Propagating the Myth of a “Divided America”

(This article was originally published on March 6, 2012 in iPolitics.)

There is a myth propagated by the American political establishment and carelessly disseminated by uncritical media that the American public is deeply divided on how the country should be governed.

The alleged evidence includes polls such as the one recently quoted in the Washington Post showing that about half of America disapproves of president Obama’s handling of his job as president, in particular the economy and job creation.

However, when examining the polling data in their fullness, it is clear that this myth is false.

While it is true that the American public is politically polarized, and has been since George W. Bush rose to ascendancy in the so-called “stolen” 2000 presidential election, the polls clearly show that on important national issues like health care reform, raising the ceiling, and job creation, the American public reveals an extraordinary degree of unanimity. This unanimity crosses partisan differences, showing majority support among both Democratic and Republican voters alike.

In exaggerating division for their own self interest, politicians and the news media have robbed the nation of the strength of common purpose.

President Obama’s “pass this bill now” jobs legislation is a good demonstration of the contradiction between the myth and reality.

A Gallup poll found that a substantial majority of Americans supported five of the six job creation proposals in the jobs bill. These included tax cuts for small businesses as incentives to hire workers (85%), additional funds to hire teachers, police, and firefighters (75%), tax breaks for companies hiring people unemployed for more than six months (73%), and funds for public works projects including the repair of more than 30,000 schools (72%).

While Democrat-leaning voters supported these proposals more strongly than Republican-leaning voters, the latter group expressed majority support for four of the six proposals.  A majority of Republicans (53%) even agreed that funding for the bill should come from increased taxes on corporations by eliminating certain tax deductions.

In spite of its bipartisan public appeal, the jobs bill seems to have foundered at the hands of a dysfunctional and uncompromising Congress.

The debt ceiling debate was another demonstration of polls showing public unanimity on an important national issue. For example, a Pew Research poll found that 68% of Americans felt that Congress should compromise to avoid the immediate consequences of America defaulting on its debt obligations. Among Republicans, a majority (53%) supported compromise.

Again, in spite of bipartisan public support for compromise, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives rejected compromise resulting in America losing its AAA credit rating and world markets losing between $2.5 trillion and $4 trillion in the immediate aftermath.

The hotly debated healthcare reform legislation was yet another example of substantial bipartisan public support for almost all of the major goals of the legislation. A Bloomberg poll from Sept. of 2009 found that large majorities of Americans were in favor of:

  • finding a way to get health insurance coverage for the uninsured (90%),
  • preventing insurance companies from dropping those insured from coverage (85%),
  • preventing insurance companies from refusing to ensure those with pre-existing conditions (83%),
  • requiring all employers to offer health insurance plans to their employees (75%), and
  • holding down insurance costs for those with coverage (90%).

While Democrat voters expressed greater support than Republican voters for these goals, Republican support was very high – about 80% for all but the employer health plan which had 64% support. The only goal for which there was a significant difference between the two groups was in the personal mandate (82% Democrat support versus 46% Republican).

Yet for Republican legislators in Congress, a broad-based, bipartisan yearning for a better health care system meant nothing. After resorting to every delaying and scaremongering tactic they could muster, Republicans had to accept defeat after the healthcare reform legislation was passed in both houses of Congress. But the ink was barely dry from President Obama’s signature when Republicans renewed their assault on the legislation by threatening to repeal it.

So if the media were not reporting about what united Americans on these important public issues, what were they reporting?

For each of these nationally galvanizing issues, the media focused on poll questions that purported to show a nation divided.

In the case of Obama’s jobs bill, the media narrative, as noted earlier, was that half of America disapproved of his handling of the economy and job creation. By association, these stories wrongly suggested that Americans disapproved of his jobs bill. As noted, the polls clearly demonstrate that nothing could be farther from the truth.

The blunt fact is, these were terrible questions. They reveal nothing about the public’s knowledge of what President Obama may or may not have done to remedy the jobs crisis.

The public admits as much.

When asked whether or not they are in favor of the jobs bill, a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that almost half of Americans (44%) felt they were insufficiently informed on the subject to comment. But how credible would any response from the 44% be of President Obama’s handling of the jobs crisis?

It was quite telling when, in a follow-up question, respondents were briefly described the broad strokes of the jobs bill, public support for the legislation doubled – from the initial 30% to 63%.

One is left wondering how respondents would answer the Obama approval questions if they were asked after the jobs bill was described.

That same poll found that 64% of Americans thought it was a good idea that in order to pay for this legislation, taxes should be raised on the wealthy and on corporations. Republicans in Congress strongly opposed this idea.

Unfamiliar with specific details, the evidence shows respondents answered the Obama approval questions along party lines.

For example, in the case of Obama’s handling of his job as President for which a recent CNN poll found 51% disapproved and 47% approved, that same poll found that 90% of Republican voters say they disapproved while 79% of Democratic voters approved.

The inconvenient truth is that the Obama approval questions have become completely politicized. In effect they became surrogates for whether respondents favor Republicans or Democrats, and have little if anything to do with what President Obama actually did.

The potent brew that makes all this possible is a large number of ill-informed respondents combined with a complex issue. In all three examples the number of ill-informed respondents was very high, ranging between 40% to over 70%, the depending on the poll. Public opinion then becomes highly susceptible to suggestion.

Here’s how it works.

Politicization of poll questions starts with the debate in Congress. This debate creates partisan messages.

The media dutifully and uncritically disseminates these opposing perspectives in a tsunami of stories across the country. It is essentially a propaganda process in which a relatively uninformed but partisan public is conditioned to associate specific phrases as Republican or Democratic Party positions. For Republican voters, Obama’s handling of “the economy” and “job creation” is equated to negative, “unfavorable” descriptions; for Democrat voters the association is equated to positive, “favorable” ones.

This partisan phraseology is used by pollsters to cue the respondents so that they can easily answer poll questions on matters they often know very little about.

Politicizing polling questions is not an isolated phenomenon. The jobs bill is but one example. It also arose in the recent debate about raising the debt ceiling as well as the healthcare reform debate.

During the debt ceiling debate, the media became fixated with a polling question that showed that half of America was opposed to raising the debt ceiling and were willing to risk default. The other half was in favor of raising the debt ceiling so America could pay its debts and avoid financial instability.

As before, it was an ill-conceived question that completely misrepresented the majority will of the American public. It wasn’t until near the end of the debate that the press recognized that most Americans were in favor of compromise, and were so from the very beginning.

By that time, a great deal of political and economic damage had been done.

During the healthcare reform debate, the media were fixated on a question that purported to show that half of Americans disapproved of President Obama’s handling of health care reform. This perception originated from a fractious debate in Congress in which a fear mongering Republican leadership claimed the reforms would lead to such things as government death panels, socialized medicine and widespread funding of abortions.

As with the previous examples, this was a terrible polling question.

Highly politicized through widespread media reporting of the debate in Congress, this question seemingly pitted Americans against one another.

In fact it was the politicians who were pitted against one another. They used these misleading polling results to justify their inability to work with one another by claiming their differences were simply a reflection of the divisions in the country.

The truth was that most of America just wanted a healthcare system they could rely on – not one that would financially destroy them in their moment of greatest need.

To this day, this approval question continues to be used by critics of President Obama’s health care reforms as proof that the man is trying to force feed healthcare into a country bitterly divided on its merits.

What these examples amply demonstrate is not that these were simply bad questions; it’s that they give the impression that the American public is divided on important national issues.

While such misapprehension certainly suits the Republicans in this election year, in the longer term it has the potential to hurt the party.

The polling data clearly show the Republican voters favor many of President Obama’s public policy options that are opposed by the Republican Party. For many voters, this inherent conflict may sow the seeds of future dissatisfaction. If the Republican Party they support does not offer alternatives that satisfy them, the party will begin to experience an erosion of popular support.

But why is so much media attention focused on such flawed questions?

In part, it is because a narrative of conflict sells copy. Stories about a nation divided on a contentious issue is dramatic. Stories that the nation is united, not so much. The conflict theme also parrots the divisive debate in Congress. So while they completely miss the mark, these stories are an easy sell.

Secondly, all these flawed questions are repeated in poll after poll to measure public opinion trends. This presents multiple opportunities for the media to run stories about them, thereby greatly enhancing their propaganda effect.

Often the trend changes are not statistically significant.  Yet that doesn’t stop media from heralding the “news” from a fresh poll, even when it’s not news or even true. Of the 31 Washington Post/ABC News polls conducted between February 2009 and December 2011, 20 of the poll to poll changes in Barack Obama’s approval were less than the reported statistical margin of error.

One is reminded of that cynical line from Hitler’s chief of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels that if you repeat a lie often enough, people will start believing it.

Clearly the news media has not done a good job in advancing an accurate narrative of public opinion as reported by polls.

So, what should it do?

For starters, it needs to stop taking its cues from the self-serving political debate in Congress. This is not where it will find an accurate portrayal of public opinion.

It needs to occupy the narrative.

For example, if in the course of a TV interview a Republican legislator states that a majority of Americans do not support President Obama’s initiatives on things like job creation, or securing reliable health care, or raising the debt ceiling, the journalist conducting the interview should challenge the misleading assertion right then and there.

For some reason, TV news reporters generally do not challenge the politicians at the time these misleading claims are made, or not at all.

Sometimes a news network like CNN will run a fact check feature after the interview to point out which “facts” were true and which were untrue. But by then it’s too late. The horse has left the barn.

The interview becomes a conduit for inaccurate information to the public. The politician ends up scoring a point when in fact the point should go against the politician.

This is not just bad journalism. It betrays the trust the public has in the profession. Coddling politicians by not challenging their false claims harms democracy.

Comparing how American TV reporters interview politicians with how it’s done by the Brits is quite revealing. For example, in a BBC program called HARDtalk, a well prepared interviewer like the unrelenting Stephen Sackur with evidence in hand, seldom lets politicians escape with evasive answers.

In America, reporters seem to be more intent on preserving a friendly relationship with politicians, possibly as a trade-off for future interviews and intel. As a consequence, half-truths and outright falsehoods are allowed to pass unchallenged.

A more troubling explanation for this chumminess may be that 90% of media ownership in America, including that of the most popular TV news networks, is concentrated in six conglomerates. Thirty years ago, 90% of media ownership was concentrated in 50 companies. This is a massive erosion in news competition.

Today, these large corporations invest in both Republican and Democratic politicians in their re-election campaigns as well as in lobbying efforts for regulatory changes to benefit them financially. It is hardly in their interest to encourage their reporters to put their politicians on the hot seat.

This is not to suggest there is a written policy that restricts how zealously the reporters can pursue politicians when they lie. Quite often these things are learned by reporters as part of the corporate culture. If they want to advance in this culture, they know exactly how they need to self-censor themselves.

In the case of the BBC model, some degree of self-censorship probably exists. However since the BBC is funded through viewer subscriptions, there is not that corporate influence on behavior that exists in America. Programming decisions do not have to curry favor to corporate interests as they do in America. Hence, politicians are often given a much rougher ride.

Whatever new direction it takes, it should be apparent to American TV news media that the current modus operandi doesn’t work. Americans and democracy are getting shortchanged. The press is helping to divide the country when polling evidence suggests the opposite is true.

The origin of this contradiction is the political system in Washington. Each party manipulates polling information solely for the purpose of political advantage. Neither party has any interest in presenting a balanced assessment of the pros and cons of important national issues. As a result of this narrow, self-interested approach, only one in 10 Americans trust Congress, an incredible drop from how things were but a decade ago.

American political leadership has been profoundly corrupted by its unrelenting pursuit of power. In this pursuit, minor inconveniences like the facts or the truth are irrelevant.

It can be argued that the biggest problem America faces is not the deficit in its budget. It’s the deficit in truth and trust of its government institutions.

Yet this is a moment in history when American journalism can make up for its past failings. It can reclaim the leadership that the country so desperately needs.

It can begin to do so by holding politicians accountable to the facts.

Can news organizations like Fox news, CNBC, CNN, and others rise to the challenge? Can they grasp this moment and rescue America from political abyss?

Given their corporate ownership and interests, it’s difficult to see how.

But after seeing tumultuous events like the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Arab spring, why not?

If Americans truly believe they are an exceptional people, why not?

If there is the possibility that deep in their hearts all Americans, whether they’re Republican or Democrat, whether they’re the 99% or the 1%, whether they’re Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street, whether they’re Latino, black, or white, really do care about American democracy, can their news media choose to ignore the challenge?

About Oleh Iwanyshyn

Oleh Iwanyshyn has been involved professionally with surveys from the mid-70s when he started as a methodologist at the Institute for Behavioral Research at York University. Later, while at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation his focus shifted to media and election surveys. He now runs his own survey research company, ViewStats Research, established in 1997 and specializing in online surveys. Public opinion surveys is an essential communication tool between a democratic society and its leaders. Unfortunately, surveys can be very easily manipulated. Revealing such manipulations and their consequences is the raison d'être of the poll stuff blog.
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