Arbiters of “winnability”

In an ideal democracy, citizens form parties in order to realize a shared vision of the tasks of government.  On this basis, they choose the most capable among their leaders and offer them to the electorate as their candidates.  Because the candidates must personify the party, their selection is dictated less by popularity than by leadership and competence.

We do things differently in our society.  Here, parties are formed more as vehicles of personal ambition than as instruments for articulating a social vision.  Because they are associated with particular persons, our parties have no durability.  Even if they survive elections, they cannot command loyalty.  That is why, in lieu of parties, what we have are provisional alliances that are formed during elections.

These alliances are not united by any common vision of government. They are, rather, partnerships of convenience brokered by political entrepreneurs who imagine winning combinations from the coming together of money, popularity, and campaign machinery.  In this system, candidates are chosen not for what they believe in, but for what they bring in.

Money and campaign machinery are never a problem for the bloc in power.   But popularity tends to be elusive to the administration. There is always more of it in the opposition.  And vice-versa, those outside the administration circle will constantly be hobbled by inadequate money and campaign machinery.  In the electoral marketplace, popularity is, therefore, about the only resource they can trade.

Where parties are weak and political debates irrelevant, popularity surveys and the media become the arbiters of suitability for public office.  “Winnability” — as determined by surveys and as projected by media —  rather than vision, or competence, or leadership, becomes the consuming preoccupation of candidates as well as, increasingly, of the general public.  More than ever, there is a need to understand how surveys are done, how their results must be read, and how they affect the public.

In one of his Manila Standard columns in which he defends opinion surveys against those who seek to limit their publication, Mahar Mangahas of the Social Weather Stations (SWS) wrote:  “Freedom to speak is not freedom, without the freedom to listen.  Those who survey opinions are listeners.  Freedom to listen is not freedom, without the freedom to repeat to other people what one has heard. Those who make survey reports are simply summarizing  what they have heard.”

The equation between surveying public opinion and listening is, to my mind, confusing.  Public opinion is not freely-floating noise in the air that surveys capture with a net.  Before they can listen, surveys must ask the questions.  And before they can repeat or report what they have heard, they must process and write the information according to their own framework and method.  Like all social research, public opinion surveys are very much active and obtrusive processes.

In the world of public opinion, there are innumerable answers waiting to be heard.  It is in the nature of surveys, and of research in general, that only a few of these will be heard.  What will be heard is a function of who is asked, what is asked, when and how it is asked, and sometimes, even by who is doing the asking.

To complicate matters, no one has yet devised a fool-proof method for ensuring that a respondent will understand the questions the way the surveyor intends them to be understood.  And, likewise, that a respondent’s answers are recorded and analyzed by the surveyor according to their intended subjective meanings.  At many points of the research process, the surveyor intervenes, decides what is meaningful and significant, and, eventually, what is worth reporting.

He does not just repeat what he hears.

If there has been a tendency to represent surveys as simple listening exercises, so has there been likewise a tendency to minimize their impact on the public, especially with regard to elections.  I believe that, more than in the past, “winnability” as determined by the surveys has become a major factor in the Filipino voter’s choice of candidates. Unfortunately, Filipino voters tend to equate voting with betting on horses.   They have certain preferences, based on general perceptions, but in the final analysis, they prefer not to see their votes “wasted” on candidates with poor chances of winning.

As an academic myself, I would be the last person to advocate the adoption of any gag on surveys.  But I think it is time that reputable non-profit survey organizations like the SWS undertook a necessary soul-searching so that the unintended consequences of surveys are fully recognized, and this vital social tool is not prostituted.  Such a reflexive exercise can begin by a candid examination of the ethical dilemmas posed by having politicians as paying subscribers.

I am aware that the SWS is exerting every effort to make its surveys as transparent as possible by making its data accessible to researchers who want to perform secondary analyses.  This challenge must be taken up by members of the social science community who have the capacity to undertake critical interrogations of survey findings.  It is the only way we can preserve the distinction between truth and propaganda, and, hopefully, drive our political life  to a higher level.


Comments to <>