Sunday, December 19, 2010

Polling and public policy: DADT

There are many things about politics that are really annoying. One of them, as I have previously noted, is the tendency of political parties just coming off of significant electoral success to suggest that they have a mandate to implement every last one of their platform planks. You know, the American people have spoken, blah, blah, blah, and everything we - the newly elected majority - want to do has been sanctioned.

This is a given. We know. But with the accuracy of polling being what it is, it becomes increasingly hard to make statements of this kind that are so clearly inconsistent with what the American people appear to be saying at any given moment.

Such was the case recently when Arizona Senator John McCain blasted the Senate as it moved to repeal "don't-ask-don't-tell (DADT)," which would enable gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.

Of those who would repeal DADT, McCain said the following:

"So here we are about six weeks after an election that repudiated the agenda of the other side," [and those who would repeal don't-ask-don't-tell] are acting in direct repudiation of the message of the American people."

Well, no. According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, nearly eight in ten Americans favour gays and lesbians serving openly. Significantly, this cuts across partisan and ideological lines, with majorities of Democrats, Republicans, independents, liberals, conservatives and white evangelical Protestants in favor of homosexuals' serving openly.

The question is, what do we make of all of this? McCain can read polling numbers as well of the rest of us so he understands that on this issue the tide has turned and that his view is in the minority. But in a certain sense this goes back to an old political debate between the idea of instructed political representation versus representation, which, once elected, believes that it owes those who have voted them in only their best judgement. (Check out Edmund Burke on this.)

Those who would argue that they owe the electorate only their best judgement typically suggest that issues, taken one at a time, are far too complicated for the average voter to comprehend (even if they would never say that publicly). To run the government by taking the pulse of the nation on any given initiative would surely, they argue, lead to chaos. Government by referenda never works, only those who represent the people know how it all needs to hang together.

On this view, the voters, in the last election rejected something called "the left" and embraced a competing view coming from the right. Challenging the repeal of DADT is, for many conservatives, the kind of stance that defines this newly embraced conservatism - the polls of the moment be damned. Republicans who are off side, previously supportive voters - they just don't get it, or so the argument would go.

The problem is that it is not that simple. And when you govern in a way that indicates that you are only responsible to the electorate on voting day, you really start to piss off a lot of people who don't identify particularly strongly with the left or right, the so-called "swing voters" or independents.

I am simply saying that in an era when we poll everything, it's that much harder to govern. Sometimes polling numbers are so strong in one direction or another that we ignore them at our peril. Sometimes polling numbers are driven by effective mis-information campaigns and have to be taken with a grain of salt. Sometimes poling numbers indicate a strongly held view that a government would do well to ignore such as attitudes among white soldiers in the late 1940s opposing racial integration of the armed forces just before Truman did exactly that.

Politicians who trail in opinion surveys going into an election like to say that the only poll that counts is the one on election day. If that was ever true, it no longer is.

But how to use polling information in the construction of good public policy does remain a thorny issue. How to respect the views of the electorate on any particular issue while knowing that governments have to balance countless programs and initiatives, that's hard work. And then there is just the need to do what's right.

Polling: Can't live by it, can't live without it.

(Cross-posted to Lippmann's Ghost.)

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