Americans awoke November 3 to more headlines and soundbites about "the people's voice." I'd call it more of a grunt.
"The American people's voice was heard at the ballot box," declared Speaker-of-the-House-to-be John Boehner. Soon variations of "the people's voice" echoed around traditional news and Internet. Obama has to say, "I hear you, and then, I heard the people speak last night," parroted columnist Mark Shields on PBS's News Hour . "The people have spoken" frame continues to dominate analyses of what happened and thus what must follow. Seems clear, actually misleading.
Granted: the victories probably mean a majority of voters (not overall citizenry, for which the turnout has been quite dismal for years), reject the status quo. However, responsibility for the status quo is a complicated question involving careful arguments about causation and effects, the past, the present, and the future.
Was this really a clear message to Obama through mass sacrifice of Democratic representatives? Do voters really think the Obama government is responsible for the status quo? Is there a difference between perceptions of status quo and empirical reality?
Here pundits turn to polls to ventriloquize "the public" and "the people." So citizens motivated to vote have been primed by news and polls about what are supposedly their own issues, but which they themselves didn't get together and produce as their own. Already, the population being symbolized as "the public" must perform imitations of other voices, voices who have made the agenda offered by the polls.
"Oh," but some will say, "they use focus groups to find out what is really on citizens' minds." Right, and how do issues get on their minds? One might argue that the hardships of everyday life obtrude first on one's agenda, one's everyday thoughts, especially the most basic ones concerning the "bare necessities" of life, such as food and shelter. When people lose and don't have jobs; when people can't afford to feed their children and themselves the way they'd like and are used to doing; when people have trouble paying the rent or mortgages; when people are going deeper and deeper in debt; when people experience a "relative deprivation" of some goods, services, and activities to which they have become accustomed--it registers on their agenda, and they will probably talk about it in a focus group.
But living, breathing citizens (not "the people") are also swimming in a river of media and PR, images and soundbites. The content of the media "river" sometimes corresponds to the same polls that construct/manufacture "public opinion," which are projected back onto listeners and viewers, who are asked to identify themselves with the numbers that will make them a speaking public. Voila: "public opinion." Thus, if news constantly says a flagging economy and mass unemployment are the issues, it's quite likely that when citizens are polled about issues (given a range they themselves didn't produce) they will identify the ones they are bombarded with in their everyday mediated lives. Focus groups, too, should at least partly reflect this mediated agenda.
And so the people supposedly speak at election time, like a toddler whose hitherto incomprehensible goos and gahs are met with unbridled parental jubilance on their much-anticipated day of linguistic maturation. So what do our news media and their foregrounded pundits tell us the people have said, and just as important, why they are saying it?
The media reports the economy is the big issue. More than 80% of the voters surveyed in exit polls "expressed great concern" about the direction of the economy. One might assume they blame Obama for it. Six of 10 independent voters expressed disapproval of Obama's job performance. But as with all of this, what the polls can't explain is the reasons behind opinions. There are contradictions in "public" voice. Thus, "a majority said their own family's financial situation was the same or better than two years ago, when a recession-plagued nation swept Obama into office and strengthened the Democrats' congressional majorities." Obama's government invested billions of tax dollars, supposedly preventing another Great Depression.
Interestingly, voters overall didn't blame Obama for the economic crisis: "Only about a quarter of voters blamed Obama for the nation's economic troubles. Voters overall were more likely to point the finger at Wall Street bankers." Obama's government, taking aim at Wall Street, passed the most sweeping financial regulatory legislation since the Great Depression. Again, perception and empirical reality don't easily jibe.
It isn't easy to know reasons people actually have for why they perceive problems and causes as they do. Most of these polls don't measure what people know about an issue before they calculate their opinions about it into a percentage that becomes our strange friends the public and the people. Such research is time-consuming and expensive. Instead, we have surveys measuring political knowledge based on ability to identify facts, such as the Secretary of Defense (21%), roughly how many soldiers have died in Iraq (55%), and America has a trade deficit (68%). These numbers are from 2007, but on many issues, no great change over the years .
Perhaps citizens voted with knowledge of arguments about responsibility/causation, resulting in their verdict on the status quo. But in our vertiginous media culture, there is ample reason to infer they have voted on instinct in a culture, heavy on soundbites, name-calling, and slogans, light on reason-giving and analysis. This phenomenon, of course, affects all political stripes, not just Democrats now. The cause certainly doesn't lie in any inherent stupidity of citizens. Accurate information and emphasis on reason-giving is lacking in the culture itself. Citizens shouldn't have to look hard to find and imitate it.
Public opinion is manufactured, then spun, as are citizens' desires and perceptions. When the people "speak," it is actually the voice political ventriloquists give to a dummy, which can never really represent what real reason-giving persons will say if given the chance to articulate their problems. That way, "the people" can't speak. They are reduced to grunting. At what cost to democracy?