Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Reinventing Doxa: Public Opinion Polling as Deliberative Discourse

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Reinventing Doxa: Public Opinion Polling as Deliberative Discourse

Article excerpt

This is what the notion of a power of the demos means. The demos is not the population. Nor is it the majority or the lower classes. It is made up of those who have no particular qualification, no aptitude attached to their location or occupation, no aptitude to rule rather than be ruled, no reason to be ruled rather than to rule. Democracy is this astounding principle: those who rule do so on the grounds that there is no reason why some persons should rule over others except for the fact that there is no reason.

Jacques Ranciere (2009, 10)

On July 2, 2014, Quinnipiac University's polling firm released the results of a public opinion poll that found 33% of Americans participating in the survey believed Barack Obama is the worst president since World War II. George W. Bush came in as the second worst, winning 28% of the vote. Ronald Reagan was perceived as the best president since 1945 according to 35% of participants. Bill Clinton came in as second best (18%) and Kennedy as third (15%) ("Obama is First as Worst President," 2014). Quinnipiac is not a fly-by-night polling agency--on the contrary, they are viewed as one of the most reliable in the United States. So why is a respectable firm like Quinnipiac polling the nation with a question like "Who is the worst president since World War II?" (1) What is the point of such a poll?

Scholars in the fields of rhetoric and the social sciences have built up a large body of research on public opinion polling, and most agree that polls have a number of functions. The results of public opinion polls are used as predictors for upcoming elections; they are used to inform the public of what the public thinks (a polite way of saying they are used to modify individual opinions); they are utilized to influence the policy decisions of elected officials; they offer material for additional "news" stories that satisfy the round-the-clock demand for media commentary. In his essay "Public Opinion Does Not Exist," Pierre Bourdieu (1993) notes, "At present, the opinion poll is an instrument of political action: perhaps its 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 [...] The 'public opinion' that is manifested on the front pages of newspapers [...] is a pure and simple artefact" (150).

Within the sphere of democratic deliberation, there are two major categories of public opinion polls: predictive polls and prescriptive polls. The data produced by both types of polls serve to advance specific claims about public policy and governance. Predictive polls use data analysis to advance explicit claims about trends or potential outcomes in political races. Put differently, predictive polling data purport to tell us what will happen. In contrast, prescriptive polls (sometimes called "issue polls") use data to construct representative models of public opinion at large in order to advance implicit claims about what we should do or how you should think about a particular social problem. In this essay I am primarily interested in the implicit claims advanced by prescriptive public opinion polling. If polling data and the news releases that frame that information suggest a governmental obligation to capitulate to the will of the statistical majority, this study explores that obligation as a rhetorical and political problematic.

The prescriptive question posed in the Quinnipiac poll (2014) is one that is obviously divorced from any political race or policy consideration. Thus, the two interrelated functions of the poll are fairly straightforward: it is intended (a) to influence and (de)legitimize individual opinions about the best and worst presidents of the modern era and (b) to provide material for news stories. But the apparent irrelevance of this poll calls into question the value of all polling. J. Michael Hogan (1985), one of the most prolific rhetoricians writing on polling, describes the core problem with viewing polls as an empirical tool of democratic governance: "American policy-makers routinely assume that 'the will of the people' may be discerned through 'scientific' polling, yet the conceptual and technical limitations of polls call this assumption into question. …

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