It was a cold, rainy and miserable day–either late 1951 or early 52. I was unemployed but had taken part-time work to help do a piece of market research for a friend’s firm. With my little clipboard, I was importuning what we thought would be an upper-class, sophisticated sample in rush hour in front of New York City’s Grand Central Station. Most of the passersby annoyingly brushed aside my attempt to talk to them, assuming I was just one more panhandler.
But when I did manage to collar someone, it was to ask them if they knew what SAS meant. No reason that they would unless they were veteran Atlantic airline commuters, not a large commodity in those days. But my friend’s client was spending a great deal of money trying to establish Scandinavian Airlines System’s name and its acronym, SAS, in the public mind. And they wanted some proof that it was happening.
Bored after a while, instead of the normal way of asking my question, “Do you know what SAS means?” I began to play with it: That would become, Do YOU know what SAS means?” Or maybe I would ask, “Do you what SAS means?” Or I would put it into, “D’ya know what SAS MEANS?” with a rising intonation, which always produced an affirmative response, although a follow-up question would prove they didn’t. Our second question, “Do you know where Scandinavian Airlines flies?” produced equally negotiable results. “Do YOU know where Scandinavian Airlines flies?” produced a different answer from “Do you know where SCANDINAVIAN Airlines flies?” and still another if it were “Do you KNOW where Scandinavian Airlines flies?”
Polls have come a long way in the decades since, I know–we have all those computer calculations and algorithms to strengthen the results. But I can’t help believing that that afternoon’s conviction of the limitless possibilities of tweaking the results isn’t still the case. And while we haven’t had a catastrophe like The Literary Digest (the U.S. ’leading magazine that collapsed in 1936 when it predicted a huge Republican victory against FDR), we have had enough glossed over failures to suggest that polling is still an art form rather than a science.
Yet polling and polls have become a major concomitant of our lives today. No public–or often very private–issue in our lives is discussed by our talking heads without recourse to what the polls have to say about it. Increasingly, polls have taken on a life of their own, as when our most gifted commentators say something to the effect that President Barak Hussein Obama can’t do such-and-such because of what the polls indicate. In an Administration less transparent than any so far, we still have every reason to believe that nothing is discussed in the inner sanctums without recourse to where it is in the polls. Nor does it take much to put us over the edge. I hear the Great O’Reilly babbling on about how Obama isn’t able to do such-and-such because the polls don’t permit him. There is a growing lack of recognition that not only may the polls be just wrong, but that public opinion reacts to leadership as well as the requirement that in a democracy leadership must bow to public opinion on a controversial issue.
If that were not enough to undermine even a more cogent and well-informed leadership than the U.S. now has in its chief executive and his advisers, there is an equally formidable and debilitating aspect of contemporary decision-making. With instantaneous communication [aided and abetted by more and more rapid transportation] the ability of the highest echelons of decision-making reaching into local scene to micromanage is almost unavoidable.
It was no accident that The Founders in their genius of devising a new system of government sought to stack the deck of popular government to some extent with indirect representation. Their foundation, however much it was dictated to them, was the federal system which required most of the power to govern be kept with the states, and there, in turn, more often than not left it to local institutions.
One look at the increasing difficulties of a highly centralized system like that of the French, enhanced from its traditions by Napoleon’s effective reforms, to see the basic differences the new government here envisaged.
But erosion has been coming on for years, of course, reinforced by the Progressive movement with its basic theory that time and technologies have dynamited the basic assumptions of the Constitution and have to be amended. The 1913 17th Amendment requiring direct voting for members of the Senate substituting for the various ways the states had chosen their representative as states to the federal government was a major step away from this concept. It remains only for a new generation of reformers to point out the dichotomy that direct election does not, in fact, assure equality among the voters between larger and smaller states. They will argue, therefore, a “reform” requires an amendment to the basic assumption that each state having the same representation was meant to assure a continued a balance of the power of the smaller and larger states at the federal level.
In the early Republic but decreasingly as technology has galloped into the political picture, distance and time meant that the voice of the people would be heard through filters of representation. Now, on every hand, you see the ability of the federal government at the highest levels to have an immediate detailed description of a problem or an incident at the lowest level of government. It is then construed as an invitation to intervene with direct action and decision-making. Whether this was an attempted military rescue of hostages in Iran run rather than local command from the Executive Office in the White House or recent attempts at adjudicating local criminal cases with possible racial overtones, the long arm of the federal government’s highest office is apparent.
A millennium from now, if and when, the sway of the U.S. as the world’s hegemonic power is viewed in retrospect and the mystery of its relatively short history is reviewed, historians may well look for reasons. No doubt as in the past, it will be ascribed to a growing inability of leadership. But then, that is tautological, bad leadership is based leadership, but why?
There are too many unknowns, of course, at this moment. But it wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibilities that their answer then will be that polling of public opinion (as a substitute for decision-making by the leaders) and instantaneous communications permitting local intervention (instead of indirect representative government) were what did in the most powerful governmental structure the world has ever seen.
A version of this column will be posted Monday, Feb. 16, 2015, on the website http://yeoldecrabb.com/