Polling is distorting the reality surrounding the debt ceiling
Kevin McCarthy (AFP)

Last week, I was on my friend Josh Holland’s show. Hosted by Raw Story and Alternet, it’s called “We Got Issues.” Among other things, we discussed the debt ceiling. Josh introduced me to some new polling on the debate. He asked me to respond. I wanted to expand on that in today’s Editorial Board.

My response was, I hope, rooted in common sense.

Common sense tells us that most people most of the time have something in their lives that’s worthier of their time, energy and attention than a debate as abstract as the one over “the debt ceiling.” Most people, therefore, have an imprecise understanding of what it is. Most people have an imprecise understanding of the consequences of failing to lift it by June.

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For this reason, responses to polling questions about the debt ceiling are typically all over the place, unless the consequences of failing to lift it are spelled out concretely. Given that the consequences are as concrete as one can imagine – it’s reported that about $15 trillion in personal wealth around the world would go poofthph – most people give a commonsense response when they are asked about it properly. They say that it should be lifted.

Common sense also tells us that most people most of the time are not idiots. They may not understand the subject of the controversy. They may not understand the consequences of failing to take action. But they can glean information from the questions that they are asked. How a question is asked is therefore as important as the question. If the consequences are spelled out, responses are commonsensical. If they are not, they are insane.

Most of us get this.

What most of us do not get, however, is that even when the consequences are spelled out concretely, the question itself can distort reality. That’s my thesis for today – that polling and news reporting (or news reporting on polling) can distort reality, especially when the debate is already distorted.

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The Republican position on the debt ceiling is irrational. It is incoherent. It is unserious. They do not have bargaining leverage. They are, therefore, holding the rest of us hostage to force concessions out of the president. They demand that he concede his most important accomplishments.

But when third parties – pollsters and reporters – asked normal people what they think about an abstract debate that they already imprecisely understand, pollsters and reporters end up making the GOP position seem rational, coherent and serious. Even if the information that we’re communicating is crazy – and make no mistake, threatening $15 trillion is crazy! – it won’t sound crazy by the time we’re done communicating it.

Some will accuse pollsters and reporters of bias. There’s some truth to that, but only some. The whole truth is that making the insane sound sane is less about bias than about how pollsters and reporters understand their jobs. And because they/we are human beings, and not not-human beings, there’s probably no other way for pollsters and reporters to understand their jobs.

Most of us, when we communicate with another person, rely on the other person to do at least half the work of communicating. We do this all the time without knowing it when we say things like, “you know what I mean?” Pollsters and reporters don’t do that, because they/we can’t. We are not communicating with another person. We are communicating with an imaginary person who’s on the other side of the TV or computer screen.

In that lies potential for distortion. We imagine someone who is reasonable so that we can communicate with that imaginary person reasonably. In the process of imagining such reasonableness, the insane can sound quite sane.

Again, there’s probably no other way for pollsters and reporters to understand their jobs. We must imagine these reasonable people on the other side of the TV or computer screen insofar as the minute we stop imagining them is the minute we stop being professional communicators.

In this sense, the Republicans enjoy an advantage over the Democrats – and they probably always will. It doesn’t matter how good the president and the congressional Democrats are at messaging. The reasonableness imagined by professional communicators will make the insane sound quite sane.

Fortunately, they/we don’t speak with one voice. From that diversity, democracy might figure out what it needs to figure out, in this case, forcing the GOP to knock it off and raise the debt ceiling before it’s too late.

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