As with most academic institutions, we have been on break here at Eagleton during the holidays. We hope our readers have had a great holiday season and have started the new year on the right foot. And we’ll be back soon with more polling results.
As we get ready to start the semester next week, we want to provide some more perspectives from the undergraduate students working with the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll. As an academic survey center, one of our primary missions is teaching, and as part of that mission we have a group of undergraduate interns who work with us on various aspects of our polling operations.
Today’s post comes from Abdul Rehman Khan, who is a Rutgers undergraduate and an Aresty Research Assistant for us this year. Abdul has been working on a number of internal initiatives for us. He wrote the following post based on his perspective looking at some of our polling numbers as they came in over the semester.
Minority Rights through Democracy and Polling
Abdul Rehman Khan
Through my political science classes, the concept of democracy has been a very elusive and abstract ideal. The concept varies even among political philosophers. Many of us in America assume democratic ideals are met by a citizen’s ability to participate and contest issues and elections. Once the election is done however, we seem to be told the the opinions and rights of the majority ought be the decisions for all. Gerald F. Gaus, in Contemporary Theories of Liberalism writes, “According to Thomas Jefferson, in collections of people self-government requires following a collection of wills expressed by the majority.” We are raised in this type of thinking of majority-rule system—this is what democracy means to us and to our founding fathers. Consequently, with this mindset, polling allows for democratic ideals to become more tangible—whether we are polling immediately for elections results, polling for changes in opinions, or polling in my 5th grade classroom to see if we wanted to play kickball before or after lunch. In this sense, polling allows for a political theory to become quantifiable.
Yet, a democracy is far more significant than a majority-rule system. The very essence of a democracy lies in its ability to defend the rights and opinions of the minority against the rights or opinions of the majority. Is the notion of polling then invalidated; why do we poll? Is the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll, and every other survey research institution, simply a larger and more complicated version of that 5th grade classroom?
At first, this is what I thought. But while working with the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll, I realized most of the time spent in tallying up the results of a poll seems to me to go in the accurate counting of the minority positions. Subsequently, most of the time goes into noticing how minority positions have changed. Polling is often pointless if we’re just looking at the majority vote—more often than not, we know it. Polling becomes interesting when we see how the minority vote has become stronger or has given way to a majority opinion. Majority opinions and groups may have been minorities at one point or another; polling tracks this. True, polling is used by majorities to justify their position, but it is just as significant for minorities to view their relative significance and change mainstream support. Therefore, the fault of this mindset lies not within the implication of our poll, but within our own thinking.
Critics of polling like Iris Young write a democracy should be a “maximum expression of interests, opinions, and perspectives relevant to the problems or issues for which a public seeks solutions.” Young says that democracy should not be an aggregative addition of preferences. However from polling we are able to note the various differences in expression of opinions. Polling is always the first step and polling gives the minority just as much justification as the majority. Polling therefore becomes crucial for minorities so that their opinions can be expressed. We ought to not blame the pervasiveness of polling in our society for our simplistic thinking of a democracy. Instead, we should augment our own thinking, viewing a democracy not from the light of the majority but from the light of a minority. With this mindset, polling becomes much more noteworthy. Polling is what you make of it and in whichever way you view a democracy.
Thus, polling allows for democratic ideals to become tangible. More significantly, however, polling can in its own right, allow for different notions of democracy. It is, then, our decision to choose the one we feel is right.