- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 24, 2002

Every so often, a book comes along that everyone is talking about and you have every intention of reading but somehow it gets mortared to your night stand. Last year's "Corrections" by Jonathan Franzen immediately comes to mind. About the only clever, cocktail conversation I can make about that book (and why else read it?) is that my copy doesn't have that Oprah seal of shame on the cover a joke I've made far too many times; this one the last.
A Correction: My "Corrections" copy isn't wedded to the night stand. That hallowed spot belong to John Rawls' "A Theory of Justice," a source of embarrassment that burns in my childproof night light, made all the more acute by his recent passing. (Actually, Mr. Rawls' work, primarily due to its heft, is my night stand.) Until recently, buried in that pile, was Matthew Robinson's "Mobocracy," a very trenchant account of how polls subvert our republic in all kinds of nasty and unspeakable ways. It's all the more trenchant when you read it.
Surprising, it's a fun, almost light, read a rare book for its kind. Sure, it's about public policy, which means that slogging through it should be a painful experience. But it isn't. Mr. Robinson salts his analysis with some choice anecdotes, the odd Biblical analogy and some Federalist refreshers. And he does it all without coming across as a pedant, like one of those dreadful drones rehashing their Rawls for a crowded room.
It is always comforting to stumble across a book that clothes some scantily clad idea that has been flitting about your cranium for years. So it is with Mr. Robinson's book. Finally, someone has said it: Polls are bunk, pure buffoonery. Thanks to his diligent research and airtight case studies, we now have a body of evidence to prove it. Mr. Robinson, quite literally, turns polling questions on their heads and shakes them down. In doing so, he unpacks their absurdities and speaks of their danger.
From tax cuts to Bill Clinton's impeachment, Mr. Robinson explains how pollster's loaded words and leading questions skew results, which in turn reflect the (sometimes liberal) bias of the major media. Most reporters are along for the ride. Meanwhile, the public is pigeonholed into positions it barely understands. His most original, and worrying, chapters explore how polls "democratize ignorance" and how that "ignorance is dangerous to our republic." "Be afraid," he warns, "very afraid."
Sadly, polls are here to stay, no matter how demonstrably sloppy, devious and downright silly they become. This situation has ceased being a tragedy and is now a farce.
It is both absurd and predictable that just as we've gone through another election where pollsters were about as accurate as Enron accounts, the paper are again full of the latest polling number on 2004 Democratic hopefuls. How should Howard Dean tailor his Iowa strategy? Well, that depends on the numbers: Let's go to the polls.
An underlying theme of Mr. Robinson's book is about the concentration of power and what this means for democracy. It's one thing for pollsters to live in their own reoccurring Groundhog Day, but it's quite another to expect the public to join them in that reality. And yet, the major media the networks, big-time newspapers force us to do so; the politicians dutifully play along.
Washington types are always pained when polls reveal the ignorance of the American public. Mr. Robinson all but cringes when he writes that "More people had heard of John Lennon than Karl Marx. More Americans could identify comedian-actor Bill Cosby than could name either of their U.S. senators." Fine, but doesn't it seem a bit odd to refer to Bill Cosby as a "comedian-actor?" Just who is out of touch?
In a lot of ways, pollsters are our own modern-age Napoleons. No matter how many calamitous losses, they manage to regroup and raise new armies. Perhaps the only answer is to exile the whole lot of them to Elba, with a reprieve for the good ones those brilliant and insightful fellows who provide this reporter with quotable quotes on tight deadline. The bad ones, maybe already on St. Helena, don't return my calls.
My hope is that in Mr. Robinson, the pollsters have met their Waterloo, but somehow, I doubt they're paying attention. Most likely, they are too busy listening to their own polls and returning other reporter's phone calls. Or reading their Rawls.

Hans Nichols is a reporter for Insight magazine.

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