Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: Opinions of the masses often shape our lives

The all-American practice of polling, more often than not, leaves me cold.

It’s not that I don’t care what the masses think about issues – I do – but I find it hard to grasp that the intrusive act of calling a stranger at home and interrupting whatever they’re doing to ask important questions would yield honest and well-thought out answers that, in turn, paint a portrait of who we are and what we think.

I can only recall answering a survey once, and by the end, I was so annoyed and exhausted I vowed never to do so again. Now, like everyone else I know, I have caller ID.

I never answer marketing and sales calls – no matter who they’re from, my bank or the habitual violators of the national Do Not Call List, who know the rules and how often they can get away with bothering people without repercussions. There was one of these calls disguised as a private number last week, and it gave me great pleasure to hang up.

I don’t answer charities either, although I do feel bad about that – and I definitely don’t answer pollsters. No telephone confessions for me about how I feel about any subject or candidate. I wouldn’t give researchers any fill-in-the-blank information about my financial standing, my history or habits, nor rate my levels of satisfaction with life in general.

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That’s why, as a journalist, I find polls both fascinating, and sometimes after some scrutiny, dismissible. ‘Tis the season for poll results – I’m swimming in them.

On the fascinating front, come the results of a Pew Research Center political survey – 10,000 adults, quite a substantial sample, polled between January and March of this year – that confirms what journalists in the trenches know from anecdotal evidence and the rhetoric in our mailboxes: Ours is a politically polarized society with Republicans and Democrats more far apart ideologically than ever in recent times – a gap that’s widening.

Even more interesting to me is how that ideological entrenchment affects everything we do: from where we choose to live (conservatives prefer larger homesteads and privacy; liberals like walkable cities and engagement with others) to how political races are decided by those diehard and polarized Republicans and Democrats, who are the only ones motivated enough to vote in most run-of-the-mill elections.

The shrinking American middle is largely aloof (or I suspect, not answering their phone, like me), living with the choices of the polarized, whose animosity is growing.

Pew is a non-partisan think-tank with a stellar track record in their research – and so their findings are highly credible, and thus, worrisome. This is the stuff that rules the quality of our lives. How can we be happy in such an acrimonious landscape where we always stand in separate corners? What’s so wrong with the middle and compromise?

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The results made me think of the critical reader who told me, a year or so into my writing of opinion columns, that he couldn’t peg me – as if that was a problem. I didn’t fall in all of his ideological boxes and he was miffed. I, on the other hand, who have never felt I belonged in designated boxes, labels, and anything constrictive (including the limited space of this column), was honored to be different.

Although diehards may disagree, the Pew survey would probably put me in that middle: suburban (want some space, but not too much) and need a culture-focused city near enough (two even better; walkable remains a dream and vacation destination). Seldom talks politics.

But I didn’t answer the Pew’s phone call. Believe it or not, in my private life, I’m not dying to give anyone my opinion – and only my kids would call me a liar on that point. I like my engagement high at work, but low-key in my home-castle.

Good thing the American public is more generous than I am and allow themselves to be quizzed by strangers.

If only to ponder our responsibility as citizens, it can be fruitful to look for ourselves in the mirror of a poll.

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