil war, the use of blacks as soldiers on the part of the Union and of reconstruction, many on the part of the Union – including Know Nothings, Copperheads, Radical Republicans, strong abolitionists, German-Americans and others – at some point managed to find Lincoln deeply offensive. If polls had been as common then as they are now, it is doubtful whether Lincoln would have achieved 40% approval during his presidency.

Lincoln, it turned out, was his own pollster. At the beginning of his presidency, he used morning office hours to receive visitors, many seeking favors, trying to influence, or just shaking hands with the nation’s leader. Writing about these sessions, Donald writes: “Although his secretaries were concerned that he was wasting time on these interviews, Lincoln felt that he had gained much of what he called his ‘public opinion pools’. These visits – random, sporadic and inconsequential as they have often turned out to be – gave the President an opportunity in those days ahead of the scientific public opinion poll to get an idea of ​​what common people thought of him and his government. “

Lincoln was ahead of his time in trying not only to gauge public opinion but to shape it. He did this by sending letters to his critics and giving occasional but always targeted speeches. His Gettysburg Address, arguably the most impressive 272-word political speech ever made, was found disappointing or short by many who heard it. (So ​​much for public wisdom.) But Lincoln, being aware of the public mood, never allowed him to ultimately change his policies or principles, which was one of the reasons he was a great man.

The public is doing next to nothing wrong, but given the media attention, their opinion will still seem paramount. And maybe they are. How else should politicians know how to act without them?

Mr. Epstein is most recently the author of “Gallimaufry: A Collection of Essays, Reviews, Bits”.

Paul Gigot interviews Democratic pollster Mark Penn

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