Daniel Yankelovich wants to help Americans make their decisions more rationally.
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GUEST: Daniel Yankelovich
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I would like to talk today about the efforts initiated a few years ago by public opinion expert Daniel Yankelovich and former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to develop a mechanism to give the American public a larger role in making important national decisions about such critical issues as energy, jobs, inflation, economic growth, and so on. Together they formed the Public Health Foundation as a non-profit, non-partisan organization designed to identify Americans’ choices on those issues. My guest today is Daniel Yankelovich.
Mr. Yankelovich, thank you for joining me today to talk about this matter. I jotted down a little note to myself. I’ll even read it, because it made me nervous to write it down.
HEFFNER: I said I hope that you will make me feel less nervous, less uneasy today about a public opinion society that seems to put its premium upon what they, the people, say rather than upon what they really necessarily think and do. You’re the public opinion expert, and you want to make, put Americans in the position where they can make their choices more rationally. How do you respond to that fear?
YANKELOVICH: Well, you know, we are a society that probably is over-polled in certain respects. The public opinion poll is done at the drop of a hat. And I think one of the problems with polls is that they don’t often distinguish between something that people believe, the top-of-the-head response, issues they haven’t really thought much about, Angola, issues of that sort, foreign policy issues, and issues where people really have thought through how they feel. Now, the dilemma for our leadership reading these polls is not being able to make that distinction. Sometimes they’ll go off half-cocked, following the public just where the public doesn’t want to take them, on areas where the people haven’t really thought through and worked through how they feel.
HEFFNER: Because the polls have presumed that the public feels a certain way?
YANKELOVICH: No, no, they don’t presume it. What they do is the polls mirror people’s feeling. If they, I think that the polls should, and I think that they will in the future, take a step beyond and get a little bit more insight into the extent to which people have or haven’t thought through various issues. But if I were talking with you and I asked you some questions, you gave me some answers, I wouldn’t really know which issues you had thought deeply about and which ones you had just given an opinion about a not-thought-through opinion, unless I really went a little bit deeper. While, if you have newspaper articles that publish a paragraph or so about a poll, they don’t take it that deep a step. Even often when the polls themselves will probe, it’s reported. That’s not the part that’s reported in the media.
HEFFNER: Well, we’re just a few days after the aborted effort, the end of April in Iran. And I had clipped out of the newspaper the day afterwards – no, two days afterwards – “Most Americans think military action should be tried again to free the hostages in Iran, according to an ABC poll taken yesterday. But a majority also disliked President Carter’s handling of the armed operation on Thursday night.” As I read that, I was frightened, concerned that someone take really seriously the assumptions that are implicit there. So I dump them back on your lap. You’re the public opinion expert. Though you weren’t involved in this, you have helped create a society that does things by the numbers, by the polling numbers.
YANKELOVICH: (Laughter) Yeah, I know. I wish that we could be masters of our own destiny to that extent. Just to talk about the example that you give, because I think it’s a very good one. We’ve seen in the past, time and time again, when the president takes a foreign policy initiative, the initial response of the public is to support the initiative. If you look a couple of weeks later, you might see a completely different picture. That illustrates the point I was trying to make that when you, you know, you don’t make that kind of dumb mistake, if you’ll permit me to say so. You’re talking to somebody. If you talk to a person and you get this view a minute after an event, you know it’s a minute later, and you know that next week or if he’s had a chance to sleep on it, he’s going to have a different point of view. Why our polls are talking to thousands of people. So a minute after the event, they’re not going to have a thought-through judgment or reaction.
HEFFNER: Well then why do you put your emphasis upon the creation of this public agenda that seems to in turn put a premium upon the choices, the critical choices that the public will make? You present them with a series of options. How important are the options they take in these various question?
YANKELOVICH: You know I have to come back to what you said initially. If we are a society that is over-polled, where soundings of people’s opinions are taken every minute, we’re also a society, maybe paradoxically, where people’s views are really not taken all that seriously, where the opportunity of the public to participate in the kind of decisions that affect their lives are not considered and taken into account. There is a profound difference between getting this instant reading in response to an event like that fiasco in Iran, and on energy, on inflation, on jobs. Can you point to any effort on the part of leadership or on the part of any responsible group to say to the public, “Look, on inflation, here are our choices. Here are the real choices that we confront on energy.” It’s been appalling the destruction to the country of what has happened between 1973, the Arab oil embargo, and now in having a coherent energy policy, in having doubled our import of oil from the Arab OPEC countries, because of a bungling of this process of getting the public involved in facing and confronting the choices of having an opportunity to work them through.
HEFFNER: Mr. Yankelovich, you’re making the assumption that the American public would have chosen otherwise had it been given the opportunity. What do you base that assumption upon?
YANKELOVICH: Well, since I have been following public reactions to the energy crisis since 1973, I observe that the leadership and the public have danced a crazy minuet or have undergone a dialogue of the deaf. When the public was ready to cut back and make sacrifices and recognize the reality of a shortage in 1973, President Nixon was too busy with other matters such as Watergate to pay attention. Then the oil returned and the public thought everything was back to normal, and the leadership started then to work the public over and say that they’re…and talk about moral equivalent of war and so forth. So you’ve had a public and a leadership almost completely out of phase, when people, when the hostages were taken in Iran. And that was an opportunity for the public to make the sacrifice of doing without Iranian oil, and began to cut back. That made more sense to the public than cutting back in order to enrich the oil companies, which is the common perception. But that opportunity wasn’t taken advantage of. So you have, you don’t have a picture of a public unwilling to conserve, to cut back. What you have is a picture of a public ready at certain moments to be responsive, and the leadership not ready to dialogue with them. And then when the public isn’t ready, the leadership is laying on them, in high flowing speeches, a presentation of the crisis that doesn’t correspond to people’s common sense view of what it really is.
HEFFNER: All right. This out-of-step little dance, this little minuet that you describe, is it inevitable in a democracy, in a majoritarian society?
YANKELOVICH: Well, it seems to me that it’s the very opposite of inevitable. It’s one of the peculiarities of our time that, you know…I happen to be an admirer of the US Congress rather than a detractor, and one of the reasons is because all of the political leaders I’ve met in the Congress have their antennae out and have a sensitivity to what is going on in the public domain. I think that you have so many instrumentalities now which you didn’t have in other times. You have the polling profession which does accurate soundings. You have the political leadership which is concerned with the public. You have the media that reportedly is sensitive to the views. And the mechanisms are there, but they are not used. And I think the reasons they aren’t used are that we have become overloaded with expertise, technical expertise, problems have become more complicated, and leadership groups are more comfortable sitting around in a room and relying on experts and having these experts formulate what they think the country should be doing.
HEFFNER: But I detect a note here – stop me if I’m a poor detective – you seem to be saying that if we could tap into what the people are thinking, we would be tapping into not just majority opinion, but tapping into a kind of folk wisdom that our leaders do not enjoy. Is that a fair interpretation? Are you saying the people, yes, they know best?
YANKELOVICH: Well, I’m saying nothing that hasn’t been said by every observer of democracy from de Toqueville on. That the precondition for democracy is an informed public. Both terms. Public, the public, yes; and informed. I’m saying further that “informed” today means something different than it might have 50 years ago. That “informed” in our kind of society with our complex choices means a really serious effort to formulate choices that people can confront and think through. Look, Dick, in the 1970s, 1960s, when economic times were better, people felt that they could have everything, in a sense, that they could have economic growth and a clean environment and a welfare state and leisure. Now we’re up against a crunch. Economic times have turned tide. People know in the abstract that they’ve got to choose. But you can’t ask people to make sacrifices and make changes and choose painfully in our kind of democracy without giving them a voice in the choice. These are the choices that affect their lives. There’s only one way – there are two ways – that you can cut through the kind of problem we have today. One way is a strong leader, a deGaulle, a man on the white horse. It would not matter today. I think if one appeared, we would reject him. The other way is to be able to be able to present the country with the real choices. That’s not saying that you’re putting your faith in a public opinion poll where people haven’t thought about the issues. That’s saying formulate the choices in terms that people can understand them, make sense of them, and give people a chance to wrestle with them.
HEFFNER: Okay, the key to that, you say, “Formulate the choices in terms that the people can understand.” Quite seriously, given the complexity of the choices before us, can, do your own polls, does your own sense of what the level of information and sophistication is in terms of the American public, does our own sense indicate that we can sufficiently easy – “easy” is a poor word – sufficiently interpret the problems, the choices set before the American people, and then be able to depend upon their answers?
YANKELOVICH: Of course we can. Well, we have to depend on two things. The dimension of time is essential. When the President of the United States gives a 20-minute speech and says we have an energy crisis that we’ve got to confront, that it’s the moral equivalent of war, ant then signs off and you never hear from him again on the same subject, that may be an engineer’s conception of communication, but it’s not, you don’t get the country to turn around like a kiddie cart. You don’t get people to take the promise of decades and change their view overnight. That should have been not the end, not the announcement, but the beginning of a long campaign where the next step would have been, well, here are our choices, here are our alternatives, let’s wrestle with them, let’s struggle with them. Let me give you another example. I attended a meeting the other day of very distinguished economists. In the group there were those who said, “We’ve got to put the economy through the wringer. We’ve got to wring out the inflation. We want to tackle inflation. We’ve got to wring it out at the cost of high unemployment, and also at the cost of profits, growth, and everything else.” And some of the other economists said, “Well, you know, we can’t support that, not only because it’s a terrible thing to do, but we don’t believe it’s going to combat inflation.” And then there are other economists who said, “Let’s build up our investment. Let’s go to what’s called ‘supply side economics.’” And then there was a counterpoint to that which said, “Sure, that might help in the longer run, but you know, what about next month?” Now, out of that kind of discussion it was very clear to me that you have sensible people with sensible points of view that could be defended, that they could spell out the implications of one or another. Why, these aren’t really technical economic issues. Most of these issues are issues of basic values and judgment. And I come back to my fundamental contention, that in our kind of democracy, the people won’t play ball, they won’t cooperate, they won’t go along unless they have a chance to wrestle with the choices and make them their own.
HEFFNER: Okay, you say they won’t go along unless they can wrestle with the choices and make them their own. Are you also saying that they will willingly wrestle with those choices, that they will grapple with them, that they will deal with them in a society that we’ve talked about as the now generation when we put our emphasis upon entertainment and we’re moving ourselves from the problems of the day? Are you saying that you believe that we are ready to take on that burden as a people?
YANKELOVICH: I would say two things. First of all, when you talk about people about changes they were willing to make, the week before people stood in line until four o’clock in the morning for gas for a week, they had a different attitude than they did after they had stayed in line for a week. It wonderfully concentrated the mind and made people willing to consider options that they hadn’t considered before. So naturally, you know, in a democracy you do need events to crystallize meaning. But we’ve been up to here with the traumatic and dramatic events that you need to have people go along. Well, go ahead, because I forgot the second point that I was after.
HEFFNER: No, no, no, no. But I was thinking of your same metaphor, your same analogy there when you talk about, for example, when you talk about the gas lines. You talk about a week before, and then the gas lines, and a different option. But a week afterwards, two weeks after the gas lines had begun to diminish, I believe you were probably back closer to the attitudes…
YANKELOVICH: No, no, that, no, see, that’s what…
HEFFNER: That’s what I’m asking you.
YANKELOVICH: Let me put it in a somewhat larger historical perspective if I may. I think that in the post-war period from the end of World War II up to the early 70s, the middle 70s, that the whole country was moving along a trajectory of growth, and gradually the old depression psychology gave way, and the psychology of affluence and a feeling that you can have more, and a feeling that you didn’t have to make the hard choices. Now, we had almost three decades of that. Beginning in the early 70s with the Arab oil embargo, the signals started to come in that an era was ending, and that we had to face up to some realistic choices, the need to choose. Where are we now? Well, you know, we’re at a funny place. We’re a minute before being ready to make, to confront reality. And I think in the upcoming presidential election, we have a peculiar dramatic opportunity. If the candidates are slaves to the polls which still show a certain lack of willingness to face reality, the process is going to be postponed by a year or two. If, on the other hand, and you have a few of the potential candidates who are trying to talk sense to people and who are saying, “All right, maybe you aren’t quite ready yet, but this is what we have to confront, this is what we have to face.’ To me, that’s what leadership is. But the major candidates aren’t doing that. The major candidates are – and you know, permit me to say this as someone who is in the polling profession – that’s the wrong way to use poll data, to take and see were people are at and slavishly follow that. Say, there is a free lunch, we can have a big tax cut as one of the candidates has, and still combat inflation, and as one of the other candidates says, we balanced the budget in 1981 and somehow that’s going to solve inflation. You know, that’s going to give budget balancing a bad name…
YANKELOVICH: …to take…Now, to me, if you permit me to say so, that’s not a society that takes public opinion into account. That’s a craven leadership that is pandering to short-term considerations for the sake of a few votes. I think they’re mistaken. I think that the people who are, who recognize that the country is almost – maybe not quite – almost ready to face the need to make those choices would take that baby step, take that leap, and begin to state what the choices are. That’s the name of the game in the 1980s. I mean, you’re talking about the now generation and the assumption that we don’t have to choose. That’s the 1970s, the 1960s. We’re in a different era. People know that. You know, you can’t go for 30 years, maybe 50 or 60 years in one direction and have the whole country turn itself upside-down overnight. So you’ve had a process of people readapting since the early, since the mid-70s.
HEFFNER: Well, you know, it seems to me that as I read more about your public agenda and your effort to educate the public first and then to have it make its choices, because I gather that’s the one-two step, not the second step alone.
YANKELOVICH: No, no. It’s the first step that’s the indispensable one. The first step is to find a way of formulating choices for people. You know, in my field I’m used to formulating choices for government, for industry, for institutions. And the think tanks do that. But almost nobody is in the business of formulating choices for the public. And that’s what the public agenda is trying to do as the first step. Now, that’s an innovation. If we can succeed in doing that – and I think we are beginning to – then the second step is to try to get these choices on the public agenda with the help of people like yourself, the media and others.
HEFFNER: but, you know, if seems to me, Mr. Yankelovich, that there are so many things going on in our times that he technology of communications is changing so rapidly that perhaps before you reach your, even your sophisticated first step, we’ve created an additional technology in which we can know what people are thinking right now, what they are – no perhaps thinking – how they are reacting to events.
YANKELOVICH: That’s technology used in a retrograde manner.
HEFFNER: Fair enough.
YANKELOVICH: The idea that you’re going to use technology to do more instant polls, to find out even sooner what people think before they’ve had a chance to think about it, is to me the perversion of technology.
HEFFNER: Okay, a real perversion.
HEFFNER: We live in a society in which real perversion is not unknown. Your best estimate – no Pollyanna business – truly what uses will be made of this new technology that can discern public feelings, public emotions, public reactions almost before they occur?
YANKELOVICH: Well, you see, I don’t think that, if you take pre-election polling. Now, it serves two purposes. One is legitimate, and the other is fun and games but really is not all that legitimate. The one that’s not legitimate is predicting the outcome of the election, because as you can see in this campaign, you can’t do that from the polls. A few months ago, it was Kennedy over Carter two to one, and then a few months later it was Carter over Kennedy two to one, and now it’s a bit of a wash. You couldn’t have predicted that. That’s because the polls are taking snapshots of people in the process of making up their minds. Where the pre-election poll is useful is to see what stage people are at and why they’re thinking what they are thinking. So I think you can sort it out. I think it’s very useful to get some understanding of where people are at. In other words, to come back to what I was trying to say, I would find it very useful to find out what people know and what they don’t know, to find out how they’re beginning to think about an issue. But I think it would be terrible to take that and then pass if off as this is public opinion. That’s what we’re doing.
HEFFNER: Okay, that’s what is being done. There is a Frankenstein that you and your colleagues – I don’t mean you – I mean your colleagues, your profession has created. But let me get to one point. We just have a minute or two left. How sophisticated are we, how knowledgeable are we as a people today, let’s say, in your estimation, as contrasted with 20, 30 years ago, 50 years ago?
YANKELOVICH: I think the old bit of wisdom that never underestimate people’s judgment or overestimate their knowledge holds in spades. You still have maybe 40 percent of the public that doesn’t know we import our oil from abroad.
HEFFNER: Oh, come on.
YANKELOVICH: Until this year, a majority of the public did not believe there was a real energy crisis, and most people still have that…
HEFFNER: That’s the devil theory.
YANKELOVICH: That’s the devil theory. But on that little bit of information polls do show that there are millions and millions of people that do not – maybe they don’t want to know – but there are literally millions of people who do not know how dependent we are on Arab oil, Mid-east oil.
HEFFNER: Then how are wise judgments going to be made if the knowledge is missing?
YANKELOVICH: Well, you have to do two things. One is, you have to see where people come out when they have the knowledge. There are many ways you can do that. You can do it experimentally, you can do it with the part of the population that has the information, you can give them the information and then see how they respond and react to it. So you have to do that. Then you have to go ahead and make judgments. I think that information, the idea of bits of information, of people being loaded up; we have information overload in one sense. We have too much information, too little choice, too little opportunity to confront choices, too little opportunity to think either on the part of leadership or on the part of the public. It’s astonishing that the more information we get, the less we seem to think.
HEFFNER: What a despondent note to end on.
HEFFNER: Because you say we have all that information and we’re not thinking.
Thank you so much for joining me today, Daniel Yankelovich.
And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”