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Damn the polls! Full speed ahead!
February 7, 2023
On cue, the media began a “pre-buttal” to President Biden’s State of the Union address by releasing dire polls that claim—contrary to all objective evidence—our nation is on the verge of economic collapse and will soon experience rioting in the streets. Headline writers cherry-picked negative facts to ensure that President Biden doesn’t get too full of himself given record-low unemployment, record job creation, decent GDP growth, falling inflation, the first major infrastructure bill in generations, the biggest investment in green energy and chip manufacturing in the US ever, more federal judicial appointments in a two-year stretch than any president ever, and a 100% shootdown rate of defenseless balloons the size of three school buses.
It doesn’t get much better than that for the first two-year term of a president, but those accomplishments are old news, and the media has soap to sell! So, the media did its best to create a misleading picture of the state of the union before Joe Biden gets his chance to tell it like it is—which is good. Very good. Indeed, it is “unprecedented” given the challenges that Biden faced when he took office and the slim in majority Congress that hampered his agenda.
The free press in America is an important bulwark in defense of democracy. For all its faults, the media serves that function well—on average, over time, warts and all, with a few glaring exceptions. But on Monday, the media seemed to take collective leave of its senses to create melodrama surrounding the State of the Union. What good does it do to complain about biased media coverage? Plenty! Let’s talk about what we should do after we review the sorry state of the “fourth estate” one day before the State of the Union address.
Before looking at the media’s favorite shiny bauble—infotainment posing as political polling—let’s take a look at the heavy hand of headline writers across America. Given a generally positive economic trends, here is what the “chicken littles” at major outlets chose to emphasize:
And those are the headlines from allegedly “neutral” media sources. Major outlets on the right are pulling no punches:
The negative narrative in the media was punctuated by two polls designed to confirm bad news. First, Monmouth University released a poll entitled, State of The Union Weakens—a ready-made teaser for the entertainers posing as journalists at Fox News, who took the bait: Fox News, Ahead of Biden State of the Union address, country dissatisfied with state of the union after multiple crises.
The Monmouth Poll is, to use a term of art, “garbage”. It is a vaguely worded poll that asks people to describe their feelings about “elected officials” and “the federal government” and “the direction of the country.” While I will not deny that people feel how they feel, the objects of dissatisfaction listed in the poll are so vague as to be meaningless.
Are the “elected officials” referred to in the poll Democrats? Republicans? Both? Neither? City council members? County sheriffs? School board members? That ambiguity is glossed over by asking respondents about their feelings regarding the “state of the union,” which, by inference, is the speech that Joe Biden will deliver tomorrow—an association that Fox News made explicit in its headline above.
What the Monmouth poll reveals is that if you ask people to express their unhappiness, they will—and will use any convenient target to do so. As one reader said about the Monmouth poll,
What we have here is a “funk” poll: The pandemic is over, various economic factors are better (low unemployment, etc.) . . . . but I’m not happy, my kids aren’t happy, and it just doesn’t seem like things are . . . better. Also, I put on a lot of weight during lockdown, and it isn’t going away. No wonder I’m unhappy. So, I’ll blame the government, which I mostly want to do anyway.
Well said. And, to state the obvious, to the extent that voters are generally unhappy with the “state of the union,” it is largely because of the GOP’s lies, economic blackmail threats, and culture war against Blacks, LGBTQ people, immigrants, and the Constitution. But the heavy-handed, kludgy poll run by Monmouth is incapable of teasing out that information.
Even worse was a poll run by ABC-Washington Post that generated this headline in WaPo, Americans not feeling impact of Biden agenda, Post-ABC poll finds, and this on ABC’s website, Record numbers of people are worse off, a recipe for political discontent: POLL.
Two years into a presidency that the White House casts as the most effective in modern history, President Biden is set to deliver a State of the Union address Tuesday to a skeptical country, with a majority of Americans saying they do not believe he has achieved much since taking office, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.
I have highlighted the phrase, “a majority of Americans saying they do not believe [Biden] has achieved much since taking office.” WaPo uses that finding to ramp up drama over Biden’s State of the Union address, saying that the low poll numbers “arguably raise the stakes of Biden’s prime time speech on Tuesday.” In other words, WaPo and ABC are creating their own news narrative about the State of the Union by setting up an alleged disconnect between Biden’s accomplishments and the “feelings” of the American people.
Of course, the real question posed by the WaPo poll is why do Americans believe Biden has accomplished “not much” when he has exceeded the accomplishments of most presidents over the last seventy-five years? There’s a story! But that doesn’t fit WaPo’s “anti-Biden” narrative, so it is ignored. Oh, and WaPo buries this little gem mid-story:
Americans have little confidence in either Biden or House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to make the right decisions for the country’s future. Just under 2 in 10 Americans have “a great deal” or “a good amount” of confidence in the speaker to do so; 71 percent have “just some” or no confidence at all. A similarly high 72 percent say they lack such confidence in congressional Republicans.
To state the obvious, Democrats can’t ignore the way voters feel. But to state another obvious truth, the media seems hell-bent on telling them that they should feel bad about themselves and Joe Biden. The media uses this oppositional, counter-narrative strategy to artificially inflate the sense of drama and conflict inherent in politics.
Here’s my point: Damn the polls! Full steam ahead! The media’s negative narrative about a collapsing economy and the alleged “red wave” failed to materialize in the midterms. The incessant negativity may have dampened turnout in some races, but Democrats succeeded in ignoring the manufactured narrative by the media. Sadly, we will have to live with this dynamic for the next two years (and then forever after that), so we need to ignore the hype. That doesn’t mean we should dismiss polling that doesn’t reinforce our views, only that we should give it appropriate weight.
What can we do about irresponsible reporting and misleading headlines? If you can, post a comment in response to the article and email the author or the editor to express your views about the bias in their reporting. Also, write “letters to the editor” in newspapers. Many readers have reported success in getting their letters published in the opinion columns of newspapers. News media are businesses that respond to their subscribers and consumers. Let them know how you feel. It can’t hurt and might help by holding the media accountable for their biased reporting.
“Because we can” replaces “the rule of law.”
Courts are designed to insulate the administration of justice from partisan politics. One way that courts strive to maintain independence and impartiality is to respect the precedent established in prior court decisions. This practice, called “stare decisis” (literally, “to stand on the decision”), helps ensure continuity, predictability, and stability in the law. Stare decisis should not be used to defend poorly reasoned or wrongly decided precedent, but it operates as a moderating principle to ensure that cases are decided within the broader context of judicial interpretation and history.
The opposite of “stare decisis” is a rule that says, “We can do whatever we want without regard to precedent because we control the majority of the court.” That is what happened in the Dobbs decision and is about to happen in the North Carolina case of Moore v. Harper.
Moore v. Harper should sound familiar because it is currently on appeal and under consideration by the US Supreme Court. It involves one aspect of the “independent state legislature” theory that asserts that state legislatures are immune from state court review when considering the “time, place, and manner” of congressional elections. (The procedural history is a lot more complicated than my brief summary suggests; for those of you interested in the details, read the petition for rehearing here.)
In 2022, the North Carolina supreme court invalidated gerrymandered districts approved by the North Carolina state legislature. The GOP-controlled state legislature appealed the NC supreme court ruling to the US Supreme Court. But the North Carolina supreme court just flipped from a Democratic majority to a Republican majority. And guess what the first order of business of the new GOP majority on the NC supreme court is? They have granted review of its ruling in Moore v. Harper—stare decisis be damned! See Professor Richard L. Hasen, Election Law Blog, NC Supreme Court Grants Rehearing in Case Striking Down Congressional Districts as a Partisan Gerrymander, Potentially Mooting U.S. Supreme Court's Independent State Legislature Case, Moore v. Harper.
Justice Anita Earls dissented from the order granting reconsideration, writing:
The majority’s order fails to acknowledge the radical break with 205 years of history that the decision to rehear this case represents. It has long been the practice of this Court to respect precedent and the principle that once the Court has ruled, that ruling will not be disturbed merely because of a change in the Court’s composition.
Nothing has changed since we rendered our opinion in this case on 16 December 2022: The legal issues are the same; the evidence is the same; and the controlling law is the same. The only thing that has changed is the political composition of the Court. Now, approximately one month since this shift, the Court has taken an extraordinary action: It is allowing rehearing without justification.
Not only does today’s display of raw partisanship call into question the impartiality of the courts, but it erodes the notion that the judicial branch has the institutional capacity to be a principled check on legislation that violates constitutional and human rights.
The Republican justices on the North Carolina Supreme Court have dropped all pretense of following precedent or honoring the doctrine of stare decisis, instead applying a doctrine that says, “Because we can, we will . . . .” Such a doctrine is corrosive to the rule of law. One day, Republicans in North Carolina will be in the minority on the supreme court and will rue the day they converted the court into an extension of the state legislature.
So be it. Democrats cannot bind themselves to rules of judicial restraint that apply only to justices elected by Democratic majorities or appointed by Democratic presidents. If stare decisis is dead, it is dead for all parties, not merely Republicans.
The images of devastation in Turkey and Syria from the massive earthquake are shocking. Although the death toll currently stands at 4,300, it is difficult to believe that it will not climb significantly higher. The New York Times has published a list of charitable and relief organizations, here: Earthquake Relief.
The quake was powerful, shallow, and centered near densely populated areas. It is unlikely that any amount of planning could have avoided tragedy under those conditions. But it is a reminder that building codes in the US are a ubiquitous manifestation of “the government’s” intervention in our lives, affecting the homes, apartments, and commercial buildings in which we live, work, dine, bank, and relax. That would be the same “government” that is the object of frustration and ire in the Monmouth poll. The government is an obstacle or adversary until we experience a 5.0+ earthquake on the 60th floor of an office building (as I have). That experience quickly focuses the mind on thoughts about government earthquake codes for high-rise buildings.
The same is true of nearly every aspect of our lives: “the government” ensures the safety of the water we drink, the food we eat, the medicines we ingest, and the investments we make. When we face challenges in our lives, it is easy to blame “the government” for our woes. But it is a cheap trick for the media to tap into that generalized discontent toward “the government” and translate those feelings into a political judgment about the President one day before the State of the Union.
Like life, politics isn’t fair, and Biden must accept that fact. But we don’t have to fall victim to the sleight of hand practiced by the media through polling that seems to exist only to draw attention to institutions that would otherwise toil in obscurity. As they say, “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.” Instead, let’s ground ourselves in the facts and create the political outcomes that will surprise and confound pundits everywhere—as we did in 2018, 2020, and 2022.
Talk to you tomorrow!