Worthy vs. Unworthy Opinion Surveys

First, the obvious: 2008 is an election year in the United States.  And now for something utterly alien: "The will of the people should be the basis of the authority of government." — What does one have to do with the other?

Funny that you asked. 


Between January 18 and 27, the Knowledge Networks firm, on behalf of the Program on International Policy Attitudes and WorldPublicOpinion.org, posed eight closely related questions to 975 different American citizens.  Each and every one of these questions turned on their beliefs about the meaning of a democracy and, more important, about the current state of democracy as they find it in the United States today.  Overwhelmingly, respondents expressed their support for the idea that this country should be governed according to the will of the people.  But just as strongly, they also concluded — to rewrite the legendary quip attributed to Gandhi — that it would be nice if the United States tried it some time. 


According to the order in which the questionnaire asked its questions, 77% of Americans said they agree that "the will of the people should be the basis of the authority of government."  A dramatically high 94% said that the leaders of the government "should pay attention to the views of the people as they make decisions" throughout the period they hold office.


These are affirmations of the idea of democracy.  Far less sanguine were the respondents’ views about the current state of government and accountability in their country.


Thus in answer to the question, "Generally speaking, would you say that this country is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves, or that it is run for the benefit of all the people?" no fewer that 80% replied that the United States is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves.


When asked on the basis of a scale of 0-10 (i.e., with "0" denoting "not at all," and "10" denoting "completely," so that the higher the number, the greater the number of respondents who feel strongly about this), "how much do you think this country should be governed according to the will of the people?" the mean response for all 975 people was 7.9.  But when asked on the basis of the same scale how much they believed the United States really is "governed according to the will of the people?" the mean response was only 4.0 — a mere half of what people said they believed it should be.   


These contrasts between what Americans believe about democracy, on the one hand, and how badly they believe the current state of the U.S. political system really is, on the other, are nothing short of remarkable.  Among its many lessons, certainly one is that The People want something and believe They have every right to expect it — but that They are not getting it from Their political system, and that Their political system is failing to provide it.


Now.  During this 2008 election year, a fair assumption would be that what Americans actually think about their political system — that is, whether it is really giving them what they want from it, or failing to — is, in its own right, not only a politically relevant issue.  But an issue of the utmost importance.   


But this assumption is dead wrong.  What is more, we can tell that it is wrong because since the results of the WPO – PIPA survey of American beliefs about their political system were released,  virtually nobody has bothered to look at them.  Much less tell the American people about the results.  On the contrary, this important opinion survey was as stillborn as they come.


Notice that this particular survey was released on Friday, March 21 — eight days ago (i.e., counting backward from today).  I’ve searched both print dailies and wire services for various combinations of terms including ‘World Public Opinion’ or ‘Program on International Policy Attitudes’ or ‘Steven Kull’ (i.e., the head of PIPA) andUnited States‘ or ‘U.S.‘ (and a few others). Aside from the March 21 news release about this survey that circulated over the PR Newswire and the U.S. Newswire, nobody appears to have reported this survey.  Certainly nobody featured it.


However, as this WPO – PIPA survey on American beliefs about their democracy happened to be released during the same week as other WPO – PIPA surveys, it is worth noting that as the other surveys turned their attention away from the United States towards China, what Americans told the same WPO – PIPA organizations they believe about China did receive quite a lot of play.


Thus to share but one of many examples, we read in the Chicago Tribune ("Tibet tests world ties to China, Olympics," Evan Osnos and Bay Fang, March 20):

"There is ample fact and we also have plenty of evidence proving that this incident was organized, premeditated, masterminded and incited by the Dalai clique," [China's Premier Wen Jiabao] said.  That message — the phrase "Dalai clique" has been all over Chinese papers last week — highlights a yawning perception gap between audiences at home and abroad. Within China, invoking the name of the Dalai Lama to explain violence and disorder is widely accepted because it is consistent with years of official criticism that the Tibetan spiritual leader is a "splittist" intent on dividing the Chinese homeland.  But that message finds less traction overseas, where the Dalai Lama is better known as the 1989 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. That gap is reflected in a poll released last week by WorldPublicOpinion.org, which is overseen by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland. The survey found that 64 percent of respondents in six countries agreed with critics of China‘s Tibet policy, while only 17 percent said their views were closer to Beijing‘s.


So: Americans who read the Chicago Tribune and follow the countless other print, television, and radio media suffered no difficulty these past eleven days learning about the "gap" that exists between how the people in China regard China’s westernmost province, and how the people in six other countries regard it (i.e., the U.S and Britain, France, India, Indonesia, and South Korea).  But unless they happen to be on the WPO – PIPA mailing list, or subscribe to the PR and U.S. Newswire, the way the corporate U.S. media organizations do, these same Americans never would have learned anything about the serious gap that exists between what they themselves believe about democratic values and how rotten the job is they also believe their own country is at living up to these values.


Frankly, I find this gap to be incredible.  Just as news (real or fabricated) about China’s conduct in Tibet (i.e., in western China) occupies a place of honor in the Western propaganda system these days, and the clique of enlightened Western statesmen advocate a boycott of the opening ceremony at the upcoming Summer Olympics in Beijing to protest China’s investments in the Sudan, yet nobody advocates anything comparable for the United States and its allies on account of their decimation of Afghanistan and Iraq (etc.); so, too, the WPO – PIPA survey revealing what Americans think about their own political system winds up ignored by the U.S. media, yet a survey revealing what Americans think about China gets widely reported by the same U.S. media.


How best to characterize this?  As an instance of worthy versus unworthy opinion surveys, perhaps?


"American Public Says Government Leaders Should Pay Attention to Polls," World Public Opinion – PIPA, March 21, 2008 
Questionnaire, January 18-27, 2008
American Public Says Government Leaders Should Pay Attention to Polls," PR Newswire – US Newswire, March 21, 2008

"Poll of Western and Asian Publics Finds Criticism of Chinese Policy on Tibet," World Public Opinion – PIPA, March 18, 2008

"Tibet tests world ties to China, Olympics," Evan Osnos and Bay Fang, Chicago Tribune, March 20, 2008

"Worthy vs. Unworthy Opinion Surveys," Z.Com, March 28, 2008


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