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Mobocracy: Not What the Founders Wanted

Matthew Robinson demonstrates how media coverage can bias polling results, and how polls are abused by journalists, pundits, and politicians to advance agendas and to attack opponents.

2.6.02

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It's bad enough to be asked to review a book written by a close friend. But what's really daunting is having to read it first. I've just finished reading Mobocracy, by my good friend Matthew Robinson. The task elicited no small amount of unflattering cowardice. It meant I not only had to read the book closely, and carefully, but also pass judgment on it directly to the author, who in this instance is well built and powerfully athletic, and an ex-surfer to boot. A further complication is that next to him I'm a major Clymer, tending toward critical pronouncements with all the diplomatic finesse of Rep. Henry Waxman when he's siccing the GAO on the Vice President.

Which is why I'm especially relieved to announce that Matt has written an exceptionally worthwhile book, and a fairly well written one at that (with only a handful of sentences that grate on the nerves and make me hate the world). Mobocracy: How the Media's Obsession With Polling Twists the News, Alters Elections, and Undermines Democracy (Prima Publishing, $24.95; to order, click here) is a nuanced analysis and refreshingly earnest commentary on how the national obsession with polling corrupts our political soul.

Robinson describes how polls drive media coverage, frame the political debate, and undermine the republic's deliberative, evaluative, and critical capacities. He demonstrates how media coverage can bias polling results, and how polls are abused by journalists, pundits, and politicians to advance agendas and to attack opponents. Although his examples and case studies move one to wish Torquemada would shower his attention on our political and media elites, the most damning chapter is directed not at them, but at us. Voter cluelessness and apathy are at the crux of what ails our nation, Robinson writes. "The cost of voter ignorance is high, especially in a nation with a vast and sprawling government....Media polling that does not properly inform viewers and readers of its limitations serves only to give the facade of a healthy democracy, while consultants, wordsmiths, and polling units gently massage questions, set the news agenda, and then selectively report results." What we're left with is a "state of affairs [that] is manifestly undemocratic."

Robinson is particularly mindful of the Founding Fathers and their warnings about an ignorant electorate succumbing to tyranny. These insights into the Founders provide a philosophical perspective missing from every other book on media bias. The point is made explicitly, if too briefly and incompletely, only in the concluding chapter where Robinson notes that his book is "written for the citizen who cherishes America's tradition of limited government" -- a tradition too often confused with that of "smaller" government, the path pursued by many, if not most, conservatives and virtually all Republicans.

For Robinson is largely uninterested in the familiar "Liberal vs. Conservative" or "Democrat vs. Republican" breakdowns, each side of which he gives a fair dressing down. The biggest problem with polls, he argues, is that the "frame of liberty" is absent from them -- as it is from public debate generally. Thus, the ideas and philosophy that informed the Founders are conveniently consigned to obscurity. Robinson, in other words, is a Whig -- a name and a tradition (which includes figures like Adam Smith, David Hume, James Madison, and F.A. Hayek) that no longer conjures any concrete or recognizable image in the body politic. It's a subject about which Robinson should write his next book.

Mobocracy is also different from all other books on the media in its focus on methodology and in being ridiculously well informed on the habits and pronouncements of those at the helm of the polling industry. Robinson gives a point by point account of methodological shortcomings polls are plagued by --sample selection, sample size, the bandwagon effect, wording, etc. Robinson gives this material extra oomph by peppering his text with the admissions, explanations and writings of professional pollsters in academia, journalism and politics.

What comes through most starkly is that these professionals all seem completely aware of the failings, shortcomings and abuse of polling, yet continue to use polls unabated and unhumbled by such acknowledged facts. The cumulative effect of which moves one either to anger or to consider switching careers, depending entirely on one's sense of shame.

Robinson strikes and, surprisingly, maintains an upbeat note throughout, ending with various possible reforms and some hortative recommendations. Though the simplest reformative measures that come to mind are to read the book, buy a gun, and read up on the Whig tradition.

(Joshua London is a writer and editor in Washington.)

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