I’m as happy as the next guy to see the latest polls showing that I, and the next guy, and the guy after him, oppose Bush and his policies. But then I’m also one of those who would tell a pollster that any and all presidents ought to be impeached immediately, even if there is no compelling reason other than to put the next inhabitant of the office on notice.
But there is something very bothersome about the level of aggregation of presidential opinion polls. If two-thirds of people polled like him, he is said to be riding high. If two-thirds do not, he is said to be in big trouble. Not that any of this is worked out scientifically. We just have some sense that if two of three people don’t like the president, he and his party are suffering and will pay a big price.
To be sure, not to like Bush these days is perfectly fashionable. But what if the polls were reversed? What if these were the days after 9-11, when Bush enjoyed a 90 percent approval rating, and I told a pollster that I couldn’t stand him? Well, that would put me on the fringe, a person on the margin, someone to dismiss, and maybe expose me as a lunatic or even a threat to society. I would certainly be on a list of some sort.
Such is the nature of politics: there is a systematic tendency to compel everyone to think like everyone else. This is one good reason not to trust polls. People are not idiots. Americans have a good sense of what they can say and what they cannot, so the revealed opinions tend to hover around public perceptions of what is already accepted as public opinion.
It’s interesting how we don’t seem to question the system. When it comes to music we listen to, movies we watch, food we eat, and clothes we wear, we are all happy to be idiosyncratic. To each his own, live and let live, free to be you and me, de gustibus non disputandum, and all that.
If my next door neighbor, having observed me eating dinner, informed me that two in three people can’t stand steamed broccoli, I would thank him for his opinion but otherwise tell him to mind his own business. What matters is what the buyer, the consumer, wants, not what public opinion demands.
People sometimes decry the mass culture of the market-driven society but this is, in many ways, misleading. What drives the market, and what makes for high profits, especially in our times, is finding a peculiar niche to fill.
Wired editor Chris Anderson, in The Long Tail, has even written an entire book that traces out the implications of this insight. He says that as the costs of reaching people continue to fall, the real money comes by reaching people’s most narrow and peculiar demands.
Under the market system, what happens to people when they hold opinions different from the rest? They aren’t denounced as the fringe, as marginal, or dangerous. They are sought out, celebrated, courted, and adored.
If you want to own an Eddie Cantor cookie jar, there is a merchant somewhere who loves you. If you think house shoes ought to be puffy, pink, and shaped like pigs, there is some retailer who stands ready to obey your every command.
This is one reason that people tend to revel in their idiosyncrasies when it comes to commerce — “I will not eat meat”; “I will only eat meat” — but hide their oddities when it comes to politics and pretend to believe everything that the government tells them to believe.
If you don’t like a particular kind of food, music, or fabric, the answer doesn’t have to be banishment. You just don’t need to consume it, and that’s all.
There is another problem with political opinion polls. People aren’t actually demonstrating a preference for anything when they talk to pollsters. They are only mouthing off some empty words.
This would never fly in the marketplace. It is not enough for a merchant to find out who wants a yacht; the merchant must find out who is willing to give up some other form of consumption and make the necessary sacrifice to actually shell out for a yacht. That is something different entirely.
So let’s say that we put our politics on the market model. Everyone who is still nuts for Bush would be entitled to be so. They should not be belittled or dismissed or called crazy. They should be permitted to be ruled by him completely and without question.
But there must be a few conditions: his rule must not be allowed to impinge on the person or property of anyone who does not want to be ruled by him. Also, the Bushians must demonstrate a willingness to do more than talk the talk; they must also be willing to pay the bills.
As for the rest of us mainstreamers (no longer on the fringe!) who are against Bush, we should be free to completely ignore his desire to rule over his fans. Neither should we be on the hook to pay for his rule of others. We should be able to choose our preferred systems of governance, and they should be able to choose theirs.
It’s this crazy system that forces us all to merge our preferences that causes such conflict. The market, on the other hand, permits us all to live peacefully together while holding radically different perspectives on just about everything under the sun.
A good and necessary step toward a market society is the quick impeachment of Bush, and the president after him, and the one after that…