Public Opinion Polling and Social Security

On Election Day in 1948 newly elected President Harry Truman smiles in a photograph where he holds a copy of the Chicago Tribune, which reads, "Dewey Defeats Truman." Basing its information on public opinion polls, as well as other resources, the Chicago Tribune printed the election results before they were really tabulated in order to meet a print deadline. While the incident is humorous, it offers an excellent case study in the incorrectness of public opinion polls. The polls are often meaningless for a variety of reasons, yet they are waiting on every corner for the general public during an election year. Televised and radio newscasts present the numbers over and over again, while the Internet now allows the public to have access to a number of polls. Even those who still just read the daily newspaper will be introduced to polls. Yet what the media provides Americans as a snapshot of the United States' public opinion is often blurred and out of focus. In fact, one could go as far as to say that public opinion polling is not only inaccurate, but also actually harmful to the public it claims to represent. How many Americans base their decisions when voting on public opinion polls? Do lawmakers and other public officials rely heavily on these polls when making decisions? Do these lawmakers put ideas into practice that they believe are wanted by the majority, while the majority may, actually, not want such a thing? If the answer to these questions is "yes," then it is easy to see public opinion polling can lead to a misrepresentation of the people in government, undermining the republican system.

But why are polls so meaningless? After all, it seems that they are conducted in good faith. Often, party members in elected office sponsor these polls in order to learn how the public feels about an issue before a law is enacted. This seems not only acceptable, but also admirable. But it also assumes that the general public is informed, which it often is not. The concept of low information rationality can be used to define the general public's viewpoint on many social issues, and people are often too busy to actually think through the sides that they are supporting. In other words, the general public does not use the research methods used by congress in order to determine whether they should believe one thing or another, support one side or another in a debate. Indeed, they often do not take the time to do any research at all. Instead, they simply form opinions based on the slogans used by special interest and lobbying groups or the candidates themselves. Further, they often allow external factors to cloud that decision, allowing a personal preference for one political party, the disliking of an accent, or the skepticism regarding a candidate's personal life, influence their decision. In addition, some American citizens just consider that they are too busy for politics, and they leave it up to their elected representatives to make decisions for them. This view, elitism, holds that a select group of people really is better capable of running the government and making decision than a plurality. Because of these reasons, then, public opinion polls cannot be considered accurate. Still, their use in political decision-making is acceptable if they are paired with other tools, such as the trustee model of representation. In this essay, however, I will take the issue of public opinion polling further to consider the controversy regarding the privatization of social security. I will argue that public opinion polls, which find that the small minority of the population who is using social security opposes the privatization of the service, should not be solely used in making the decision of privatization.

In a situation in which public opinion polls found that the vast majority favored the privatization of social security while the population age 65 and older overwhelmingly favored the government running this program, public opinion polling cannot be used as the sole source upon which the decision is made. While the idea of democratic government favors a deferment to majority rule, it is clear that, in this case, the majority is not the best informed about the issue of social security. For the majority of the population, who are under age 65, social security is simply money taken out of their paycheck. Although some, and probably most, would agree that the social security system is beneficial and important, many would also grumble about its cost. While these people will eventually use the social security system, one cannot underestimate the ability of the American people to make decisions regarding their best interests in the short-term. Thus, it is possible that the public may not only be ignorant on the subject of social security, but also unwilling to be educated about it.

On the other hand, those who are 65 and over may have a better understanding of social security because they are currently using the system and able to articulate how its shortcomings have affected them personally. Still, one can argue that this group has a pronounced interest in the social security system, and may not consider what is good for the vast majority, only what is good for them now or what is good for senior citizens in general. Further, when age is taken into consideration, one may even go as far as to say that the senior citizens could be using external factors in order to make their decision, such as their medical conditions, mental state, and degree of loyalty to a certain party. Of course, there are the elites, those in either group who are well informed about social security and the consequences of privatization for all parties considered, but conducting a public opinion poll of the elites only would hardly be public opinion, not to mention quite impossible.

When these groups are compared with each other, then, it becomes clear that neither has an authoritative voice on social security. For this reason, lawmakers cannot defer to either the polling of the vast majority nor the polling of those age 65 and over in order to make a decision regarding the future of social security. Both groups have their biases; both have the inability to see the long-term consequences of their decisions, and both are not informed enough to make an authoritative decision regarding the social security system as a whole. If the public opinion polls are the only things considered in making this decision, then the United States will effectively create a tyranny of the majority. In this scenario, the majority's interests are represented to such a degree as to completely discount the minority's decisions. As the minority are the ones currently being affected by social security, this is even more damaging. Further, because both groups clearly are not the most well informed of society, it would be wrong to consider one group's disinformation above the others. As a bill privatizing social security has already passed congress in this fictional scenario, it is the task of the president to ensure that a tyranny of the majority has not taken place. Does the bill satisfy the needs of all involved? Does it affirm diversity as well as the desire of the majority? Or, does it take into consideration only the opinions of the well informed?

In making the decision to uphold or veto the bill, the president must consider the pluralist, elitist, and republican decision, while asking himself or herself these questions. Thus, he or she must appoint himself or herself as a trustee, taking all people into consideration, thinking about the future, and informing the people of the decision that is necessary in order for the United States to prosper. As a trustee, the president acknowledges the importance of the people's views, but majority or minority, but also the fact that it was these views that put him or her in power. Thus, he or she must feel confident in making a decision that is against the wishes of the minority or the majority if that decision is for the greater good. Thus the pluralist, republican, and elitist decisions are all available to the leader.

If the president made the pluralist decision, he or she would be siding with the minority. In this scenario, the needs of the majority would defer to the needs of the minority, serving as an extreme safeguard against a tyranny of the majority. While a pluralist decision is often needed in order to make amends for a tyranny of the majority in the past, this is not so in this case. Considering only the opinion of those 65 and older would have an impact on the majority population. In fact, it may actually have the largest impact on this group as they would be the ones to feel the full effects of the change in administration once they turned 65. This implies that both views must be considered.…