The public opinion poll has become an ubiquitous feature of modern life. Seventy years ago, there were no professional pollsters. Fifty years ago only a handful—Gallup, Roper—served as takers of the public pulse. Today, thanks to computer and telephone technology, thousands of public opinion seers and sages are for hire. The explosion of practitioners is only the most visible change. More important is the poll's new authority and legitimacy. With its esoteric technical terms, data banks staffed by skilled technicians, complex statistical procedures, and close associations with prestigious academic and business enterprises, it is scientifically authoritative.

Even if this were insufficient, polling is fully cloaked in democratic legitimacy—democracy means heeding the people, and what better way to give an ear than through the poll? All political persuasions embrace it. Predictably, such an available and powerful tool is relentlessly applied. No self-respecting official, candidate for office, government agency, opposition group, or mass media purveyor can afford to be without one. To say that the modern poll has become the scientifically sanctioned, consensually celebrated form of self-revelation and self-understanding is no exaggeration. When the vox populi speaks through the pollster, as it always seems to be doing, everyone listens reverently.

A few still hold out against this mechanical...

Join now to access the full article and gain access to other exclusive features.

Get Started

Already a member? Sign in here