Thursday, February 21, 2013

“Politics by Propaganda and Polls”

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Politics by Propaganda and Polls”
February 22, 2013

Less we forget, on this day in 1732 George Washington was born. Growing up, February was a wonderful month for school age children who loved winter, as I did in New Hampshire. We celebrated not only the 22nd, but also the 12th, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, which often meant two midweek February holidays! The Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971 changed all that. Instead of honoring giants from our history, we combined Andrew Johnson and Chester Arthur with Washington and Lincoln. Political expediency and convenience trumped the individual commemoration of great leaders.

All Presidents use polls. Or at least they have in earnest since 1936 when George Gallup conducted his first national poll. The very first presidential poll was conducted in 1824. The results showed Andrew Jackson defeating John Quincy Adams. Jackson did go on to win the popular vote and a plurality of the electoral vote. But because a majority of the electoral vote was needed, the election was determined by the House of Representatives, which decided in favor of Adams. Jackson did go on to win the Presidency in 1828 and served two terms. Prior to Jackson, two terms had been the norm (the exception being the two Adams’), but subsequently no President was elected for a second term until Lincoln in 1864.

Modern polling which uses random sampling, as opposed to the straw polls of the earlier era, was first conducted by George Gallup in 1936. An interesting footnote is that that year also saw the failure of straw votes. The Liberty Digest Poll sent out ten million questionnaires. Two million responded. The conclusion was that Alf Landon would defeat Franklin Roosevelt. When FDR won the Presidency with 63% of the popular vote and 46 of 48 states, the inherent weakness of straw polls became apparent. The Liberty group had used auto registrations and phone books for addresses. At that time, in the midst of the Depression, only the wealthy had either a car or a phone, skewing the results.

But Presidents have increasingly been using polls to conduct policy which, in my opinion, is wrong. It becomes even worse when they propagandize the electorate with the assistance of a compliant press. We supposedly elect our political leaders because of the platforms on which they run or on the promises they make. We also elect them because we have determined that they have both the wisdom and character to make good decisions. We put our faith in them to do what is right. We should not see this as a popularity contest. No more should a President conduct the nation’s business with one eye on the immediate popularity of what he or she may be doing.

A manifestation of our times can be seen in a story in Monday’s business section of the New York Times: “Obama Faces Risk in Pipeline Decision.” The “risk” has nothing to do with deciding what is in the best interest of the American people; the risk to which they refer is the political one facing the President – union workers who favor the Keystone XL pipeline, or environmentalists who do not. Is the Times fearful for Mr. Obama because of the consequences his decision will have on his or his Party’s future? Mr. Obama is a second term President who, unless he has plans on abolishing the twenty-second Amendment, will no longer be a candidate for President. At this stage in his career, his focus should be on the good of the country and its people, not on what would be preferable to him or his Party. And what could be better for the economy and the country today than the creation of jobs, the production of cheap energy and the elimination of a reliance on dictatorial regimes?

There was a time when Presidents made hard decisions, which were based on their determination as to what was right for the country, not what was right for them or their party to retain political power. Abraham Lincoln famously gathered a cabinet of men who disagreed with one another. While Mr. Lincoln was our first Republican President, the cabinet included Democrats and Whigs. While Mr. Lincoln had strong feelings, particularly on maintaining the union and the evil of slavery, he was interested in working out, through debate and discussion, the proper course the country should take. To Lincoln, the means were of less importance than the ends.

Even George W. Bush, a much maligned President, was unafraid of having strong people in his cabinet – think Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Whether one agrees or disagrees with their policies they were independent men who were unafraid to confront Mr. Bush. In his first term, Mr. Obama showed backbone, selecting Hilary Clinton for State and keeping Robert Gates in Defense. But Mr. Gates resigned in 2011 and Ms. Clinton, who initially seemed forged from the granite of my home state of New Hampshire, fell in lock-step with Mr. Obama in perpetuating a cover-up regarding Benghazi.

And now, for his second term, Mr. Obama has chosen a cabinet that hews unquestioningly to his policies. He is not looking for a debate or a challenge from within his own Party, or from anyone with an independent view. He reserves his energy for golf, propagandizing and for fights with Republicans. Mr. Obama realizes that only the recapture of the House will ensure that Julia’s world can be achieved – a place where dependency rises and responsibility devolves to government. To effect this change, he harangues his opponents and unabashedly uses props to support his cause. He has learned well the lesson from Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels: “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes truth.” He did so about Mitt Romney. He has done so about Benghazi. And now he is doing so about sequester.

As a people, we are vulnerable. Most people get their news in sound bites from network TV, cable, or from the internet in less-than-a-minute YouTube videos. Very few have the patience to read newspapers or long magazine articles. And how many of us read history once we have left college? Complicated issues require comprehensive study. The fact that so many people have neither the desire nor the time suits the playbook of Mr. Obama and his team.

This past Sunday the New York Times magazine had a long (and somewhat patronizing and silly) article entitled, “Can the Republicans be Saved from Obsolescence.” According to the author, Robert Draper, Republicans are doomed because they have not learned how to reduce their message to the 140 characters required for Tweeting. For twenty years – 1932 to 1952 – Democrats dominated the national scene. Yet over the next forty years, Republicans won seven Presidential elections to the Democrats three. By the end of the 1980s, Democrats appeared to be on the ropes. Yet they have since won four of the last six Presidential elections. As the old saying goes, ‘nothing stays the same.’

Nevertheless, with a loss in personal responsibility and with a concomitant increase in dependency, and with schools failing to teach our youth the fundamentals of our republic – the reasons for revolution, the promise of liberty, the rule of law, an understanding of property rights – it becomes possible that, over time, our democracy could give way to tyranny. That may sound extreme, but all previous empires have collapsed.

Propaganda by slogans characterized both Nazis and Communists, as they do all dictatorships. It is a tool of all who would wrest control. Think of Saul Alinsky – a community organizer who, though dead, served as one of the President’s mentors – “Pick a target, freeze it, personalize it and polarize it.” The “wealthy” have served as Mr. Obama’s target. In every speech, he freezes them, personalizes them and, now, has certainly polarized the nation.

Keeping a Democracy is hard. It requires an educated electorate who understand the consequences of giving up individual rights and the responsibility that comes with them to the state because of the dependency that state offers. Yet, I stay optimistic. Over the years, one could demonstrate that while the American people have proven to be gullible for short periods, over time they revert to sanity. William Buckley once famously said that he would rather be governed by the first 400 names in the Boston telephone directory than the Harvard faculty.

Nevertheless, I do worry. Our young people are entering the workforce with little knowledge of their country, its origins, history and its laws. Increasingly, people get their news from sound bites and tweets. It is from these ephemeral sources that opinions are formed, and those opinions form the basis of polls. Polls can be managed. What makes the scenario most dangerous is that the mainstream press has refused to do their job as the fourth estate – they have become lap dogs instead of watch dogs. Fortunately, cable TV news, talk radio and internet bloggers are providing a counterbalance. But again, like mainstream media, they also use abbreviated comments, as an attention-deficit-deprived nation no longer has the wherewithal to study complex issues. It is ironic (and deliberate in my opinion) that at a time when tweets have replaced dialogue and our news is provided in ten-second increments, the laws Congress is passing are increasingly long and complex. Keep in mind, complexity, whether in regulation or in the tax code, is friend to lawyers and government, but is enemy to liberty.

And, governing by polls is wrong; manipulating them, whether overtly or covertly, is far worse.



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