Locating Consensus for Democracy: A Ten-Year U.S. Experiment
by Alan F. Kay
a book review by Dan Shaw

Opinion Polling has gotten a bad name. Special interests, including the media, sponsor polls which are biased in many ways. To counter this abysmal trend, Alan Kay has applied his fortune to the pursuit of Public Interest Polling. Perhaps naively, Kay thought that if he conducted rigorous polling, in an unbiased way, that politicians would actually be interested to know what the public thought on specific policy issues. In Locating Consensus, Kay establishes some surprising truths about how people think about politics, and how politicians think. Average Americans are surprisingly adept at answering complex political questions, when they are skillfully asked. Kay has been asking thousands of Americans vital questions over ten years. The consensus on national security and other issues that has emerged will be ignored by politicians at their own risk. Conversely, a politician, political campaign or social movement that represents this consensus will be swept to dominance.

It would be impossible to sum up here the results of hundreds of questions Kay has been able to poll. The book´s 400 pages are about as dense as any I´ve read. Kay begins with an expose´ of the shortcomings of polling as it is practiced today. For example, polls with a high number of "Don´t Know" responses indicate the responder was rushed, or that the options offered were insufficient. Also, where 3% or more of respondents offer an answer that was not an option, that choice would have received a higher number had it been offered.  In multiple-choice questions, options must be rotated to eliminate the possible confounding effects of primacy and recency. Kay takes us along on his learning curve, as he comes in as a novice and emerges as a master of the linguistics and statistics of polling. Through follow-up polling, he is able to improve the precision of questions and answers. By polling over years, he is able to track trends. By "debate format" polling, he shows that given arguments from two sides, respondents do switch their "before and after" opinions, but the switchers go both directions, and the net change is often negligible. By splitting the sample, and asking some questions to both groups, and asking each group some unique questions, it is possible to effectively double your "bang for the buck" in a statistically valid way.

To avoid any bias, Kay engages two teams of pollsters, one each from the democratic and republican parties. He finds that in some cases, neutral questions are not necessary. He can split the sample, and ask each half the question in ways equally and oppositely biased. He finds that some bias in the question has a negligible impact on the responses, giving greater confidence that the impact of any unintentional bias in the questions would be slight.

Public Interest Polling identified some policy options that were supported by 90%. However, 80% support for a policy option is enough to show that it has support among all major demographic groups in all states and Congressional Districts.

To give just one example of Kay´s findings, his nineteenth poll asked how we could get more energy and help the environment, and how we could get more energy and help the economy.  Respondents were given a number of options, such as high fuel efficiency cars, retrofitting commercial and industrial buildings, building more efficient trains and planes, etc. All the items just mentioned were "Triple Winners", that is, a strong majority of respondents felt that the proposals would be good for the economy, the environment, and for energy supply. A candidate or campaign could ride this public sentiment into office, or craft a referendum that would be guaranteed passage. In Kay´s words there is a "Total Disconnect" between the public opinion and the leaders. Public Interest Polling, as Kay has defined it, is the key to actually hearing the will of the majority. Democracy is founded on the assumption that every citizen can make informed decisions about policies that affect them, and that the majority will expresses a kind of collective wisdom. Without Public Interest Polling, that collective wisdom will remain untapped. We must tap in to that wisdom, to heal the disconnect between the leaders and public. We dare not rely on the opinion polls of the special interests. Only enacting the majority will can lead to Democracy, for if special interests are allowed to define the questions, as a society we will surely not be happy with the answers. Only Consensus will lead to lasting stability and quality of life. Consensus exists out there, it does not need to be achieved so much as located, as the book´s title says. The politicians may be quite polarized, but citizens are not nearly so extreme. The public consensus, it turns out, is quite wise and we would do well to listen to it and put it into practice.

More info: http://publicinterestpolling.com/