Polls and Desires

Yesterday, the American Conservative published Jonathan Marks’ review of the not-so-subtly titled Why Higher Education Should Have a Leftist Bias. That book, written by Donald Lazere, sounds about as dull, self-satisfied, and yawningly archaic as you might expect. Consequently, Marks’ takedown manages to be moderately amusing and also kind of pointless. Both book and review are dispatches to the congregation of the already converted.

Why, then, this post? This response to an unnecessary review of an assuredly inane book?

This part right here:

Recall that Lazere thinks that capitalism is our “unmarked norm,” which students blindly adopt. […] But the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press tracks how people react to politically loaded terms, including capitalism and socialism. Among 18–29 year olds in 2011, 46 percent of respondents reacted favorably to the word “capitalism,” while 47 percent reacted unfavorably.

The rest of the essay is, as I say, rather unremarkable. It’s perfectly reasonable and even entertaining—particularly when Marks wryly runs through the predictable and numbing “vexed questions” Lazere encourages courageous “critical teachers” to tackle unflinchingly. What I’m interested in, however, is Marks’ implied premises about what polls and surveys can and can’t do.

Marks presents a poll tracking “how people react to politically loaded terms” as sufficient to disprove Lazere’s assertion about students’ “unmarked norm.” I find that remarkable.

A poll of young people’s favorable or unfavorable reactions to the term “capitalism” has, at best, a highly tenuous connection to the question at hand—whether capitalism is college students’ “unmarked norm.” I haven’t read Lazere’s book—a situation I do not intend to rectify—but I imagine that his use of “unmarked” implies a certain lack of conscious thinking. I would think Lazere means that his students have inculcated and adopted practices and beliefs—ways of being in and seeing the world—that incline them to embrace capitalistic norms unthinkingly. Such a student might react unfavorably to the term “capitalism” while nevertheless carrying around and living out most of its premises and values.

For such a poll to have any relevance to Lazere’s assumption, at least two things have to be true of the respondent. First, the respondent has to know what capitalism is and isn’t. My sense is that most of us—educated or not, old or young—have only a shaky grasp of what really defines and distinguishes capitalism. Otherwise, the respondent could wholeheartedly embrace the tenets of capitalism even while rejecting the word itself.

But let’s assume I’m wrong on that count. Let’s assume most people have a clear, coherent, and accurate understanding of capitalism. Even in that case, the poll would only be relevant if the respondent also understands his or her own deeply held beliefs, assumptions and desires—and how those premises relate to global capitalism. I find it unlikely that the respondents all firmly understand capitalism. I find it downright impossible that most of us—myself included—have an accurate picture of the ways that our desires and pursuits and loves either reflect or reject the norms of capitalism. I believe the vast majority of us walk around with myriad unexamined assumptions, desires, and beliefs. Unmarked norms, if you will.

To take a different example, I suspect that most young adults would react unfavorably to the term “consumerism,” even though almost all Americans are neck-deep in consumerist habits, behaviors, and practices.

Polls don’t tell us much about “unmarked norms” or closely held beliefs or motivating desires. They can predict elections and votes and other essentially multiple-choice decisions, but they can’t tell us much about the depth of someone’s passion. They can’t really tell us anything about unexamined assumptions. They don’t, in other words, have much to say about the deepest aspects of our humanity.

Originally published at porterperkins.blogspot.com on September 27, 2014.