By Donella Meadows
–February 15, 1996–
I want to assure you that my Mom brought me up right. Lying doesn’t come easily to me. I had to endure many New Hampshire presidential primaries before I thought of lying to the pollsters.
In the week or two before the primary they call almost every night. You can tell immediately that it’s a poll by the bored voice. “Hello, Ms. Meadows?,” they drone. “Would you say you are very likely, fairly likely, or not at all likely to vote in the coming Republican primary?”
When I was new to this game I felt honored, as most of us do when our opinion is solicited. “Hey, they’re calling ME! They want to know what I think! When they report this tomorrow on TV, they’ll be reporting on ME!”
Let me tell you, that thrill wears off real fast. For one thing, they always call when we’re scrambling around trying to get supper on the table. For another, we’ve been hardened by the steady hammering of advertising calls. For those we have a well-practiced response: “We don’t take telephone solicitations at this house.” SLAM! It’s all I can do to suppress that reaction when the pollsters call.
“Would you say you are a strong Republican, a moderate Republican, or an Independent?” Sometimes I’m a strong Republican and I’m going to vote for Forbes. Sometimes I’m a moderate going for Dole. Sometimes, just to blow their minds, I tell them I’m a Democrat intending to vote for Pat Buchanan.
I suppose I would blow their minds most if I told the truth, which is I’m none of the above, they haven’t got a political party that’s anything close to what I am, and there isn’t a person running, from bigoted Buchanan through spineless Clinton, whom I’d want as my next-door neighbor, much less the leader of my country. On the day of the primary my vote will go wherever I decide it can do the most to mess up the schemes of the manipulators who are spending a million dollars a week (Steve Forbes alone) to lie to me. How come it took me so long to think of lying back to them?
You may have detected a note of bitterness there? A slight curmudgeonliness? Actually, it’s nothing more than surface bluster covering over a deep sorrow, the sorrow I think most of us feel about our political system, so noble in theory, so shabby in practice.
I’m not going to repeat here — I’d get too worked up — the full list of outrages to which our leaders of both parties have subjected us, from the five trillion dollar debt to the sweet deals for fatcats, from the S&L scam to the logging-without-laws rider. The misleading, mudslinging ads. The cynicism with which they repeat ridiculous claims they don’t begin to believe themselves. The utter lack of trustworthiness; the massive abuse of public resources.
There I go, getting worked up. Sorry.
I see no option but radical non-cooperation. Lying to the pollsters is the easiest way I can see to twit the system. Only takes a minute. They come asking for it.
I’d appreciate polls if they were honest instruments of democratic government, assessing peoples’ informed opinions. I’d love to be asked not just whom I favor, but why. I’d relish a set of questions that took more than 30 seconds, that presented me with a range of real options, that asked not only what I think but enough factual questions to ascertain whether I know what I’m talking about.
But these polls have only two purposes, neither of them worthy. Either the politicians are fine-tuning their deceptive tactics, or the media are seeking predictions, as if we were betting on horses. In Iowa this week, on the basis of entrance polls, the TV stations announced the caucus results before the caucuses even began. The only reason to do that is to beat some other station to the story. The result is to undermine democracy. Insofar as people make up their minds based on what other people are thinking (and people do), polls influence results.
So why should we go along then? Why encourage the making of sound bites and the reporting of serious choices as if they were sports events? We could refuse to answer at all, but statisticians can correct for that. What throws them off is lies. It would take just a small percent of us fabricating responses, especially in tight races, to render the democracy-mocking polls useless.
See, my mother not only made it hard for me to lie, she also gave me a belief in public trust, in honor, in a government responsive to the people. She taught me to treasure the democratic process and to use my role in it with care. She also passed on to me just enough spunk to make it impossible for me to cooperate with people who treat me with contempt. I don’t like the game of “you lie to me, I’ll lie to you.” What I really want to play is “let’s respect each other, let’s tell each other the truth.”
I’m ready to do that, any time our purported leaders lead the way.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996