Lies, Darned Lies, and Immigration Polls

Hearing the Voice of the People is not as easy as reading a number on a poll.

As Americans, we are brought up with the idea that the United States is a democracy, and thus, the Will of the People reigns supreme.  Even the most brilliant, silver-tongued paragon of politicians must bow before the humblest, most ignorant voter, at least when voters come in large groups.

It makes perfect sense that opinion polls should pay a major role in the course of our politics and government.  After all, if our representatives are supposed to represent us, naturally they ought to know what we think so they can obey it, right?

Reality is not nearly so simple. Yes, all successful politicians carefully listen to the Voice of the People.  However, that's not enough: a skilled leader can manipulate the Voice of the People so everybody thinks they are saying something that they're actually not.  One of the most effective ways to do this is with polling.

For example, consider the topic of abortion.  Having been debated with the utmost fervor for forty years, virtually every voter can't help but have an opinion on the subject.  It may be someone else's opinion, most likely a leftist teacher or professor, but it's an opinion nonetheless.  There cannot be many people who have truly not made up their minds about abortion or who change position from day to day.

Yet we see polls showing everything from overwhelming support for abortion to a smallish majority in favor of banning it.  Pick nearly any political position within the Overton Window and you can find a poll showing that's what Americans want.

That's because pollsters know how to slant the wording, the order, even the manner in which the questions are asked in ways that will shift the result as desired by whomever is paying for the poll.  Here's a trenchant analysis regarding the unreliability of polls about Roe v Wade:

Some surveys ask the question of support for Roe in an all or nothing, up or down fashion. Other surveys introduce circumstances. And it would appear that the circumstances make a lot of difference.

And when poll takers do not add any circumstances or qualifiers to the question it is less clear what qualifiers the respondents read into the question. For example, if a person is asked to vote up or down on Roe it is important to know if they think Roe allows abortion only in the first three months or if they know that Roe permits abortion right up to the last moment in the womb. Far fewer Americans support abortion in month 8 than in week 4. Further, far fewer Americans support abortion for sex-selection than due to the health of the mother.

Simply reporting that a percentage of Americans support or don’t support Roe is not really very informative. [emphasis added]

With this in mind, let's consider what polls do and don't tell us about illegal immigration.

Reality, Perception, and Filters

A recent Scragged article made the statement:

The overwhelming majority of Americans are angry at the ongoing invasion of their nation.

One of our regular commenters protested that the polls don't support this. On the face of things, this comment is right: The New York Times loudly trumpeted a poll claiming that a full 72% of Americans "support a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants" which is the exact opposite of our contention.

What, then, to make of this other poll which says that "62 percent of Americans believe the federal government is “not aggressive enough” in deporting those illegally in the United States"?  How can both be true?  Are they both rigged?

It's all in the details of how the questions are asked, which you rarely get to see.

For, just as we all grew up with the concept of America as a democracy, so we were also spoon-fed the idea of America as a nation of immigrants.  That is, however, not factually true.  America is not and never has been a nation of immigrants.

What America is, is a nation of descendants of immigrants.  When George Washington led the Continental Army against the redcoats, obviously white Europeans and black Africans hadn't been in the American continent for particularly long as the grand sweep of history goes - but Gen. Washington himself, and the vast majority of his army, were nonetheless born here.  Many of their parents were born here as well.

Even at the peak years of Ellis Island immigration, the percentage of foreign-born people in America never reached 15%.  In 2010, it was just shy of 13%; it's higher today.

What's more, following the Great Migration, we had a half-century of low immigration while we assimilated all the Irish, Italians, and others who'd come over on the boat.  During that time, Grandpa from the old country died, and we were left with people bearing foreign names and some elements of foreign heritage but who, personally, had lived their entire lives steeped in American culture.

How different from today!  In 1910, there never was a "Press 1 for Italian".  There were streets in American cities where Italian was what you heard spoken, but if the residents wanted to stray beyond that street, they were expected to learn English.

Even though the frontier had officially closed in the late 1800s, America was still a land of vast economic opportunity for anyone willing to work.  It was perfectly possible for an uneducated man to get and keep a factory job that provided enough money for a tolerably comfortable family life.  Today, our modern industrialized world has no need of any more unskilled workers; we don't know what to do with the unskilled workers we already have.

On some level, the American people know this: A supermajority of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track.

What has this to do with immigration?  It's long been recognized that people's views of how things are going in general are heavily affected by their own financial circumstances and prospects.  When people have good-paying jobs and hope for more, they think the world is a pretty good place.  When they're hanging on by their fingernails waiting for yet another anvil to drop, they tend to think something's gone wrong.

And a large portion of this can be laid squarely at the feet of our immigration policies.  Not just illegal immigration, either: it's now become commonplace for American companies to force well-educated American workers to train their foreign replacements - right here in the United States - who are paid half as much.  No surprise that, as is common knowledge, average American wages haven't risen in decades.

Then there's the widespread anger at the constant drumbeat of illegal immigrants committing their fourth, fifth, tenth violent felony and still not being deported; Donald Trump is tapping into this vein of fury quite effectively.  What sort of country allows their own citizen murderers to continually walk free and murder more, much less permit people who have no right to be here in the first place to do this?

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

Americans are, generally speaking, a caring and generous people; our nation is regularly rated as the most charitable.  What's more, we tend not to like to paint people with a broad brush; we still can't bring ourselves to accurately blame terrorism on Islam.  For every Hispanic murderer on the news, there's a perfectly nice Hispanic cleaning lady or construction worker just down the street.

Yet we also see that Americans believe race relations are getting worse.  This is normally considered to be a black vs white issue, but it's not: relations between blacks and Hispanics make black and white look like sweetness and light.  The overwhelming majority of immigrants today are Hispanics as well as a fair few South Asians that look Hispanic to the uninitiated.

It is a simple truism of human nature that we like to be around other people a least vaguely like ourselves.  This doesn't mean we can't appreciate the exotic or that foreigners always garner hatred.  When every other person on the street is visibly a foreigner, though, decades of social science research have shown that people withdraw into their own bubble, which is exactly as we see happening in virtually every public forum.

Do most Americans connect this with immigration?  Not necessarily.  It is blindingly true, though, that the vast immigration numbers, legal and illegal, are permanently changing the face, culture, politics, and general flavor of our country.

And whenever the general public gets the rare opportunity to directly express their opinion, the phone banks of Congress get melted down by hundreds of thousands of angry Americans trying to stop whatever version of amnesty is being pushed by the entire elite class of both parties.  These politically-unanimous efforts have been beaten back three times running, by nothing more than ordinary people en masse.

With a supermajority deeply worried about the direction our country is going, it is the opinion - not directly provable, but firm nonetheless - of your humble correspondent that, yes, the overwhelming numbers of Americans are angry at what's happening, and that much of what makes them the most angry is directly caused by immigration.

Do all Americans necessarily make this connection?  No.  It's our job to help them understand that point, but that's the topic for a later article.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Politics.
Reader Comments

I think a lot of Americans are schizophrenic about immigration.

Americans are generous by nature. They want to help others. They understand that their grandparents, or their grandparents' grandparents, were immigrants. They sympathize with the concept.

Americans are also territorial, fiercely proud and prone to aggression. Some of the highest rated pop songs say things like "putting a boot in his ass" when talking about terrorism. Fighting and defending is ALSO part of our blood.

It's hard to reconcile those two feelings. So the same voter could pull the lever for either side of the debate depending on the eloquence on the person talking to them at the time (or the proximity of the nearest brown skinned person).

August 4, 2015 1:19 PM
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