Consumers whose dinners have been interrupted for years by unsolicited sales calls had cause to celebrate last week. Diana Mey, a West Virginia homemaker and mother of three, took on a telemarketing firm and won. She had sued under the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act, a law that allows consumers to request their name be placed on a "do-not-call" list.
The law, however, conspicuously excludes pollsters, who call not to ask you to switch phone companies for the 11th time but to ask whether ground troops should be introduced to Kosovo in a permissive or a hostile environment. "The media are focusing on my story as a David and Goliath story," Mey told me. "But I would prefer them to focus on the need to expand the law to include polling calls and calls from nonprofits because they are just as annoying as the telemarketing calls." One pollster, renowned for his above-average accuracy, has a radical response to such criticism. "If being called at home is annoying, there is a simple solution: don't have a telephone," John Zogby told me. "Just have a beeper. Or a telephone just for outgoing calls."
But I'm sure polls would show that most people are not eager to rip out their phones. A better solution is to expand the Telephone Consumer Protection Act to include pollsters. This would not only offer consumers one more tool to protect their privacy, it would also provide citizens with a valuable weapon to protect democracy from its ongoing takeover by pollsters. Since politicians are unlikely to substitute leadership for poll-taking, it is up to us to render polling results meaningless. With response rates under 40 percent and falling, hanging up on pollsters has been a good first step toward further undermining the credibility of these flickering snapshots of public opinion. Threatening to sue pollsters is another tactic we can use to compound their problems.
Even without an expansion of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, several state legislatures -- among them Texas, Idaho, Nebraska and Louisiana -- recently introduced statewide "do-not-call" list bills. The problem is that bills which start life containing no exemptions end up, after the lobbyists are done with them, with all the usual protections for pollsters and political campaigns.
Polling surveys, you see, are said to have a "higher social purpose" than commercial speech. In fact, we should be arguing that they have a lower social purpose. Not only are they as much of a nuisance as unsolicited commercial calls but they enable a habit that is hazardous to our political health.
Zogby's latest findings are an illustration of just how hazardous. On the most important issue of the day, the war in Kosovo, a much-publicized consensus emerged at the beginning of April in favor of deploying ground troops. Now, according to Zogby's latest poll, only 15 percent of likely voters favor using ground troops. Zogby called it "a dramatic reversal of public sentiment." And in this most poll-driven of administrations, it has already led to a dramatic reversal of military objectives.
While the poll numbers were in their favor, administration officials cited the people's support to deflect criticism of their policy. "The numbers I've seen," said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart at the beginning of the air campaign, "have shown solid support for the actions that our men and women in service are taking .... And I think the support will grow as we continue to make the case for what our interests are."
But the support has diminished and the poll numbers have plummeted. It should come as no surprise to students of political decision-making that the drop in the war's ratings was immediately followed by the drop of one of the key NATO demands. Pentagon officials made it known at the end of last week that Slobodan Milosevic would be allowed to keep Serbian troops in Kosovo. If the early high poll numbers had been treated with the proper skepticism, how many Kosovars, Serbs -- and Chinese embassy officials -- might be alive today?
Despite their proven fickleness, polling numbers have for too long been trotted out as an excuse for bad policies. Anything we can do to speed the day when policy is divorced from polling is to be enthusiastically encouraged. So consider hanging up on pollsters and taking them to court your patriotic duty.
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