Opinion polls are said to be the voice of
America. Few companies, programmers,
politicians or Presidents will take any
action without a focus group as a companion.
Daniel Yankelovich is considered by many to
be the founding father of public opinion
research. For 40 years he's been plumbing
social experience through probing our hearts
THE NEW YORK TIMES and TIME magazine are
among his beneficiaries, and he founded the
research organization Public Agenda. His
life's work won him recognition as one of the
10 most influential people of the 20th
Century in the area of public policy.
Welcome to NOW.
When we were talking earlier before the
interview you said that people feel very
marginalized. What do you mean by that?
Well Americans want a voice, that
increasingly, I think one of the great
changes of the past 20 years is this
insistence, it's not only a desire, it's an
insistence that the public has in having a
voice in the decisions that affect their
lives. And people feel they don't have that
voice, that they are they're not consulted,
they're not listened to, their views don't
really count, their concerns are not really
at the top of the public agenda.
But how can that be when almost everyone is
subjected repeatedly to focus groups, to
public opinion surveys all these polls
that are taken? How can people feel as if
their opinions are not being collected,
assessed, and executed?
Well, if you're looking to get votes, and if
you're looking to make promises and
commitments then you want to find out how
to talk to the public. It doesn't mean that
you're going to really listen, it doesn't
mean that you're gonna be responsive.
I think the key is responsiveness. People
don't feel they have all these polls but,
you know I've done a lot of market research,
and in doing market research companies are
responsive, they have to be to survive, but
the political leadership does not have to be
Why? What accounts for that divide?
Well you know you have political life now
you have a lot of political consultants, the
consultants tell you how to spin issues in
order to get votes. And that's not real
responsiveness. You have the media that are
concerned with the breaking news, and not
their long term issues that we've been
talking about. I remember years ago when Dick
Cheney was in Congress, and we were talking
to him about not listening to the public. He
got indignant and he said, "What do you mean?
I spend 90 percent of my time listening."
Well he wasn't listening to the public, he
was listening to the lobbyists, he was
listening to the special interests. Making
the assumption that the lobbyists are
speaking for the people.
I mean you referred to me as "the ole
fella" at the b--.
"The grand ole man."
Very hard to take, very hard to take.
It takes one to know one.
But, you know in that rule, I don't
feel that AARP represents me. I'm a
grandfather, I'm a parent, I have a broad set
of interests, but I'm not payin' AARP to
represent my broad human interest, I'm payin'
them to represent my most narrow, selfish
interests. So you have a politics in which
individuals have a breath of humanity, but
the organization of advocates and lobbyists
are a terrible way to do politics.
One of the reasons I as a journalist see so
much discontent is that is that we talk
about these problems, we address them, we
report on them and yet people feel nothing
ever really changes.
Well that's why people feel marginalized.
And it is the system that is very difficult
to change. The democratic party used to have
special interest politics as their
ideological basis that--.
The labor unions and the working class and
Yeah we were talking once to Walter
Mondale about this where he...
Former Vice President.
...where he felt that the sum of all the
special interests add up to the general
interest. It's not true. It's a fallacy, it
doesn't happen. I mean you know for someone
in my position who's been talking to
Americans for 40 years, you see that what
people are saying and what they're feeling
are not represented either by the political
interest groups, the special interest groups,
or by the media. So you have you have
these different Americas.
That raises the question, why are the
shouting matches on television so popular
Well, one thing is they're entertainment. I
mean radio and television are entertainment
media more then they are news media. And I
think another thing is I was thinking about
the fact that the news side of things the
habit of breaking news, the journalistic
predilection that what editors say, we go
after the breaking news, probably takes about
five minutes a day to cover the breaking
news. But you have the media on for 23 hours
and 55 minutes in addition to those five
minutes. So you have I think, a
preoccupation of the news media with certain
conceptions that just don't fit.
Your assumption is that people really want to
know about the basic issues. And yet that
flies in the face of people who kept
reading the NATIONAL INQUIRER during the
Clinton scandals with Monica
Lewinsky when they said, "We're tired of
Yeah, well I mean...
Is the popularity ....
Oh Bill come on, you can be tired of it and
be, and be fascinated at the same time. I
mean gossip is gossip. The fact...
...you have the fact that people are entranced
by gossip, doesn't mean that they're not
passionately interested in the issues that
affect their lives. And they are, I mean
they I just can't understand why there's
the assumption that people aren't interested.
They couldn't be more interested. You have in
the country this crust of mistrust. And that
kind of pull because if people feel that
their voice doesn't count, then you know
they're not going to show the kind of
interest takes about 30 seconds to
penetrate that crust of mistrust. And
underneath it there's this hunger for
community, there is this passionate interest
in the issues and in what's happening in
Mistrust, where does that mistrust come from?
Well, it's one of the byproducts of
of the convergence of 9-11 and Enron is to
make have made the public feel very
vulnerable, and you know as you you would
understand. But in that vulnerability they
don't feel that the people who are supposed
to be looking out for their interests are
exactly doing so more looking out for their
I guess that is one reason why Mr. Cheney,
whom you referred to earlier, does not want
an investigation of what happened last
summer, when the investigative reports came
in. And I guess that's one of the reasons
why he doesn't I don't guess, I know, that's
one of the reasons why he doesn't want a full
investigation of the energy situation where
the industry had access to policy.
Yeah. Well see that's what makes people so
mistrustful, because the watchdogs are
asleep. And...it isn't just the FBI
and the CIA, it's the Red Cross, it's the
Catholic Church, it's the Wall Street
investment people that are supposed to be
giving you objective advice to help you in
your investments, it's the auditing firms
that are supposed to protect the public
against the cheating.
So Enron the aftermath of Enron is not
just a rogue company, it's the watchdogs, the
system. We have so many of them and they all
seem not to function.
So when the watchdogs become lapdogs there's
nobody to bark for the people who have been
Yeah, and you know not only lapdogs, but
become sort of interested in their own
doggie pursuits interested in the
interests of the insiders, in the interest of
the institution rather then in the people the
institutions are supposed to serve.
Yeah, and you know conflict of interest.
It's been meaningless the last couple of
years in Wall Street and other places. It's the concept didn't even exist, hardly paid
lip service to it, or just lip service. I think, Bill that is one of the big changes
that the everybody becoming insiders.
And then becoming interested, become
concerned with their interest as insiders.
What's your advice to people on reading
surveys and polls? How do we become, as
citizens, poll savvy?
Good question. I think that if I had to make
one single suggestion it would be to ask
yourself the question, when you look at the
poll results, is this an issue where
people have made up their minds? You may not
know, but if you see inconsistencies, if the
wording of the question changes the response.
And you can ask yourself, have you made up
your mind about Social Security, or Medicare
or drugs for seniors, or more money for
schools and things of that sort. If you
haven't made up your mind, the poll and the... people that are polling are like you
and they haven't made up their minds, you
can't rely on the poll results.
The Clintons were misled by poll results
that showed that 71 percent of the public
supported the Clinton healthcare plan when it
first came out, and the real number probing
beneath the surface was something like 35
percent. That's the difference between
success and failure. But people hadn't made
up their mind about it. So that's when polls
can be very misleading.
Instead of polling for Time and the New York Times let's say you were the assignment editor for either of those national organizations. And you wanted to ask your reporters to go out and cover stories that had been neglected by the mainstream media, where would you send them?
Good question. The I think the first thing place I would send them would be to the to inner city schools, because school reform which is so critically important to the country, is faltering in implementation. Policy is okay, but in the implementation it's falling down on the job. The testings going on, but preparing the kids to improve taking the test, the resources aren't being put in, they're not sure about how to do it. And when you take tests, and they fail then of course it's even more demoralizing. So that would be one place.
I would go to towns in Connecticut, like New Haven, and Hartford, because Connecticut is the richest state in the nation, and over the last decade median family income has declined.
I've heard labor union leaders refer to it as the hourglass economy when you have ever increasing numbers of well to do professionals, and you have growing numbers of people at the bottom who are really out of the system, and who's standard of living is going down, as in Connecticut. And you have this-- what used to be the bulk of the population in the middle class, really kind of disappearing.
So that's you know in an in this hourglass economy if you have if we're if the education system is geared for the people who finish four years of college, that's 25 percent, what about the other 75 percent, what happens to them in a world economy? And with elites, and experts who are more concerned with their own institutional interest. You know it's not a good situation.
In THE MAGIC OF DIALOGUE you call on us to focus
our imaginations on what kind of society we
want. How do we do that?
I think we do it by talking with one another.
I think that there are truths that
you get at through scientific inquiry, all of
the facts, all of the experiments, all of the
things we're trained to do in a sort of
technological, scientific world. But the
human truths you don't get at that way. The
human truths come from seeing issues from a
variety of points of view and perspective.
From seeing it from the wisdom of different
individuals. That's real learning, that's
the kind of knowledge we don't appreciate.
And we find when we bring average Americans
together that they listen to one another,
that they can contribute and that they can
build, develop a vision of what they want our
society to be like. And it's really
Well this has been very inspiring and
informative to me. And I thank you very much
Well, thank you very much.