Opinion polling can’t stabilise democracy

Something I’ve been thinking about since the Brexit vote: There was a prevailing sentiment at the time that the British people are inherently conservative, and so would never vote to upend the international order. In fact, they did, by a small but decisive margin. But how was this “conservatism” imagined to act? The difference between 52-48 for Leave and 48-52 is happening in the minds of 4% of the population who might have decided the other way. Except that there’s nothing to tell them that they are on the margin. If you are negotiating over a policy, even if you start with some strategically maximum demand, you can look at where you are and step back if it appears you’ve crossed a dangerous line.

A referendum offers two alternatives, and one of them has to win. (Of course, a weird thing about the Brexit vote is that only one side — Remain — had a clear proposal. Every Leave voter was voting for the Leave in his mind. In retrospect, the Leave campaign is trying to stretch the mantle of democratic legitimation over their maximal demands.) There is no feedback mechanism that tells an individual “conservative” voter that the line is being crossed.

In the implicit model of elections that people have in their heads, opinion polls serve this purpose. The people see that the polls have gotten into dangerous territory, and step back from the brink. Except they don’t, or, at least, it’s not clear which people should step back, since there is no coordination of decision-making, except through the very crude feedback mechanism of taking polls and reporting the results in the press. And if the polling is wrong — or, as in the case of Brexit, unclear, but the reporting interprets them in the light of a conventional wisdom that makes one alternative unthinkable — you can end up with a disastrously radical decision that is harmful and distressing to a substantial minority, or even a large majority.

Something similar was likely in play with last week’s election. Combined with Republican efforts to make voting difficult, probably many people who despised Trump felt complacent because of the polling consensus, and didn’t vote, or voted for a safe “protest candidate”.  If anything good comes out of this Trump fiasco, perhaps it will be to make people recognise that an election is always a tightrope walk — the German word Gratwanderung comes to mind, a walk on a narrow ridge — and you can’t rely on opinion polls to let you know how close you are to the edge. All you can do is to take the best path you can find, and try to avoid wandering out on the ridge in the first place. Elections are not a democratic panacea, but ultima ratio populi, which shouldn’t be considered innocuous just because it is better than ultima ratio regum.

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