Luddites. Scientific numbers defeat informed acrimoniousrnpublic debate and activity.rnThe consequences of this shift are profound. Simply put, nornpublic opinion exists without it being collected and displayed.rnThe poll, not what people say among themselves, is publicrnopinion; it is manufactured, not spontaneously revealed. Thernpriestly Oracle attendants look suspiciously like ventriloquists.rnCitizens could be thinking about mass insurrection, but thisrnsentiment cannot “exist” unless captured by the poll. Why usernforce to silence citizens when it is easier to manipulate pollrnquestions? For example, almost since the advent of polling,rnpeople have been endlessly queried about taxes, usually aboutrnwhether they are too high. Questions addressing the system’srnvery structure—the federal income tax and mandatory withholding,rnfor example—remain unasked. Obviously, poll maestrosrndo not judge such questions as worthy of investigation.rnThe way polling shapes public opinion goes beyond the naturernof the questions asked. Control is pervasive, includingrninterpreting the final results. Even when information is collected,rndistribution and publicity are not required. A surveyrnrevealing that most whites believe blacks to be genetically inferiorrncould be hidden away for “future use.” Conversely, mattersrnof modest interest can be raised up to the level of “publicrnconcern” simply by including questions on a widely distributedrnsurvey. For example, between 1973 and 1989, the NationalrnOpinion Research Center asked 11 questions on homosexuality.rnOther survey organizations likewise discovered homosexuality.rnThese fresh data thus interjected a new item into thernsoup of public opinion. Suddenly, the public had views on thernsubject that could be criticized, celebrated, or even followed.rn”Public opinion” now more closely reflects commercialrnconsiderations or academic fashions, not necessarily what citizensrnrate critical. Remember, public views are now manufactured,rnnot spontaneous, and this production is not performedrnpro bono by disinterested altruistic philosopher kings. Nor dornthe local folk finance polls from bake sale proceeds. Polling isrnan expensive product that, ultimately, must be sold—to thernmedia as news or to those who sponsor large-scale research,rnespecially government funding agencies. Given what we knowrnabout elite agendas, a certain tone is to be expected. Polls tellrnus a great deal about resistance to busing; less about what happensrnin racially integrated schools. Perhaps poll sponsors do notrnwant to hear about this. Questions regarding more governmentrnservices and regulation almost always make “benefits” highlyrntempting. Remember, no questions, no public opinion, and hernwho controls the poll, controls public opinion.rnPublic opinion is always measured using samples. Expertsrnagree that a sample of about 1,500 randomly selected, physicallyrndispersed people will, in a statistical sense, “represent” a largerrnpopulation. It is an atomistic view of society: public opinionrnis simply a collection of individual opinions. The possibilityrnthat public opinion must emerge from collective deliberation,rnthat it also may be a property of groups and interests, is definitionallyrnimpossible. The modern poll rests on a vision of massrnsociety. But, leaving aside this uncase, how is “public” definedrnin public opinion? Not statistically, but substantively.rnThis question, an issue of momentous political consequencesrnto our communal self-definition, is seldom addressed.rnResolution is by the technical, mechanical dictates of sampling:rnany conscript claiming to be over 18 becomes officially enrolledrnin our public. “The public” is, de facto, identical to “thernsample.”rnThis modern, convenient, and indiscriminate approachrndeparts from tradition. Previously, inclusion in “the public”rnrequired some connection to the agenda. A connection mightrnbe rooted in self-interest, involvement in events, legal status,rnposition in society, expertise, or any other quality authorizingrnparticipation. Demarcation lines were not necessarily precisernor strictly followed, but somewhere a division between legitimaternparticipants and outsiders existed. Gate-crashers wouldrnbe ignored, no matter how noisy. Today, of course, the club ofrnpublic opinion, like preapproved MasterCard applications,rnaccepts anyone who breathes. If, per chance, the pollsterrnapproached illegal immigrants awaiting deportation, he couldrnfreely enlist them as bona fide members of the American public.rnUnless specified in the questionnaire itself, their responsesrnregarding extending citizenship and benefits to noncitizens arernvalid. This point was driven home to me when my 13-year-oldrnson was telephoned by Newsweek for its final 1994 preelectionrnpoll. Identifying himself as a 24-year-old, he waxed eloquentrnon national affairs.rnThis porous, unreflective definition of “the public” raisesrnseveral troubling issues. For example, do we welcome thosernincapable of offering reasoned opinions? Taken together, thesernwould-be pontificators are a significant slice of humanity: alcoholics,rndrug addicts, the senile, the retarded, the severely mentallyrnill, recluses, the gravely disabled, and others constitutingrnthe public in body only. Should we take seriously advice fromrnincarcerated felons, guest workers, foreign students, and visitingrntourists? Must pollsters reach out to those wholly within ethnicrnenclaves lacking fluency in English? There are no rules in thernpolling industry. Critical interpretations of political communityrnare almost casually determined by cost, convenience, andrnthe easy availability of respondents. You take who is available.rnWhat is troubling here is not the remote possibility that pollstersrnmay stumble into Bedlam seeking guidance on nuclearrndeterrence. What is far more common in the typical semiconsciousrnsweep of census tracts and phone numbers are recruitsrnwhose contributions are, essentially, irrelevant. Some initiativernwas once required to join the public—one might, for example,rnhave to defend one’s view in public, demonstrate knowledge, orrnrisk one’s reputation. Obvious fools could be ignored. A degreernof responsibility was thus imposed—the admission ticket wasrnstanding and contribution. Today, of course, enrollment is passivernand anonymous—the pollster comes and gets you. A substantivernconnection, stake, or even interest in the issue is assumed,rnrarely demonstrated. The reality is that most people,rnmost of the time, have no business offering snap judgments onrncomplex, distant matters that are none of their business. Whatrnauthorizes the average citizen to speculate on intervention inrnBosnia or wetlands policy? Such counsel, given without fear ofrnrebuke, easily becomes irresponsible. The “right” to participaternin public debate is granted solely by geographical location—rnthose who happen to fall into the sampling frame. If the typicalrnsample were physically assembled for a good public debate,rnmany, no doubt, would be hushed up or asked to leave. Theyrnhad no legitimate business there. But, when converted intornstatistics, their voices become authoritative.rnIndeed, genuine contributors may disproportionately optrnout of the polling process. Being thoughtful souls, they find therntypical simplemindcd poll question a waste of time. If they dornrespond, all the careful qualifications, asides, and other insightsrnwind up on the cutting room floor as detailed answers are com-rn20/CHRONICLESrnrnrn