Recently I wondered about the potential audience for Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance’s “poll” and speculated that there was little market for such fakery. I sure got that wrong.
The poll has been cited in two op-ed columns recently. In a Boston Globe piece, Jim Stergios of Pioneer Institute even led his argument with the claim that “A recent poll showed a whopping 84 percent of registered voters support Governor Baker’s tough-minded reform package.” Rick Green, chair of MFA published an op-ed in the Worcester Telegraph touting the poll. He too claimed that over eighty percent of respondents supported Governor Baker’s MBTA proposal.
I’ve made the case here, here, and here that the poll is a fraud. Yet now it is part of the public discourse, printed in the Telegram and the regional paper of record, the Globe. I mean no critique of the newspapers’ editorial pages. They are right to print a variety of viewpoints and they are right to trust that contributors will argue their points with force and based on trustworthy information. That isn’t what happened here.
The fraud poll has also been accepted without question by State House News Service and a few of its client newspapers. According to SHNS, the MFA uses the poll in lobbying on Beacon Hill. Let’s think about why the increased exposure of this misleading information is important.
In his first debate with Senator Stephen A. Douglas at Ottawa, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln stated:
In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.
Lincoln was very concerned with “the public sentiment” and returned to that theme often. Douglas had engineered the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which enabled him to argue that territories should decide for themselves, without congressional interference, whether or not to become slave or free states. This was the doctrine of “popular sovereignty” and Douglas said he “don’t care” what choice was made. Lincoln believed the Founders had placed slavery where “the public mind” could be confident of its ultimate extinction. Lincoln wanted the public to care about the extension of slavery and thought Douglas’s campaign was to convince them not to care about it.
In his Message to Congress of July 4, 1865 Lincoln discussed the argument made by Southern leaders for secession, calling it “an insidious debauching of the public mind. . . With rebellion thus sugar-coated they have been drugging the public mind of their section for more than thirty years.”
This is why it is worth returning to the MFA poll. Those who use it are trying to mold public opinion and in a democracy we should require that they do it not with falsehood but with fair argument.