I despair of accurate polling in the Age of Emocracy
According to a recent Hill-HarrisX poll, one third of American voters identify as “woke”. Depending on your definition of “woke”, that might be very good or very bad news.
To the woke, “woke” generally implies a compassionate awareness of social justice issues like racism and discrimination. To sceptics, the Urban Dictionary’s definition is more on-point: “The act of being very pretentious about how much you care about a social issue.”
In any case, another third of the poll’s respondents said they weren’t woke. So the poll only revealed what we already knew: American society is sharply divided — even on how words are defined.
But perhaps it inadvertently highlights another issue: that accurate polling is a major challenge in the Age of Emocracy.
Australian political theorist Stephen Chavura unpacks the concept of emocracy by describing “a subtle but incredibly profound shift” that has taken place in the West over recent decades, “from the right to pursue happiness to the right to be happy”. Chavura argues that for many today, “the rest of society revolves around my feelings, making sure that I don’t become unhappy”.
This prioritising of subjective feelings over objective facts hasn’t just given rise to phenomena like cancel culture and woke identity politics. It also seems to have helped crash the polling industrial complex.
A report released this week by the leading association of pollsters in the U.S. found that 2020’s election polls were the least accurate they’d been in 40 years, mostly in their underestimation of the incumbent Donald Trump.
The report looked at over 2,800 national and state-level polls. National polls overstated Biden’s odds by an average of 4.5 percentage points. Their state equivalents made the same error by an average of 3.9 points. The report gave both categories a fail grade.
The American Association for Public Opinion, which authored the report, made no attempt to explain the cause of these historic anomalies. But it’s no secret that many Trump supporters felt fearful and reluctant in voicing their support for him: the so-called “shy Trump voter” phenomenon.
It’s also no secret that, just like the rest of the country, pollsters sat under a cloud of emotionally-charged cognitive bias in the lead-up to the November vote. As I wrote immediately following the election:
For four years, the liberal coastal elites — whether in statistics or journalism — have told themselves the same, tired “Orange Man Bad” story, unable to fathom that other Americans felt differently and had long ago tuned out. As long as they are living in their own world, they will miss what half the country really thinks.
Thinking and feeling are easy to confuse. This seems to be an iconic category error of the Age of Emocracy. It was Thomas Sowell who lamented, “The problem isn’t that Johnny can’t read. The problem isn’t even that Johnny can’t think. The problem is that Johnny doesn’t know what thinking is; he confuses it with feeling.”
The debate taking place over Critical Race Theory is only the latest illustration of this. There is boundless emotional energy on both sides of the divide, but all too often the level of energy is in direct proportion to how thoroughly the facts have been abandoned.
Take, for example, the feelpinions that freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently offered on the topic. Upset that Republican lawmakers have begun issuing bills to prevent publicly-funded schools from teaching using a CRT framework, she queried:
Why don’t you want our schools to teach anti-racism? Why don’t Republicans want their kids to know the tradition of anti-racism in the United States? … Why don’t Republicans want us to learn how to not be racist? Why don’t Republicans want kids to know how to not be racist?
Of course, that’s neither the intent nor the effect of the bills in question. Christopher Rufo, who has been singled out by Democrat lawmakers and pundits for his role in the campaign against CRT, explains that the legislation so far passed in various states:
does not prevent schools from teaching about racism, slavery, and segregation. It prohibits schools from indoctrinating students into fringe racial theories that claim one race is superior to another or that individuals should be treated differently on the basis of race.
Indeed, Rufo and his allies readily promote alternative school curricula that address America’s history of slavery and related injustices in great detail — but that still offer a redemptive and optimistic view of the United States.
The question is, were those who identified as “woke” in the Hill-HarrisX poll aware of these facts? It seems unlikely. Another third of the respondents didn’t even know what “woke” means. Good luck then with the far more complex Critical Race Theory.
But since when should facts get in the way of feelings that just feel so correct? Thinking critically and independently takes effort — and often the suppression of such emotions. Again in the words of Thomas Sowell,
Some things are believed because they are demonstrably true, but many other things are believed simply because they have been asserted repeatedly.
An honest look at the state of our emocracies reveals the truth in Sowell’s words, and our desperate need for a more factually-informed body politic.
Until then, perhaps we can expect a persistent parade of polls that are expert at measuring emotions and confirming biases — but that continue to miss the mark. I can just feel it.
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