Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Common Ground - Raj Verma

What is Popular Today?

You saw it yesterday, and you will probably read another one today. Media is littered with public opinion polls purportedly representing a national perspective. With the Presidential elections one year away and mounting scrutiny facing each candidate, the media is aggressively employing their resources to gauge public opinion and force candidates to respond to abstract hypothetical questions and esoteric polls. As in a once-popular television game show, ‘Family Feud’, where contestants are pitted against each other with the intent of determining the most popular answer to questions posed on a survey, American media tends to compel candidates to answer questions based on numerous and differing ‘public opinion polls’. However, this poses a serious leadership dilemma for the next President of the United States and our nation’s leaders. In fact, this dilemma has haunted modern American presidents-that is- how to balance the demands of popular opinion and accurately extract the will of the people (originally assigned as the role of Congress) while attempting to achieve what is in the best interest of the entire country given the social, economic, political and moral context, no matter what public opinion offers at any given point in time. The overuse and overemphasis of public opinion polls, especially in a media-saturated culture, has been and continues to undermine effective democracy because the nation’s leaders have emerged as mere panderers.

Winston Churchill once stated, “Nothing is more dangerous than to live in the temperamental atmosphere of a Gallup poll-always feeling one’s pulse and taking one’s temperature.” Ironically, those candidates and current President who completely ignore or are impervious to polls are not likely to succeed, as they will be labeled ‘out of touch’ with the general public. Granted, the importance of keeping one’s eyes and ears close to the ground should not be underestimated. But there are serious and important policy issues that require effective leadership to transcend popular sentiment. For example, a recent Gallup poll, among several deployed every month, indicated that most Americans believe that Iraq and national security are the two most pressing issues facing the nation. Interestingly, immigration and the environment fell at the bottom of the list. It naturally follows then, that if a leader is to pander to public opinion, then the administration should place extra emphasis on addressing each issue in hierarchical order. Yet, we know that immigration, the environment and national security are inexplicably intertwined. Failed immigration policy and dependence on foreign oil were two of many compelling causes for this nation’s worst national security disaster in 2001. Relying on public opinion polls to measure popular political sentiment has inherent defects, such as small sample sizes, confusing questions, and other methodological errors. Even if the polls were completely accurate, heavy reliance on them derogates from the purpose of Congress to divine the will of the people. In turn, it is the role of the public to employ grassroots lobbying and participate in public debate to signal to Congress their desires. Overuse of polls extinguishes any value of discussion and Congressional receptiveness to public will.

The point is that the next American president and future leaders to come, must possess the courage, fortitude, and initiative to look beyond public opinion polls and read what lies ahead—even if the leader’s reading of politics contradicts public opinion, at times. It requires the President to evaluate his/her success not based on a man being the measure of all things (otherwise known a as humanism), but rather on values, mores, and moral code. He or she must elevate particular issues and build consensus on them, no matter what public opinion serves at any given time. Harry Truman once stated “I wonder how Moses would have gone if he had taken a poll in Egypt.” Similarly, strong, effective, and meaningful leadership will be able to withstand unfavorable popular opinion and execute what is in the best interest of the nation—even when the barometer indicates a paltry zero degrees.






Raj Verma, JD/MPA
Blog Contributor

Raj Verma is the President of the Future Leaders Council for USINPAC. He currently resides in Washington DC.

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