The 2009 Obama Agenda Survey

« previous post | next post »

Today I got mail from the Republican National Committee — a survey they want me to fill out and (of course) an attached contribution form.   I don't know why they sent it to me, because in spite of their urging me "and other grassroots Republicans" to respond to their survey, I am not a registered Republican.   Maybe it's because my neighborhood is mostly Republican, though our nearest neighbors are bigwigs in the local Libertarian party.  In any case, many of the survey questions contain presuppositions that make them hard to answer.  They don't ask me if I've stopped beating my wife, er, spouse, but they do want to know if (for instance) I "believe that Barack Obama's nominees for federal courts should be immediately and unquestionably approved for their lifetime appointments by the U.S. Senate".

And they ask, "Should English be the official language of the United States?"  They don't say what this has to do with the President's agenda; it's totally irrelevant to his agenda, as far as I know.  But I don't know all that much: maybe Obama is campaigning to eradicate English from the country and I just haven't noticed?  I do know that I'm proud to belong to an organization, the Linguistic Society of America, that has come out strongly in opposition to the Official English movement.  In 1987 the LSA  membership voted to approve an eloquent Resolution to this effect, proposed by Language Log's  Geoff Nunberg (though he wasn't a Language Logger at the time, because Language Log didn't yet exist).   Read it here:


  1. John Lawler said,

    October 27, 2009 @ 8:31 pm

    Well, English is the official language of California, and it's worked perfectly there.

  2. George said,

    October 27, 2009 @ 8:33 pm

    I got the same thing accusing me of having a "high level of political involvement and steadfast commitment to the Republican Party." To me the notable leading (and taunting) questions were:

    * How do you rate the Democrat controlled Congress?
    * Do you think the Democrat efforts to restore the "Fairness Doctrine" that will destroy conservative talk radio is a violation of free speech?
    * How much does it concern you that the Democrats have total control of the federal government?
    * Do you worry that the Obama Administration is committed to greatly expanding the government's role in your life?
    * Do you believe the Obama Administration is right in dramatically scaling back our nation's military?

  3. Brett said,

    October 27, 2009 @ 8:46 pm

    A few years ago, I got these surveys all the time, and they almost always focused on immigration issues, making English the official language, or both. I would hazard that the inclusion of the language question on this most recent survey is there because that's a pet issue of the subgroup of GOP political operatives who also like the survey format.

  4. Jessi Hance said,

    October 27, 2009 @ 8:48 pm

    Thank you for this. It makes me sad when monolingual Americans brag about their ignorance of other languages. And it makes me very, very sad to think about how suppression of non-English languages has been used as a weapon of oppression — and even genocide, in the case of Native Americans. Your resolution is heartening.

    Stephen Colbert did a funny "Word of the Day" segment on the word "English."—english

  5. marie-lucie said,

    October 27, 2009 @ 9:12 pm

    Talk about presuppositions and implicatures! The questionnaire could be used as a great hands-on exercise in a course in semantics and pragmatics.

  6. Karen said,

    October 27, 2009 @ 9:13 pm

    I love those "surveys".

    "Illegal immigrants' use of hospital emergency rooms is costing Maryland millions every year. Should they be (a) turned away (b) arrested (c) shot?"

  7. Craig Russell said,

    October 27, 2009 @ 9:18 pm

    This seems to me to be a species of "push polling" in which the point of the questions is not to gather data, but to put ideas in the heads of the people being polled. (The most famous example in recent history is the 2000 South Carolina poll in which people were asked if their opinion about John McCain would change if they knew he had fathered an illegitimate black baby–which McCain, in fact, had not done.)

    The great thing about a push poll, of course, is that you can't accuse them of making false claims, because they aren't making claims; they're just asking questions. For example, in connection with George's items, if the mailing had come out and said "Barack Obama wants to impose the fairness doctrine" you could point out that he has spoken against it, and in Feb 26 of this year, the DemocratIC Senate voted in favor of a resolution BANNING the fairness doctrine, 87 to 11. But since this survey is just asking about it, it doesn't have to be held accountable for having made any specific statement, and the (false) implication that Obama and most Democrats support it gets spread around.

  8. Mark P said,

    October 27, 2009 @ 10:24 pm

    One of the more offensive uses of these "polls" is to scare the elderly into contributing money under the assumption that responding to the poll will actually accomplish anything. Many of the elderly tend to be on the more conservative side of issues (by conservative I mean right wing), and they tend to be frightened by the implications of the questions in the polls.

  9. Assistant Village Idiot said,

    October 27, 2009 @ 11:04 pm

    Chill, folks. I got one from my Democratic congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter about health care that was just as slanted. I would say "worse," but perhaps that is merely subjective.

    Don't go looking for reasons to get outraged.

    As for English Only, Obama has voted against it a few times. He gave decent reasons, but it is legitimately part of his voting record and public commentary.

  10. Nathan said,

    October 27, 2009 @ 11:57 pm

    @Assistant Village Idiot: Just because both sides do it doesn't mean we shouldn't get outraged.

    Sigh. Wouldn't it be great if we had clear, honest communication from all sides of a political debate, with the opportunity to choose among alternatives based on what candidates actually believe and what proposed legislation really says?

  11. billy said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 12:18 am

    @AVI, can you give some examples of the questions?

  12. Adam said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 12:20 am

    Apparently they're still calling it the 'Democrat' party, too? I thought that had died off.

  13. Sili said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 4:56 am

    Don't be silly. LanguageLog has always existed. Log quondam, Log futurusque. In saeculo saeculorum.

    I still say that they should be referred to as the "Republan Party" when they stoop to silliness like "Democrat Party". What's ic for the goose is ic for the gander.

  14. Graeme said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 5:01 am

    If it's push polling it's the mildest of forms. It's argumentative rather than an outright lie hidden as a hypothetical.

    As it's addressed to partisans, it's more about reinforcing pet peeves through a pretend survey. Then your responses are used to generate more personally tailored direct-mail in the future. And so our robo-political 'discourse' descends into a regressive loop of prejudice reinforcement.

  15. Peter Taylor said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 6:39 am

    Sally, have you ever been in contact with the Republican party? That might be enough for them to consider you a supporter.

    Back in 2003 the Labour Party in the UK launched something it called "the Big Conversation" which was billed as a "consultation with voters". I took the opportunity (having first argued with my local Labour MP as to whether their survey site complied with data protection legislation passed by – you've guessed it – the Labour government) to bash some of their policies, using a throwaway e-mail address. In 2006 I got an e-mail to that address which contained the sentence "We have you on our records as a Labour supporter."

  16. Faldone said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 6:43 am

    I vehemently oppose the imposition of English as the official language as I oppose the imposition of any other foreign language. Let folks learn good old American. It was good enough for Patrick Henry; it's good enough for me!

  17. Sally Thomason said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 7:49 am

    To Peter Taylor — nope, I've never had any contact with the Republican Party. I think it must be the neighborhood (aside from our Libertarian friends next door). But maybe it's an attempt to scare the elderly — Mark P said they [politicians in general? Republicans only? — nah] do that, and I turn 70 in a few weeks. And in response to AVI: of course I don't think the Republicans are the only ones who send out loaded questions! The difference is that I usually just throw away the ones I get from the Democrat(ic) party without reading them. The Republ(ic)an [I love Sili's ic-deletion rule – a briliant idea!] party doesn't send me so much mail, so this mailing aroused my curiosity and I read it. If you want to read about language & politics, there's a whole cottage industry out there; but the best is still the classic, in my opinion: Dwight Bolinger's book Language: The Loaded Weapon.

  18. Mark P said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 8:27 am

    The solicitation disguised as a poll is used by almost every organization, political or otherwise, these days. We get them from environmental groups, animal protection groups, and, yes, from the Democratic Party. Most of them are slanted to some extent in that (at the least) the questions are slanted towards particular issues. I have to say, though, that the ones I see from right-wing groups are worse than what I see from other organizations. I see scores of right-wing mailings because I see the mail of an elderly relative. I would be happy for forward some of them to an independent investigator for evaluation. How many do you want?

  19. Dan T. said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 12:49 pm

    I've gotten many copies of one from the ACLU in which the survey is contained in a smaller envelope within the main envelope, trying to get people to think that it's a true, scientifically-valid, highly-secure survey to be taken much more seriously than all those phony surveys used for marketing purposes by other organizations… but it's just more of the same in the way of being one with slanted questions leading into a fundraising pitch. I quit the ACLU around 1989 out of disagreement with some position or other of theirs (perhaps on affirmative action or gun control), and still to this day (through 20 years and multiple address changes) get "renewal" notices from them.

  20. Tonio said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 1:28 pm

    United States party politics is just one of the reasons I'm glad I've permanently emigrated to Germany. I have no idea whether the German parties do this sort of thing; since I'm not eligible to vote here, they leave me alone. And the American parties leave me alone too, because as an overseas American I'm completely irrelevant to them.

  21. Roman Czujko said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

    I have worked in opinion research for several decades. The phenomenon that we are discussing in these postings is referred to as FRUGging by members of my community: Fund Raising Under the Guise of opinion research. Far too many organizations engage in FRUGging and there is little we are likely to ever be able to do about it.

    My community has, however, helped to make SUGging illegal: Selling Under the Guise of opinion research. I hope that it has been many years since anyone reading these postings has received a "questionnaire" that ends with the statement, If you answered Yes to 4 or more of these questions, you need to buy …

  22. Mary Kuhner said,

    October 29, 2009 @ 1:21 am

    It is quite rare to see an honest questionnaire from a political or other cause-related organization of any stripe. Obviously a questionnaire to your membership can't be used to gather any type of information about the general public, but it can theoretically be used to gather information about the membership's priorities. Would you rather we prioritized square miles of land protected, or diversity of species protected? Should we be focusing more on state governorship races or state legislative races? That sort of thing.

    I haven't counted, but I will guess that I get one of those to fifty of the other kind.

    Could the practice could be stopped if enough of the recipients wrote back to say "You just guaranteed I won't send you anything"? Maybe. My impression from a two-year stint trying to kill all junk mail is that about 105% of senders have no feedback pathway; probably they throw away anything in the envelope that isn't a check. The DNC is apparently one of these. They ignored multiple requests to remove my deceased parent from their list.

  23. Dan T. said,

    October 29, 2009 @ 11:52 am

    Getting actual useful information from such a survey would require them asking tough questions related to issues on which their supporters are genuinely divided, instead of softball preach-to-the-converted questions.

RSS feed for comments on this post