It's a popular rhetorical move among conservative pols to twist polling on issues they are concerned with into broad assertions that they, and not their political opponents, are the voice of the American people.
The list of things "the American people don't want"--determined by polls which inevitably proceed from one side of a debate or another and are packed with polemically slanted questions--according to Republicans in last election were the Obama healthcare reform package (continually mis-characterized as a government takeover of health care--if anything it's a government subsidy for private industry), gay marriage, economic stimulus, deficit spending, and liberalism itself.
Well, here's another thing that, by the same criteria "the American people don't want": public workers unions stripped of their collective bargaining rights.
According to a New York Times/CBS News poll: "Americans oppose weakening the bargaining rights of public employee unions by a margin of nearly two to one: 60 percent to 33 percent."
A Pew poll more specifically focused on the situation in Wisconsin found a a 41-32% split in favor of public workers (with a full 21 percent either not preferring one side or another don't know).
And among Wisconsin voters, a Public Policy Polling survey found that if November's election between Governor Scott Walker and Democratic opponent Tom Barrett were held today, Barrett would win big, 52 to 45%, mostly as a result of a shift among blue collar GOP voters.
It's actually Republicans, more so than Democrats or independents, whose shifting away from Walker would allow Barrett to win a rematch if there was one today. Only 3% of the Republicans we surveyed said they voted for Barrett last fall but now 10% say they would if they could do it over again. That's an instance of Republican union voters who might have voted for the GOP based on social issues or something else last fall trending back toward Democrats because they're putting pocketbook concerns back at the forefront and see their party as at odds with them on those because of what's happened in the last month.
Precisely the same kind of polemical polling--with the same sorts of leading questions, issues about the nature of those polled and the underlying agendas of the pollsters--produced the polls GOP candidates cited in November to claim they were the standard bearers for the will of the people.
But this morning, with exactly the same sorts of polls clearly showing the public favoring preserving the power of public unions, conservatives are up in arms about polling methods, cohorts, and the like--complaints the same folks never raise when equally colored polls return the results that they favor.
American politics and journalism have each become far too reliant on polls. Not only are polls themselves packed with inherent flaws--the inevitable biases, the small sampling sizes, the unreliability of respondents, the unwillingness of people to participate, the increasing difficulty reaching respondents through traditional means--but they see to serve, for journalists and politicians alike, as a new kind of ersatz class of facts, illuminating little.
Sure, polls can work fairly well in the context of simple yes or no questions, or even in elections between two candidates, where there are binary choices with none of the ambiguity, complexity, or subtlety presented when you try to reduce to a pollable question issues and attitudes that humans reflexively approach with nuance polls can't capture. If a respondent tries to answer a poll question with the real nuance and ambiguity most humans feel about more complex questions than Coke or Pepsi, all that happens is the response is invalidated.
But polls and surveys have come to govern our public lives. Politicans make all their decisions based on poll results. And increasingly new organizations use them as substitutes for substantive coverage. The New York Times off lead story today is the poll it conducted with CBS News, a glorified "man in the street" piece, a work of journalistic alchemy that has the impact of reducing complex social attitudes to simple opinions and then presenting those opinions as facts.
Look, I'm as fascinated with poll results as anyone. I write about them and use them to inform me about a range of topics. But I'm always aware of the limitation inherent in their methodology and would never be so bold as to proclaim that on the basis of the poll "the American people" can be said to want one thing or another.
As a side note, last night I happened to catch Jamila Wignot's documentary about the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire on WGBH's American Experience series. The film is terrific, replete with period photography from the tragedy that I had never seen before. The famous fire--in which 146 mostly teenage girls perished in a sweatshop a year after a strike led to concession like a 52 hour work week and 4 paid holidays but left the workers unable to unionize--was a galvanizing moment in the history of American labor. That 100 year old event is instructive in the history of the current disputes in Wisconsin and elsewhere. Sure, public employees today don't work in dangerous sweatshops. But America is at an historic crossroads and needs to decide how it is going to support it's aging population as it leaves or is pushed out of the workforce and left to live on precisely those meagre income streams that are continually under GOP attack--social security and negotiated pension benefits. Let's hope we don't need the spectacle of starving homeless retirees freezing to death in tent cities in the upper midwest to realize the workers have a point.
BTW, you can watch the documentary here. Highly recommended.