What the People Want
by Mac Lawrence

November 14, 1999 - Note from the Editor: In this week's featured article, Mac Lawrence, a frequent contributor to Swans, reviews Alan Kay's book, "Locating Consensus for Democracy: A Ten-Year U.S. Experiment." According to Mac, "Kay has spent millions of dollars of his own money surveying Americans to find out what we really think and want, which is at serious odds with how our politicians act." Then, in his second article, But, Can We Be Adequately Informed?, Mac reflects on how modern public relations firms control much of what the public gets in the media. In his own voice, Mac demonstrates the inner-workings of Corpocracy, thus adding more food for thought to our essay, Let 'em Eat Cake.

We vote them into office to represent us. We even call them "Representatives." But do our elected government officials do what we want? Or know what we want? Or even care what we want?

Alan Kay, a wealthy, retired businessman, felt that most polls did not accurately reflect the American public's opinion on significant public issues. He also believed that the country would be better off if its leaders knew what the people thought and wanted. So Kay decided to spend his own money -millions, in fact-extensively polling people for their views on a wide array of subjects from military spending to U.S. policy in Central America, from health care to the welfare system. Kay reports his findings in a 400-page, self-published book, Locating Consensus for Democracy: A Ten-Year U.S. Experiment.

Getting accurate information, it turns out, is fraught with complexities and nuances. The pollster must be neutral on the subject, so Kay included Democrats and Republicans for polls on political matters. Questions needed careful wording, so Kay tried variations, often with slight word changes. To give the person answering the questions adequate background information, Kay included in the questions arguments pro and con. He made sure that people who answered "don't know" were questioned further to bring the "DKs" to a minimum (don't trust any survey with 10 percent DKs, he advises). It's an expensive, time-consuming job, but worth it, Kay says, because the results accurately reflect what the public thinks.

At the end of ten years of polling, covering 61 public issues, Kay concluded: "This massive project produced overwhelming evidence that the legislation and policy choices most supported by American citizens are stable, consistent, pragmatic, principled and, on issue after issue, startlingly at odds with the views of national leaders." Some of these conclusions surprised and impressed Kay himself, who said they turned him from "a pretty good elitist" into a "deep populist."

That was hardly the response of our country's leaders, reports Kay. "Gingrich, Bush, Gephardt, Gore, Clinton, Perot, and virtually all of Congress and the mainstream news media, just turned away. They did not want to know that the reasonable preference of supermajorities (67+%) of Americans differs from the desires of one or another special interest that officials across the political spectrum routinely enact into law."

Kay had hoped that his "high-quality, bipartisan, in-depth, large-sample telephone surveys" would be seen by lawmakers as an improvement over the typical surveys politicians now do which too often are used to sell a certain course of action rather find out what the people want. We all receive such surveys in our incoming mail containing questions like the one Kay uses in his book as an extreme example: "Do you agree with Senator Foghorn that vicious criminals should serve their full sentences and not be released from prison after serving only a few months to continue raping and murdering innocent children playing in school yards?" Hardly the kind of question that invites a thoughtful response on a complex subject.

Kay's long-range plan was to foster the idea of a Congressional Office of Public Opinion Research and Assessment (COPORA), using his already completed polls as a model. His data indicated wide-spread support for the idea by the public, but during several years of talking with members of Congress and their aides, his COPORA idea got less than 4 percent support from senators and members of the House.

Kay describes his interactions with Congress, as "poignant, quixotic, sad, amusing, frustrating, and sometimes surprisingly different from one to the next. It led to a clearer understanding of where Congress is, how it arrived at this condition, and what is going on now." He learned a lot about how Congress works, how much time individual Congress members spend on long-term issues (the urgent takes priority over the important), how they make voting decisions (is it how they personally feel? or what they believe their constituents want? or in line with the special interests who fund their campaigns? or to show their independence?), and how they see themselves (allocators of funds rather than adjudicators).

Though Congressional reaction was disappointing, Kay says he learned enough from the experience to be guardedly optimistic that "people can still turn our democracy around and save it." He believes COPORA is the right process to produce timely democratic consensus on policies and legislation, but acknowledges that whatever the process, it must have the approval of two key groups. One is the public; the other is "the elites who study this kind of problem or whose careers are enmeshed in it, including political scientists, scholars, elected officials, and editorial writers. Without their approval, the process might never be considered seriously. Without the approval of the general population, democracy is lost."

At the end of his book, Kay quotes the noted pollster George Gallup, Jr. "Listening to the public is a healthy exercise. Public opinion is certainly not infallible, but when the people have enough information about alternative policies and the reasons behind each, they usually have the good sense to pick the best. In any event, where people feel that their important interests are at stake, they will insist on the right to participate in policy decisions. It is extremely important that our foreign and domestic policy leaders understand this necessity, take pains to inform people accurately, and give due weight to their views. This may add to the difficulty of policy making, but in no other way can we achieve wisdom and steadiness in the policies of the nation."


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Published November 21, 1999
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